Edinburgh: International Storytelling Festival

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Edinburgh: International Storytelling Festival

The International Storytelling Festival is an Edinburgh autumn highlight. Anna Docherty takes a look at why, more than ever, we seem to love a good story. Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin …

There are few people who can turn down an intimate offer of: ‘Can I tell you a story?’ They can be fanciful, creepy, true-to-life or utterly ridiculous tales – but, then, it’s not so much the content we thrive on, it’s the physical and emotional act of being told a story; face-to-face, heartbeat to heartbeat. It’s an irresistible sensation. 

Scottish writer and storyteller, Linda Williamson, believes that oral storytelling offers a unique type of intimacy: ‘It’s about the teller’s total enjoyment of being with his listener,’ she says. ‘A story lives on the teller’s breath, but there is no life without the listener’s ear; the breath of one becomes the joy of another.’ This subtle interplay between teller and listener, the gentle chiming between mouth and ear, makes storytelling one of the most intimate ways of sharing and connecting. 

This year the International Storytelling Festival will celebrate its 20th anniversary, but, as an art form, storytelling goes back thousands of years and is one of the oldest forms of entertainment. Williamson sees storytelling as ‘the primal way to honour those who have come before us, as throughout history people have transmitted their stories for our benefit,’ she explains.

The public are encouraged to indulge their minds in both real and imaginary worlds as a variety of performers recite stories. To coincide with Homecoming, the 2009 festival will focus on tales of home, identity and belonging. 

But what is it that we continue to find so compelling about oral tales? Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that we live in an increasingly fleeting and impersonal world and, without jumping on the ‘technology is ruining us’ bandwagon, many of us are probably more likely to abbreviate our stories into text message or condense them into an email. To actually sit down and be told something face-to-face has become a bit of an indulgence. 

Perhaps it takes us back to the days of cartoon character printed pyjamas and favourite teddy bears; curled up in bed being read to by our parents? However, Williamson thinks our love of storytelling may be more complex than that. ‘Storytelling is deep within our souls and where our love for it actually stems from may be a very unique experience,’ she says. ‘For me, it was the very instant I could speak words from a page: a magical moment indeed.’ 

Her storytelling vocation started as a devoted listener to the ballads of the Scottish Travelling People while working on her PhD thesis on narrative singing, at Edinburgh University. And the Homecoming ‘belonging’ theme is one she finds particularly pertinent, in that she is American by birthright but very much considers herself to be a Scottish writer and storyteller. ‘Storytelling vanquishes the barriers of nationality’ is her poetic summing up. 

And so, perhaps we cling on to the ancient art of storytelling because, more than ever, it represents a unique way of connecting with one another. ‘It makes me think of a tree that has roots going up to heaven and branches spreading over the whole earth and from there out to the universe,’ says Williamson. If you think about it, that’s more far-reaching than even the most super duper of technological gadgets could ever hope to be. And now, if this were a story tale, this would probably be the point where we say ‘the end’. Or, perhaps, ‘sweet dreams’.

The International Storytelling Festival runs from Fri 23 Oct – Sun 1 Nov. For a full listing of events visit www.scottishstorytellingcentre.co.uk  


A Storyteller Speaks

Renowned Scottish storyteller, Bob Pegg, tells us of his enduring love of oral storytelling:

‘Some of my most vivid early memories are of aunties and grandmas telling and reading me stories. They were the kind of stories which are often called ‘fairy tales’, though there were few fairies in them.
In recent years, I’ve been incredibly lucky to befriend and listen to some of the great Scottish Traveller storytellers – Alec and Duncan Williamson, Stanley Robertson, Sheila and Essie Stewart – the inheritors of ancient traditions passed on by word of mouth from generation to generation of nomadic peoples.  

Hearing them tell their tales awakes the same sensations that I underwent during those first, spellbound experiences in dimly lit parlours before open fires. Now I realise great stories well told have the ability to evoke indelible images in the mind of the listener.  

It’s these images, still burning bright, that endure from the days of my early childhood: the forest of thorns in The Sleeping Beauty; a furious Rumpelstiltskin dancing himself into a deep hole in the ground; the Beast's crepuscular garden with its fateful bush of blood-red roses. These are images that will always stay with me. That’s the power of stories.’ 

Pegg will be performing at this year’s festival, see programme for details. 

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