ACCORDING to the great traveller storyteller Stanley Robertson, storytelling "bonds".
The Edinburgh International Festival of Storytelling is the place to appreciate this ancient art form which is still very relevant in the 21st century. Centred at the Netherbow, but with events across Scotland, this year's focus is on "nomads, explorers, pilgrims and voyagers".
Scotland has, of course, a long and distinguished tradition of valuing its stories, from the Ossianic collecting of James Macpherson in the 18th century to the work, starting in the 1950s, of the School of Scottish Studies and, more recently, the Scottish Storytelling Centre. However, the last 10 years have seen a massive increase in public engagement with storytelling, in Scotland and internationally. Arts organisations working with the environment, from Skye's Atlas to Dumfriesshire's Wide-Open, are among the forefront of those using stories to narrate landscapes.
Despite the gloomy prognosis of Edna O'Brien - "people don't tell each other stories any more" - storytelling is very much alive and Scotland excels at it. At the University of Glasgow, we are developing a project called StorySCAPE to promote storytelling as a means of communicating heritage, and of bringing together people and places.
This summer, while travelling with archaeologist Michael Given, I had the privilege of spending time with wonderful storytellers in some of our most beautiful rural and urban areas. We went beyond aesthetic appreciation - though rewarding, this can lead to seeing the countryside as "empty" - to experience a "storied" landscape, rich with human experience.
In Skye we walked alongside internationally known seannachie Seoras Macpherson, and talked with outdoor pursuits leader Anne Walker. At Whithorn, we benefited from the guidance of postmistress Margerie Clark and community champion Janet Butterworth.
In the company of these experts, we learned about supernatural traditions, legends, customs, beliefs, songs, and pilgrimage traditions which began in the distant past and live on today. Their stories were always told with passion, often with humour, and invariably with a full consciousness of their value and importance.
People who were long gone seemed to come to life: the lady who put food out for the fairies in Glendale, and was rewarded with help at harvest; the English pilgrims who came to Whithorn each year, whatever the weather, and enjoyed home-made soup in the town. Jonathon MacDonald, at the Skye Museum of Island Life, communicated a sense of deep happiness in his childhood memories of the ceilidh house; there, older men moved from talking about the daily news, into ghost stories, and legends, and tales of those who had been lost in the wars of the past.
The present, equally, was reflected in these tales, from new ways of farming and how they sometimes co-exist with older practices, to the coming of fresh people into an area, and how their traditions mingle with the old. Storytelling is a form which is big enough to incorporate new experiences and adventures.
Stories, told respectfully and with love, as with the traditional tales and ballads which Robertson so expertly passed on, tell as much about a culture as written histories and documentary. Hearing narratives allows the landscape to open itself for visitors, just as it does for those who live there. The process of listening leads to a deeper understanding of places which are regionally and nationally important, with internationally significant depths of meaning.
Storytelling should and must be promoted as a form which affords the opportunity for dialogue, discussion and increased understanding of why places matter to the people who live there, and those who visit. That flexibility makes for dynamic, and potentially transformative, interactions. To quote Robertson again, there's a chance to go beyond the prosaic into the intellectually and emotionally meaningful, to "see things through spiritual eyes".
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