The White Bird Passes by Jessie Kesson

One of the 100 best Scottish Books. Also in the Herald’s “100” best Scottish Fiction Books list and one of Scotland’s favourite books.

B & W, 2009, 153 p. First published in 1958.

 The White Bird Passes cover

Janie MacVean lives with her mother Liza in a tenement in “the Lane,” a thoroughfare in an unnamed Scottish town just after the Great War. Watched over by Poll Pyke, Battleaxe and the Duchess, the Lane is a friendly enough place with folks more or less looking out for each other. Despite their poverty stricken circumstances, Janie loves her mother and the Lane. The occasional (finance dependent) trip to see her grandmother, who lives in a much more salubrious house in the country, only serves to highlight Janie’s contentment with her lot. It is on the one such trip in the narrative that darkness intrudes into the book. Janie’s grandmother is friendly enough but her grandfather disapproves. For in the Lane, Janie has no father – and Liza no husband – to protect her.

Through a series of vignettes the details of Janie’s life are slowly revealed, perennial nits being only one of her burdens. Her attachment to it, her ease with it, are both manifest, the web of her relationships beautifully rendered. But things come to a head when the “Cruelty Man” intervenes and Janie is removed from the Lane as being a neglected child. Between Chapters Eight and Nine eight years have passed and we then see Janie, by now adapted to life in the Aberdeenshire orphanage in the shadow of the Cairngorms to which she has been sent, getting ready for adult life.

In an echo of a phrase in Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s Sunset Song we are told, “Everybody believed in God on Sundays, then laid Him carefully away with their best clothes for the rest of the week.”

The White Bird Passes gives more of an indication into the realities of life in poor areas of Scotland than did the recently read The Guinea Stamp.

Pedant’s corner:- remarkably – even if it is such a short book – I found only a single typo; the lights lit up she street (the.)

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  1. Jane Taylor

    You may be interested to know that the town in which Janie MacVean grew up is Elgin, in Morayshire. The orphanage to which she was later sent was just outside the village of Skene; it was a real orphanage, and the building still stands today – although the surrounding area has been colossally built up over the last few decades, as the Aberdeen commuter belt continues to widen. The BBC screened a dramatised version of ‘The White Bird Pasess’ years ago (late ’70s or very early ’80s, can’t remember which) and BBC Radio 4 later made at least one programme about Jessie Kesson, which was fascinating.

  2. jackdeighton

    Jane Taylor,
    Thanks very much for this. Great background stuff.
    I don’t remember the TV version but if it was in the late 70s I may have been living in England at the time. I’m sad to have missed it.
    Thanks for looking in and for commenting.

  3. Jane Taylor

    We were living in England, too! I remember my mother being very disappointed: from the Mearns herself, she couldn’t get over the fact that none of the cast had a Mearns accent!

  4. jackdeighton

    Jane Taylor,
    My good lady wife always gets annoyed by incorrect period detail or adaptations in which characters simply don’t look right for the descrptions in the book. Incorrect accents must be worse.
    I’m just now reading a book by Violet Jacob set in the Montrose area. Not quite the Mearns, I know. Good stuff just the same.

  5. Jane Taylor

    I’m fully in sympathy with Mrs D; actually, I’m known for that myself! Have never read any Violet Jacob, though recall visiting the House of Dun many tears back – must put her on to my list. Any work in particular that you would recommend?

    I’ve only just discovered Furrowed Middlebrow’s blog; what a treasure trove. I was delighted to find the McFlannel books listed on it. Did you know that Helen Pryde, their creator, used to play the organ in one of the Laurencekirk churches?

  6. Jane Taylor

    ‘tears’ – meant ‘years’, sorry!

  7. jackdeighton

    My wife likes the McFlannel books. She’s blogged about them at I didn’t know about Helen Pryde’s organ playing.
    The book I’m reading contains a novel, Flemington, and many of Jacob’s short stories. It’s a Canongate edition titled Flemington and Tales from Angus. I’m very impressed so far. She did write other novels though – and a history of The Lairds of Dun.

  8. jackdeighton

    Years usually mean tears though, don’t they?

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