On tale of tall stories

Fergus McNicol
Fergus McNicol
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THE story was about Jimmy and his magic goalkeeper gloves. His young audience entranced, Fergus McNicol explained how those gloves made Jimmy the most incredible goalkeeper – just so long as he could remember not to boast or the magic would disappear. But, he continued in his melodic voice to wide-eyed stares, it was cup final day and in all the excitement young Jimmy was about to forget to be modest.

“There was this wee guy at the front, he looked up, grabbed his head in his hands and shouted: ‘Noooo, Jimmy . . .’,” recalls Fergus. “It was very funny but it’s a good example of how powerful storytelling can be.”

Several more good examples of the power of storytelling will arrive in the city later this month when the 21st Scottish International Storytelling Festival begins its nine-day celebration of an art of entertainment that began in the days long before books and DVDs. This year the festival is bigger than ever, with 45 events taking place in Edinburgh and across 14 Scottish islands, built around the theme of the Mediterranean.

Among this year’s festival highlights are the series of free Meet the Storyteller events at the Storytelling Centre in the High Street, with each evening’s raconteur bringing their own infusion of flavours from their homeland, be it the warm shores of the Med or the cooler climes of Scotland.

The ambitious highlight of the festival is the retelling of the ancient Greek poem The Odyssey, the epic tale of hero Odysseus and his encounters with the one-eyed Cyclops, the deadly sirens and his other adventures on the way home, told every evening by a different person.

Altogether, the festival will feature 41 performers, with 13 from Mediterranean shores – Crete, Cyprus, Sardinia, Corsica and Greece. Others are from closer to home, including Fergus and his storyteller wife, Claire, who live in Inverleith with their four-year-old daughter, Freyja.

As well as taking a part in the retelling of The Odyssey – she is one of the sirens – Claire will be chatting about how she weaves her tales at a Meet the Storyteller event, while Fergus will perform an Olympic-inspired yarn called Champion of Champions with his storytelling partner, Ron Fairweather, which invites their young audience to help choose a hero.

Their interactive approach, says Fergus, 40, often has the shyest of children joining in in a way that plain book reading can’t always manage.

“It’s a more direct way of communicating, it’s your voice and your personality,” he says. “I think that’s why kids respond to it. It gives them the opportunity to tell it themselves, for it to become their own story.”

The couple both say their storytelling is a huge help in their other jobs, Claire as a social worker with Children 1st and Fergus as a teacher at Granton Primary.

Fergus adds: “It’s very useful for building confidence. I had a boy in a class, always in bother, low self-esteem, struggled with class work. I ran a storytelling club and he came along.

“He just loved stories and particularly loved the character of Wee Jack, an underdog who always saves the day with his wit and cunning. You could see he completely identified with this character.

“He learned a ‘Jack’ story and retold it brilliantly, so I suggested he tell it at an assembly which he did. There was a scene in the story where people start dancing, so – improvising – he told all the children to stand up and start dancing, which they did. But then he stopped and looked to the side of the hall and said to the teachers: ‘Aye, an’ you lot an’ aw!’

“Some of the rather taken aback teachers rose to their feet and joined right in. I don’t think I’ve ever come across a better example of a child being empowered by story – for those ten minutes he really was in charge of the school. After that, no surprise, things started going well in the classroom.”

As for those who aren’t quite sure what a storytelling event would entail, Donald Smith, director of the festival, urges them to give it a go. He says: “Storytelling events are hospitable, relaxing, and above all entertaining. They are about heart and humour. You get the music of the voice and the music of our lives.

“You hear great stories of remarkable people but then you realise these are your stories, too. Scotland’s festival is recognised worldwide so don’t miss out on your own doorstep.”

• The festival runs from October 21 to 30. Tickets are on sale from the Scottish Storytelling Centre box office on 0131-556 9579 and other venues. Visit www.scottishstorytellingcentre.co.uk for the full programme.