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Scotland's Storytelling Revival

The traditional stories that once were told on cold nights by smouldering
peat fires are now finding 21st-century audiences.

BY JIM GILCHRIST

Once upon a time, there were stories, and these stories were elemental tales, concerning tinkers and kings, witches and beautiful maidens, fairies and seal folk -- and, of course, Everyman himself, the universal, ever-wandering Jack. And in these tales, good -- or, as often as not, sheer common sense -- triumphed over bad, though not always, and, however fantastical, they generally contained a nub of human truth, or a warning, or a useful moral.

And once upon a time, long before television or the Internet had even been dreamed of, these yarns were spun to rapt listeners around the humblest cottage fire, or in the chieftain's hall, or in the bow tents of itinerant tinkers. Today, however, they are enjoying new life, not just in Scotland, but also across the world, in a global renaissance of the timeless and fundamental art of oral storytelling.

Scotland may be rich in oral tradition, but storytelling these days isn't confined to entrancing audiences with traditional folk tales; it is also being enlisted to narrate urban experience, play a useful therapeutic role and heighten environmental awareness and sense of place. Even multinational corporations are engaging the services of experienced storytellers to learn the art of devising a suitably potent narrative with which to promote their products.

This may all seem highly fanciful in a digital age, but for a tangible focus on this revival -- if we can call it such, as one can argue that storytelling has never been away -- we visit the Scottish Storytelling Centre, a strikingly modern building adjoining the 15th-century John Knox House at the foot of Edinburgh's High Street. The Centre's predecessor was known as the Netherbow Arts Centre, after the immense, Gothic Netherbow Port, the old town's fortified east gate, which until the 1760s gave entry to the High Street, where its former position is still marked by brass plates set in the cobbles.

The Scottish Storytelling Centre, however, with its airy interior, café and auditorium, is now a portal to another realm entirely, as its former director and still presiding genius of the building, Dr. Donald Smith, explains, pointing out that the renewed interest in oral storytelling has developed globally.

The full text of this article is available in the Spring 2015 issue of Scottish Life.

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Photos © Solen Collet