Jessie Scott was born on 5 October 1914 at 69 Montpelier Park, Edinburgh. Her only brother William was born three years later. Their mother Christina had been a school teacher before her marriage, whilst their father Henry, known as Harry, was a civil servant in the Registrar General’s Office.
Harry Scott had been born illegitimate, the son of a maid on a large estate. His mother, after whom Jessie was named, had ensured that her son had a good education, enabling him to pass the rigorous examinations required to become a civil servant. Harry’s own socialist politics may have been in part fired by his treatment by the class system into which he had been born.
Jessie started at George Square in 1922, a week before her eighth birthday. She was an exceptionally bright little girl, achieving over 98% in her exams at the end of that first year. Despite bouts of illness, Jessie maintained an impressive academic record throughout her schooldays, winning many certificates and prizes, including special prizes for English and Art in the Sixth Year. She proved a talented artist and her sketch, Skating, drawn when she was only 13, not only featured in the George Square Chronicle in December 1928 but was also adopted for the 2021 George Watson’s College Christmas card.
After leaving school in 1933, Jessie studied Modern Languages and History at the University of Edinburgh. She was active in the Student Socialist Club and was Vice Chair of the Student Peace Council.
On graduating in 1937, Jessie worked first as a librarian at the National Library of Scotland and then in what would now be described as ‘an HR role’ at Lewis’, the department store in Glasgow. However, by the time she was 25, Jessie had followed in her mother’s footsteps and had trained to be a teacher. In 1940 she was teaching English and Latin at the Moray House Demonstration School in Edinburgh.
During the war, Jessie volunteered with a number of organisations, including those helping servicemen from countries such as Czechoslovakia and Poland whose homelands were under enemy occupation. All the Scott family were involved with the work to support these young men so far from home, knitting socks, making up care parcels, and often inviting them into the family home.
As Jessie’s son, Vincent remembers the story,
'My father was invited to the Scott family home. He caught the tram to Craiglockhart. When he got off, he asked a young man where Craiglockhart Road was. The young man said that he was going there himself and he would show him the way. As they walked, his guide asked which number he was looking for and they discovered that they were both going to number 17. The young man was a solicitor and Jessie’s fiancé. However, Jessie quickly changed her mind about who was to be her husband and she and Vincenc were married ten days later.’
Vincenc Kocman had left Czechoslovakia to fight with the International Brigade against the Fascists in Spain, but was now serving as a rear-gunner with 311 (Czech) Squadron of the Royal Air Force. Jessie and Vincenc were married in June 1941 and baby Vincent was born in Edinburgh in March 1942. Whilst her husband was posted to various airfields around the country, and baby Vincent was cared for by his grandparents in Craiglockhart Road, Jessie worked as a social worker with the Czechoslovak Red Cross in London. She was a member of the Union of Czechoslovak Women in London and helped to found the Society of Scottish Czechoslovak Friendship.
In 1943, Jessie also became a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain and when the war ended, the Kocman family; Vincenc, Jessie and three and half year old Vincent left Britain to help ‘build a new Europe’ in Czechoslovakia. They settled in Brno, the second largest city in the country, around 125 miles southeast of the capital, Prague.
Unlike many British women who married foreign servicemen during and immediately after the war, Jessie appears to have relished her new life. As her son put it,
‘She simply did not adapt. Everyone else adapted to her! She was very Scottish and very confident and no one made her do what she didn’t want to do!’
As a talented linguist, Jessie learned to speak particularly good Czech, but even before she could communicate fluently in the language she was producing Shakspearean plays in the garden of one of the villas close to where they lived. She soon became a lecturer in English in the Department of English and American Studies at Masaryk University in Brno. Initially she taught English language courses but after taking her PhD. in 1948 she lectured on the history and literature of Great Britain and of the U.S.A.
Life must have been busy for the Kocman family. A daughter, Christina was born in 1948, followed later by another daughter and another son. Vincenc and Jessie had a hectic social life. Their home was the venue for many parties, some of which apparently lasted for days on end. To avoid any trouble from the police, Jessie would invite local officers to join them. She was known not only as a lively hostess but also as a talented pianist.
Vincent remembers his mother fondly, but remarks ‘My mother was a dominant Scottish woman. This degree of Scottishness might explain her approach to parenting. She provided food, clothes, a home and taught us right from wrong. And then left us to get on with it.’
Every year Jessie’s parents would travel from Edinburgh to join the family, staying for the summer. When Harry and Christina became too old to travel so frequently, Jessie instead took her two eldest children to visit them at Craiglockhart Road.
However, this description of family life and a home full of music and parties does not give a complete picture.
On his return home in 1945, Vincenc had been honoured for his war service by the award of the Order of the White Lion. As the Communist Party took control of Czechoslovakia, he continued serving, first in the air force and then the army. However by the early 1950s, Stalinists had won control of the Communist Party and party members with an ‘international’ background were under suspicion. Vincenc’s service in the Spanish Civil War and with the RAF now made him a target. He was demoted and made to work for a while in a factory. Although he did not suffer as badly as many others did at the time, this must have been a dark time for him and Jessie. Eventually, Vincenc was rehabilitated, awarded the Order of the Red Star and given a job in another of Brno’s universities. Perhaps Jessie’s powerful presence kept the family safe from the worst attentions of the authorities. The English and American Studies Department would certainly have been ‘monitored’ during this time but Jessie was left to get on with her work undisturbed. The Communist authorities needed Jessie for her skills as a translator.
Jessie was to devote over forty years to the promotion of English and American studies in Czechoslovakia. As a university teacher she guided many generations of scholars and teachers of English. Her students knew when they had disappointed her by not coming up to her own high standards but they always felt that she could be both friendly and understanding. Her research was very much influenced by her political views and she was particularly drawn to British writers who reflected her commitment to Marxist theory.
Today, William Morris is remembered more for his role in the Arts and Crafts Movement and his textile and wallpaper designs. However he was also an early Socialist and wrote poetry and prose. In The Poetic Maturing of William Morris (1964), Jessie considered Morris’ earlier poetry, which had been dismissed by many critics as ‘old-fashioned’ and showed how she considered that it helped in the development of his more mature ‘socialist’ poetry and prose. Jessie was a member of the William Morris Society and helped maintain an interest in his literary work far beyond Czechoslovakia.
Given her Scottishness and her politics, it is not surprising that Jessie also wrote about the work of Lewis Grassic Gibbon and R. B.Cunninghame Graham, as well as that of her friend, Hugh MacDiarmid. Her essay A Scots Quair and its Relevance to the Scottish Proletarian Struggle of the 1930s might still be of interest to pupils studying the work today! Jessie was also praised for her original and independent interpretation of more contemporary British fiction such as novels by Elizabeth Bowen, Iris Murdoch, Doris Lessing, and Muriel Spark.
Jessie became a professor in 1966 and although she officially retired in 1980, she continued as an external examiner. She helped to establish the Gypsywood Players, the amateur theatre group associated with her department, directing and often appearing in plays in English. One wonders what her Lady Bracknell was like.
Jessie died in 1985, four years before the Iron Curtain came down and her adopted country ceased to be a communist state. What she would have made of these changes is difficult to guess. Her son felt that she was not particularly interested in politics, so maybe she would have smiled when a playwright, Václav Havel, was elected as Czechoslovakia’s first post-communist President.
Many thanks to Vincent and Louise Kosman, Jessie’s son and daughter-in-law for their help, photos and stories about her.