It’s often claimed that storytelling is one of the oldest art forms. But what do we mean by ‘storytelling’? Over the past few years I have read and heard the description ‘storyteller’ applied to virtually any artist who deals in narrative: novelists, short story writers and scriptwriters of course, but also painters and photographers, performance artists and choreographers, photographers and cartoonists.
Which is fine, but… a good way into the twentieth century, if you lived in many countries across the world – including parts of rural Ireland and northern Scotland – you would have had a very particular idea of what a storyteller was. It would be a man or a woman who could hold the attention of an intimate gathering with their direct gaze, timbre of voice, variety of gesture, and, above all, the power of the story itself. And the story would be held in the head of the teller, handed down through generations; not in a fixed form to be delivered by rote, but as something fluid, which could be adapted to circumstance and the company.
And what stories they would be! The storytellers could draw on a vast international repertoire of tales which had slipped and slithered between different cultures and languages, in some cases for thousands of years, constantly accommodating themselves to the times and places in which they landed. For example, in a tale from Argyll, taken down in Gaelic in the mid-nineteenth century, a young woman tricks a vicious water horse by using a false name in just the way that Odysseus duped Polyphemus the Cyclops 3,000 years before. The themes and scenarios of these stories are universal, ranging from magic-infused fantasy, through heroic adventure and love in adversity, to demonic encounters and black farce. Scheherazade knew them well.
With the coming of the cinema, radio and television the role of the live storyteller became diminished, though in isolated places the great tradition was still kept alive. When I moved from Yorkshire to the Highlands a quarter of a century ago I was fortunate to be able to meet, and work with, some of the last remaining traditional storytellers in Britain. They were from the Travelling people – impolitely known as ‘tinkers’. Up until the 1950s, when modern civilisation made their way of life untenable, the Travellers would spend the winter months in a settled place and take to the road in the spring. They travelled by horse and cart, lived in tents and made their living tinsmithing, horse dealing, hawking, pearl fishing, gathering whelks and working for the farmers. ‘Once you would hear the birds singing, something stirred in your blood. You’d want to get away again, to travel the roads,’ says Alec Williamson, a Ross-shire man. ‘You see, you could take the Traveller out of the road, but you couldn’t take the road out o’ the Traveller.’
Travellers like Alec, together with Sheila Stewart, Stanley Robertson, Duncan Williamson, Elizabeth Stewart and Essie Stewart – were and are skilled storytellers, often ballad singers and musicians too. They are people who really did first hear their songs and tales around the campfire or the family hearth, from their parents and grandparents, uncles and aunts, who got them from the generations before them. Forthright and pithy, they embody the resilience and intrinsic earthiness of the traditional arts, and they inspired me to want to tell stories myself.
Of that handful of Traveller storytellers, the one who had the most influence on the recent revival of storytelling in Scotland– which has a Storytelling Centre in Edinburgh– was Duncan Williamson, who died eight years ago. Duncan was born in 1928 by the shores of Loch Fyne in Argyll, in a tent in a woodland clearing, the seventh of sixteen children. He left the family when he was fourteen, and travelled widely, learning whatever trades were necessary to make a living; and he picked up songs and stories wherever he went. Duncan became Scotland’s best-known storyteller, entertaining audiences around the world until shortly before his death. He had a vast repertoire, from epics of questing adventure, through mysterious encounters with the supernatural, to broad, unbuttoned humour.
Duncan used to tell one rather sad tale. A highlight of the Williamson children’s lives was when they were able to spend time with their Granny. She had a little bag, done up with three mother of pearl buttons, which contained her personal possessions, and she told the children that she also kept her stories there. One day, when she was asleep, Duncan and his sister sneaked a look in the bag. They found all manner of interesting things, but no stories. Later, the children asked Granny to tell them a tale. The old woman looked in her bag and declared that someone had been prying, and all the tales were gone; and she never again told them a single story.
All stories happen somewhere: deep dark woods, icy tundra, mean streets, emotional wasteland, hotbeds of passion. The skillful storyteller is able to illuminate the images of locations that we hold in our own heads. Never over-describing, he or she can give us just enough information to waken the cinema of the imagination. That’s one of the secrets of great storytelling, the ability to enter into, and shine a light on, each listener’s secret places. As I strive towards this ideal, and a bumpy road it is, I sometimes think about Granny’s bag, and wonder if the tale is not just about privacy but also how stories are not easily won. These old stories are precious, life-affirming things, and we have to work hard to keep them on the go. Scheherazade knew that.
By Bob Pegg