Growing Stories: Scottish International Storytelling Festival
19-31 October 2018
Scottish Storytelling Centre and other venues
The festival kicked off in style with a reception at the Storytelling Centre where participants, supporters and listeners gathered to celebrate the 30th Festival and the centuries-old relationship between Scotland and Ireland which is the focus of this year’s festival. We were reminded that storytelling is not a one-way process: storytelling is an exchange, a sharing of experience whereby we connect with and learn from each other.
The festival’s theme doesn’t exclude tales from the rest of the world! There are contributions from Iceland, Sierra Leone, India, Brittany, Canada, France and Wales, while Diane Edgecomb tells of her voyage of discovery into Kurdish mountain villages to record tales before they were lost under Turkish laws forbidding use of the Kurdish language – there may even be some English joining in the fun…
There are many family-friendly events – including a walking tour – Gory Stories – which departs from the Mercat Cross on the Royal Mile at 11am Saturday 20th and Sunday 21st; a session about trees at the Botanic Cottage in the Botanic Gardens; and a session celebrating Apple Day at the Lochend Secret Garden. There are plenty of open hearth storytelling sessions, exhibitions at the National Library, and even a spontaneous Marathon of Halloween storytelling at 10am on Wednesday 31st, and much, much more in the wide-ranging programme on offer this year. Check it all out at sisf.org.uk [and don’t confuse it with sis.org.uk which is the Scientific Instrument Society…!]
Two very different shows followed the reception, both with superb storytellers who kept us enthralled and invited us to join them in song and dance.
Ruth Kirkpatrick explained the clan motto – ‘I’ll mak sikkar’ [I’ll make sure] which originated in real “game of thrones” stuff in the 13th century, when Roger Kirkpatrick, Robert the Bruce’s right-hand man, ensured that the Red Comyn would no longer contest the Bruce’s claim to the Scottish crown. She told us of her ancestors who moved [probably under a cloud] from Dumfriesshire to Caithness, and of the youngest son of Thomas Kirkpatrick and Margaret Shearer, nicknamed ‘Asy-pattle’ [ash-head] because he spent his time dreaming by the fire, who saved the king and all his people from the ravages of the Stourworm, the king of all the sea-serpents.
The family later moved to Orkney, where Sarah McFadyen, whose mother is a Kirkpatrick, grew up. She provided a subtle and varied musical accompaniment to the stories on banjo, fiddle and guitar and told us of her memories of growing up on Hoy, where her fisherman father always sold the crabs he caught, but where she could go out to the skerries where the seals were basking: though they swam away when she arrived, they always came back…
Seals, as you know, are called selkies: and the legends tell of selkies – angels who have fallen a little but don’t deserve to be in hell – who are able to shed their sealskin and appear in human form: always dark-eyed and fascinating. Ruth told the story of Inga, who was wise and beautiful and good and, though constantly courted, never found a man her equal in accomplishment and wisdom. She was sought in marriage by the a hero of the Crusades who took Odin’s oath to marry her: this meant he would get his wish but it would not turn out well – and indeed the tale looked set to end tragically, just as it does in the ballad she sang: but hoorah! justice was done and Inga was reunited with her selkie lover and the son she bore him.
In between the tales we were taught a wonderful song about the midgies – the Stourworm’s parting gift to Scotland: wee teeth like piranhas, they’ll drive you bananas if you let one get under your semmit…
How to follow that? Well, the Armagh Rhymers in Ceilidh gave us a wonderfully mad Irish ceilidh of music, dance, song and story with plenty of audience involvement and an invitation to learn the Irish words and join in a closing dance…
As we moved into the storytelling court we saw a man wearing a giant woven basket bull’s head, Mr Potato Head playing the extraordinary Uilleann pipes [the Irish bagpipe with two bladders to feed air to an extraordinary collection of drones with keys enabling pitch changes plus a chanter, and a fiddler with a weird mask and wig. They were joined by a woman with a glorious horse head in much strange behaviour and incomprehensible shouting: maybe think Monty Python meets the [hand-woven] Muppets with a side order of [willing] audience involvement… Irish mummers, like their English counterparts, would travel the country bringing entertainment to rural communities, inviting them to celebrate season, culture and nature.
We met brave Saint Patrick who fought and overcame the Turkey champion, who was killed but was, with audience participation, magically brought back to life. Wicked Oliver Cromwell appeared and there was a lot of spitting into buckets and a riotous dance involving more audience members with tambourines and suchlike. The horse married the bull and tossed her bouquet into the audience, whereupon her six children were invited to dance at the wedding: and finally we heard the story of Fionn mac Chumhail’s extraordinarily convoluted pursuit of a tune he heard a fairy piper play, and which has been passed down ever since as the ‘Gold Ring Tune’. It was then played to us before we were invited to learn the aforementioned song in Irish and join in with the dance – which turned out to be the Hokey Cokey…!
A fabulous evening’s entertainment, and a great beginning to the Storytelliing Centre’s celebration of international oral culture.
Preview by Mary Woodward