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Storytelling in Scotland

Storytelling in Scotland has a long and proud history. Who knows how far back into prehistory some of the ancient myths and legends go? We could be hearing echoes that stretch back to the peoples who erected the great stone circles and built the mighty brochs in the stories we still tell today. One thing is sure, we should not dismiss the oral tradition as only being capable of preserving stories for just a few centuries.

Ancient Scotland was not one nation with one people but a diverse patchwork of indigenous and invading peoples who brought with them their own cultures, traditions and stories. If we could travel through the country in 800 AD we would find many different peoples, all with their own languages and all with a love of poetry which extolled the virtues of brave warriors. In the south were the Anglo Saxons, a Germanic/English people whose territory stretched down to the River Humber in England. These were the kin of the people who told the story of Beowulf, where a brave warrior met the forces of supernatural evil. A smaller group of Britons held a tenuous grip in this proto-nation, centred on Dumbarton Rock. They were a Celtic people who would have shared a language with the people of Wales. North of the Forth/Clyde isthmus were the Picts, a proud warrior race whose stronghold was around Inverness and the Moray Firth, although it once stretched as far north as Shetland. Little is known of their stories, but they will still remain, mixed in with the stories of other peoples. In the west and the Hebrides were the Scots of Dalriada; the Gaelic speaking people who originally came from Ireland. Their Bards recited the poetry that celebrated their warrior kings, while stories of the giant hero Finn McCool (Fionn mac Cumhaill, in Irish) and his poet son Ossian delighted all who sat by the fire during the cold winter nights. Finally, in the far north the Vikings of Norway were establishing bases to raid from in the Northern Isles of Orkney and Shetland. They would spread out over the North of Scotland and the Hebrides from their power-base in the Earldom of Orkney. Their stories of battles, heroic warriors and poets were passed down orally from generation to generation before being written down during the medieval period in Iceland as the Sagas.

While the feasting halls of earls and kings echoed to the sound of the poet’s voice, in the homes of the farmers, fisher-folk and traders other stories were being told. These fairy and folk tales were for entertainment but they also contained a warning that if you were not careful you could be lost to the sea or in the mountains, and that you should look out for the needs of others if you were to expect any pity in your own hour of need. As the years passed these stories travelled between the communities as the diverse peoples of Scotland merged to form a nation. We still hear the echo of these ancient voices in stories like the Viking ‘Assipattle and the Stoor Worm’ and the Gaelic ‘Angus and Bride’. Other stories are also well known in other countries far away, like ‘Rashie Coat’, a Scottish ‘Cinderella’, and ‘Whuppity Stoorie’, a version of ‘Rumpelstiltskin’. These are known as ‘migratory legends’, that travel from place to place with the movement of people.

The 19th century saw an increased interest in collecting Scottish folktales. Sir Walter Scott was an early collector and corresponded with the Brothers Grimm in Germany after they sent him a copy of their first published collections of folktales. Scott’s reputation as a folklorist, it seems, had travelled far beyond his native shores. Gentlemen landowners, clergymen and antiquarians all took an interest and soon collections of stories were being published. Not all clergymen approved though, as the church took a dim view on beliefs in fairies, mermaids and selkie folk. Many stories were lost during the latter half of the 19th century and beyond due to this persecution.

But Scotland’s folktales were not all lost. Many people continued to tell the stories from their own areas and to pass them on to future generations. The Scottish Travellers were also very important in preserving a wonderful heritage of stories, told with relish by their camp fires as they travelled over the country in search of work and to ply their trade as tinsmiths, as well as selling baskets and other goods made for barter. They not only preserved stories but old ballads, which initially drew the attention of academic collectors in the second half of the 20th century.

Hamish Henderson and Calum McLean founded the School of Scottish Studies at Edinburgh University in 1951. Hamish carried around his suitcase sized reel-to-reel tape recorder to capture these songs and stories. Others followed in his footsteps, building up an extensive archive that is truly a national treasure. The revival of the traditional folk music scene provided a platform for storytelling, which started to grow in popularity. In 1990 the Scottish International Storytelling Festival began in the Netherbow Arts Centre in Edinburgh. In 1992 the Scottish Storytelling Forum was created to champion storytelling in Scotland; led by the dynamic Dr Donald Smith. A resource centre was set up in 1995, leading to the establishment in 2004-6 of a new, purpose built Scottish Storytelling Centre on the site of the old Netherbow Art Centre. Here storytellers from all over the world, as well as local storytellers from all over Scotland, can share their stories with an appreciative audience, as well as with one another. The Scottish Storytelling Centre is the home of storytelling in Scotland and is the envy and inspiration of storytellers all over the world. The tradition of storytelling has never died in Scotland, but is now going from strength to strength thanks to the hard work and dedication of the storytellers and the beautiful centre that champions them.

Tom Muir
Storyteller

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