Storytelling feast to fire the imagination

Storytellers Rachel Newton, Calum Lykan and David Francis. Picture: Colin Hattersley
Storytellers Rachel Newton, Calum Lykan and David Francis. Picture: Colin Hattersley
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Let me tell you a story. Six words we will all have heard, whether as a child or perhaps as a parent preparing to read to their own wide-eyed youngsters.

Six words with the power to captivate, to fire the imagination and excite the senses.

Yet for all that, storytelling is perhaps too often thought of as little more than reading to children to help them sleep, when in fact it continues to shape the very world around us, from the tales we tell our friends and family to theatre and song.

And for the next nine days that tradition will once again be celebrated in what is fast becoming one of the brightest and most engaging of Edinburgh’s many festivals.

Starting on Saturday, the Scottish International Storytelling Festival will see more than 20,000 people attend dozens of events across ten venues.

Donald Smith will once again be overseeing this year’s festival, and in his 26 years at the helm he has had the pleasure of seeing a renaissance in what is a classic Scottish tradition.

“When we started the festival it was almost a reaction to a dearth of storytelling in Scotland,” he said. “Live storytelling is such an ancient tradition in Scots culture and we wanted to do something to help bring it back to prominence, so a group of us decided a good way to do that would be a festival.”

Perhaps the biggest boost in that time has been the opening of the Scottish Storytelling Centre on the Royal Mile, a space where the best storytellers from around the country can perform as well as providing a priceless education centre to encourage the next generation.

Indeed, one of the guests performing at this year’s festival might never have found her calling were it not for the Storytelling Centre.

Fiona Herbert will be looking to bring some thrills and scares to her audience when she regales them with tales of black magic, cauldrons and trouble at the Witches Brew event on Saturday, October 25.

The Edinburgh storyteller admitted, however, that she had never even realised it was something you could make a career out of until she moved to the Capital from London.

“I didn’t even know it was something you could do – like a lot of people I just thought telling stories was something you did with kids, and never imagined you could make a career out of it,” she said.

“When I moved back to Scotland I went to an event at the Storytelling Centre and started to find out more about it. I’ve always had a love of language and I found that storytelling was a fantastic chance to express that.”

And after attending some workshops at a previous Storytelling Festival, Fiona has managed to build up a career for herself, and this year will delve into who the Scottish witches really were and weave a tale of their lives and the perils they faced in Witches Brew, being held at Gladstone’s Land in the Lawnmarket.

“It’s pretty dark at points but I’ll have to tone it down a little as there will be youngsters there,” she joked.

There are a number of strands running through the festival’s seven days, from Once Upon A Place, a celebration of the living environment of Edinburgh and the Year of Homecoming 2014, to a celebration of the Capital’s finest storytellers – Sir Walter Scott, Robert Louis Stevenson and John Fee – as a way to mark the tenth anniversary of the Capital being named the first Unesco City of Literature.

Appropriately, on the 200th anniversary of his first novel Waverley, it is with Walter Scott that the festival opens through a telling of Scott’s remarkable oral history of Scottish legend Tales of a Grandfather. Originally started as a project for his grandson, what was created was a historical tapestry that will be brought vividly to life by storyteller Donald Smith in the grand surroundings of the Central Library.

And bringing the concept into the 21st century is Andy Cannon, who has created Tales of a Grandson: The Dig, The Feast and The Hooly to reflect and recount the changing history of the country.

As well as the best of Scotland the Festival is a truly International affair, celebrating storytelling cultures from around the world. In Tales of Lisbon: where Rural Meets Urban, Ana Sofia Paiva moves between narrative and song to bring to life the culture of Portugal, while elsewhere Stina Fagerun invites audiences to share in the ancient traditional tales from Norway.

And the Open Hearth events which will see musicians and storytellers swapping songs and tales late into the night, are a celebration of the local storytelling tradition.

“The different regions of the world all have their own styles of storytelling and one way this can be seen is through the differing use of music,” said Donald. “The Pacific Islands, for example, use a lot of musical poetry woven through their storytelling and that gives a great rhythmic element.

“In Scots culture there was the tradition of the House Ceilidh, which would be a very relaxed event with storytelling and live music, and we’re recreating that this year every night with the Open Hearth which we hope will be very popular.”

Also running throughout the festival are a series of exhibitions, including a poignant look at the personal stories of men and women who lived through the First World War, with a collection of extracts from diaries and letters as well as photos, sketches of soldiers, nurses, parents and conscientious objectors all on show at the National Library of Scotland.

And the Library will also host an exhibition celebrating Sir Walter Scott’s Waverley, illustrated with a series of treasures from its archive to help people delve into the themes of arguable the first historical novel.

The Scottish International Storytelling Festival runs from October 24 to November 2. Call the box office on 0131-556 9579.