I haven’t had the chance to write a hearty blog post for a while so to fill in the gap here is an old interview form Hope Whitmore’s blog, which you can read at http://hopewhitmore.wordpress.com
A couple of months ago I interviewed Daniel Allison by e-mail. He’s a storyteller who’s travelled to the Scottish Highlands and Nepal in search of folk lore, and he has some truly incredible things to say. I was planning on using his interview in a feature article about the oral tradition and the role of the storyteller, but his responses to my questions were so strong I feel that they speak for themselves.
How important is storytelling and has it lost any of it’s importance in recent years with the advent of the internet, tv, video games and other sorts of entertainment?
People are constantly telling one another stories. Even if its just saying where you went out or what you had to eat last night, storytelling is our primary method of communication. Look on Facebook, go into any pub and and all you’ll see and hear is stories. We need to tell stories and we need to hear them. But what kind of stories are people telling? Folk-tales are largely forgotten, myths are almost unheard of after childhood. And we are missing out because of this.
The stories of a land are as much a people’s heritage as the land itself. Through story, a dialogue opens up between place and people. After you’ve heard the story of how the swans that swim in the lake you like to walk by weren’t always swans, you will remember it every time you walk there; you will probably want to share it. You have moved closer to the swans, closer to the lake and closer to those whom you share the story with.
It is a way of moving away from living in a dead world, made up things that are measured by their usefulness, into a world where everything is alive, everything breathes and the old oak tree is a keeper of more stories than we could ever hope to know. We know the importance of stories, but we have forgotten the best ones.
Is storytelling flourishing more in other cultures, your website mentions that you have worked in African Villages and Nepalese monastries, what is the imortance of story in these environments?
As to whether storytelling is flourishing in other cultures, from what I have seen it depends on how far the culture has travelled away from its traditions and into the modern world. The reasons for this can be very practical. An Australian Aboriginal who listens to a story from his locality can learn from one story where to find food, where to find water and how a particular animal behaves. Seoras Macpherson, a storyteller from Skye, insists that some of his stories not be altered by anyone planning on telling them, as they explain how to navigate a stretch of the islands coastline or hills. Because the Aboriginals are strict about not deviating from their stories, they have some that are credibly believed to go back to the last ice age.
Of course, traditional cultures are changing as they adapt to modernity, but that does not mean they are forgetting their stories. The tribes of Siberia have an extraordinarily rich tradition of storytelling, yet most of these peoples now live in concrete apartment blocks rather than yurts. They have adapted some of their stories so that they feature characters such as Stalin and places such as the gulag. Stories evolve; the same story may exist in different forms in every continent. If a story has potency, it lives.
Is Music important to your style as a storyteller?
I love the interplay of music and story. I find it hard to listen to one story after another without music or poetry in between. When I hear the harp or the drum played as a story is told, it becomes the wings that let the story take flight in the imagination.
My main instruments are the didgeridoo and Native American flute, which are of course rather hard to play while telling stories, so I’m working on my drumming! I tend to use these to create an atmosphere between and throughout stories. I also collaborate often with other storytellers and musicians and it is great to weave our music and stories together. I’ve thought about recording backing tracks for my stories but it hasn’t happened yet…
Do you see your work as part of an ancient tradition?
Martin Shaw uses the term ‘storycarrier’ to give a sense that one does not simply tell stories but has the privilege and responsibility of living with and passing on stories that have been carried and passed on by our ancestors for hundreds of generations. I try to retain an awareness of this. It is an awesome thing to think that the some of the stories I tell were told in the deserts of the outback five thousand years ago, that others may have been told in some form in the temple-caves of the paleolithic age. I try to live close to the stories, in relationship to them; going deeper, learning more, seeing more.
In September this year I set off on a quest; to walk 220 miles coast to coast across Scotland on the Southern Upland Way.
This in itself would be a major challenge; although there are no Munros or even Corbetts on the route, it is infamous for endless upping and downing and for endless bogs in wet weather – which isn’t a rarity.
The real challenge I had set myself, though, was to walk the Southern Upland Way in the style of a wandering bard; what the celts called a ‘seanacaidh’ and the norse called a ‘skald’. Every time I came to a town or village along the way, I would stop and tell stories; the ‘Stories of Natural Scotland’. Stories of seal-people and the fairy folk; of ghosts and goblins; of red squirrels and golden eagles.
Why? Why not just drive from show to show as myself and every other storyteller normally does? Well, one reason was that I love long-distance walking and this made a good excuse to do it. But the seed of the idea was a feeling that I had; that in order to really get to know the stories, I had to know the land they come from. Stories and land are intimately related; they are part of each other.
Of course, I have spent a lot of time traipsing the hills of my homeland and know it well enough to tell its stories. And I tell stories from every corner of the world, from Amazonia to Siberia. I have been to many of these places and haven’t been to others, yet telling their stories and playing their music isn’t a problem.
So it was more about authenticity. I didn’t want to be a pale imitation of those skalds who traipsed into the village, all bearded and hoary and smelling of the forest; I wanted to have a go at being the real thing. I was used to audiences enjoying my performances; but wouldn’t they get so much more from them if they knew I had just come down off the hills to tell them a few stories and afterwards would be heading back into the wild weather? Wouldn’t some of that wildness soak into me, into the stories and into them?
Hotels and B&Bs were out of the question. Fortunately I had a good stock of hi-tech lightweight backpacking gear (authenticity is relative, and I’m not that tough) which would be more than capable of meeting the demands of the journey. All I needed was time, money and willing audiences.
Being a self-employed storyteller, time wasn’t to be a problem. Neither was money, since Creative Scotland were kind enough to fund the project. Finding audiences proved to be a little more tricky. It’s well-known that people in our society tend to value things according to what they cost. I thus found myself in the very bizarre situation of phoning round schools, offering to give away something which I make my living from, and being evaded, ignored or refused almost everywhere I turned!
After several months of endless unreturned phone calls and emails I finally managed to get the schools along the route to agree to having a free visit. The hard part was over, I thought; I only had to do the walk and tell the stories.
I was wrong…
Come September 5th, my partner drove me down to Portpatrick on the west coast to begin the tour on a day of sparkling sunlight. I gave my performance at the primary school there; the children were delightful and they loved the stories. So far, so good. I left and had some tasty fish and chips from the van at the harbour and started on the path.
I always find when I begin a walk that for the first hour or two there’s an instinct continually telling me to stop. It’s like my body can’t understand why I’m lugging this bag along this path and keeps telling me to sit down, which is what it’s used to. Then, after a couple of hours, I find my rhythm and when I want to sit down my body won’t let me and I have to argue with it that I need to take a break. This conversation went on as I made my way along the coastal path that leads north from Portpatrick before turning east and inland, down quiet lanes in the gathering dusk before making my camp on a bed of leaves in the woods outside Castle Kennedy.
At Castle Kennedy Primary School the tour began to get underway. The pupils couldn’t believe that I had slept in the woods. Their eyes went even wider when I told them of the giants that lived in those woods before a wee boy from Castle Kennedy got rid of them. Telling stories in this way was vital; I wanted to ‘re-enchant’ the landscape, encouraging imaginations that had been fried by the X-Box to leap into life again at the thought of what might be out there in the forests and hills. They loved handling my camping gear and testing the weight of my dehydrated meals and tent (which weighs the same as my brain, funnily enough).
Then came the hard part.
It was midday on Friday when I left Castle Kennedy. The next place I needed to be was St John’s Town on Dalry on Monday. I had the weekend to walk 50 or so miles across the Galloway Hills. I was looking forward to it.
Then it started to rain.
It was still raining when I put up my tent in a forestry plantation that night. It was still raining when I packed up my tent the next morning. It was still raining when, half an hour after setting off, I passed a bothy that I could have spent the night in but wasn’t marked on my map. That was painful.
It rained all day and all the next night and most of the next day. My gear was good, but not good enough; in particular my shoes. Every long-distance walker whose work I have read in recent years urges walkers to forego boots and wear trail shoes, owning to the difference in weight; they say a pound on your feet is like five pounds on your back. I’d been walking ten miles a day in trail shoes in the weeks leading up to the walk, as well as running in them three times a week, and was happy that they would serve me well on the Southern Upland Way.
They didn’t. By Saturday afternoon, my thoroughly soaked feet began to blister. By Sunday morning the pain was awful. By Sunday afternoon… I don’t really want to think about Sunday afternoon. One thing kept me going; the thought of arriving in Dalry before the pub stopped serving food that evening and drying my shoes in front of the fire while eating fish and chips.
I kept going, chanting a mantra through gritted teeth as I walked, until I at last came over the brow of a hill to see the village nestled by the river beneath me. Despite the pain, or maybe because of it, that was one of the most magical moments of the tour. I felt like I had a real sense of what it must have been like for a travelling seanacaidh to emerge out of the wild lands, cold and hungry, to see the village lamp-lights and know what they promised: a warm welcome, hot food, good company and somewhere dry to sleep.
I found all those things; the staff at the pub were wonderful, the locals friendly and inquisitive and a friendly farmer offered me a nice flat field to put my tent up in. So I began again the next morning, and by this time I was in full swing; each session was a treat for me and the pupils. I carried on east, to Sanquhar and then the highest village on my journey and the highest village in Scotland: Wanlockhead.
I was looking forward to visiting Wanlockhead, not least because my partner was visiting with fresh supplies and encouragement but also because I would be giving my first public performance of the tour in the inn. After a long delay spent chatting to a friendly cat – I was missing my own little black ones and he made a good substitute – I arrived at the inn to find a good audience of local adults ready to hear some stories.
It was a new experience for most of them and also for me. I’m used to arriving at venues with a car full of didgeridoos, drums and exotic artefacts. Here it was just me, the audience and the story. The vibe was relaxed and unpretentious and I found my style adapting to fit the circumstances in a way that was surprising and pleasing. Chatting to the audience afterwards, I got great feedback and found that people loved hearing stories that populated places they knew with otherworldly characters but also related to their lives, the land and weather they knew.
After Wanlockhead I headed to Moffat then into the borders. By this point I had walked over a hundred miles and things were getting easier. The sunshine that had blessed Scotland all summer returned for spells. I was able to dry out my tent most days and get fish and chips in most villages to make a change from my dehydrated meals (I don’t eat factory-farmed meat so I relied on fish for protein).
I loved meeting the pupils at each school and sharing the journey of each story with them. No matter how many times I give a performance or tell a particular story, it never gets boring. Once you’ve begun telling, the energy of the story, the audience and the place all intertwine to make something that has never happened before and will never happen again. It’s a bit like dancing – no matter how many times you dance to a favourite piece of music, you’ll never dance the same dance twice.
After that it wasn’t so tough. The amount of miles I had to cover each day was less, and I had more time for breaks – previously there had been days of twelve hours walking with only a few five or ten-minute breaks. I nosed around the historic towns of Melrose and Lauder and stopped to read an article about the tour in a newsagent’s.
After leaving Lauder I was on the home stretch, over the Lammermuir hills to Cockburnspath and the end of the trail. ‘Home stretch’ is a fitting phrase as I grew up on the edge of the Lammermuirs; in a sense I had walked home. But it was a sad homecoming.
The tour was called ‘Stories of Natural Scotland’. There had been plenty of stories but I had seen very little of what could truly be called ‘Natural Scotland’. In all the lands I had walked across, there was nowhere that was not divided by fence or wall. Every patch of grass was there for the grazing of sheep, and where there were sheep there was little else. Every forest was a plantation, as uniform and cheerless as a military parade. I passed just two nights in places that had the feeling of wild nature; a community-managed oak wood in Galloway and a cabbage-patch sized piece of woodland by the side of a lane in the Lammermuirs that was too small for anyone to bother managing.
I knew prior to starting the walk how precious little land is left to be as it will be in Scotland; I just didn’t know it was this bad. There was nowhere worse, though, than the Lammermuirs. The high moor is ‘managed’ exclusively for grouse shooting and nothing that might harm the birds, other than those who pay handsomely to do so, is allowed to exist (though landowners would argue otherwise). I felt utterly dispirited as I crossed the wasteland of the moor, where I saw nothing that lived or moved saved birds bred to die for sport.
This put me in a bit of a fix. Here I was, promoting the beauty and wonders of ‘Natural Scotland’ and encouraging children to get out on the hills. Judging by the enthusiasm displayed by the pupils, I was pretty sure I had done a good job of it. Yet I felt like a fraud – the parts of Scotland that I had walked across didn’t feel natural at all.
Was this just because I had been spoilt by my many trips to spectacular places abroad and in the highlands? I knew the highlands were no different, their soul-stirring sparseness the result of deforestation, overgrazing and the horror of the clearances – but due to the nature of the landscape they feel wilder. And I know that no matter how we abuse nature and how uninspiring a conifer plantation might be, there is always life there, whether we notice it or not.
Looking back, it is clear to me that despite and because of the abuses done to our land, we must encourage our children and young people to get out there, to make up their own minds and to begin dreaming Natural Scotland’s future.
Myself, I have found huge inspiration in George Monbiot’s book Feral, where he makes a case for ‘rewilding’ the landscape, allowing forests to grow again on the high lands and reintroducing native wildlife such as bison, lynx, wolves and bears. I believe that for the kingdoms our minds to be healthy the borders of our imaginations must be wild, shadowy places; forests and dark mountains where witches brew potions and wolves hunt by the moonlight; places where we roam in our dreams and fantasies. Having told stories of such places to thousands of children, I know the need they have for them and am convinced that it would be of immeasurable benefit for them to know that bears wandered through primeval forests not too far away.
At last, after over thirty performances, two weeks walking and over two hundred miles covered I saw the sea. I had made it. The pupils of Cockburnspath Primary School welcomed me in for a wonderful final school show, then in the evening I gave my second and final public performance at Cockburnspath Community Hall. It was much quieter than the Wanlockhead evening, with just eight audience members in attendance. We stacked all the empty chairs at the side of the room and brought our chairs into a circle, and I began to talk.
Again, something new happened. I didn’t tell stories as I normally would. I told the story of the tour, of the joy of meeting so many enthusiastic children and sharing stories with them, and laughing at my struggles with torrential rain and blisters. I usually find it hard to talk about my own life and my own personal stories but here it wasn’t so difficult. The audience told their own stories, and though I still told the tales I had promised the evening had a unique feeling; not a performance, not a ceilidh, but something in-between and a time and place where something very special was shared. I learnt a lesson about not holding back from an audience; not hiding in the safety of my menagerie of stories. Allowing myself to be vulnerable rewarded me with my favourite night of the tour. And not just because I didn’t have to walk any further!
Looking back a few months later, I’m very grateful for having had the idea for the tour, to Creative Scotland and the National Lottery for the funding and to everyone who participated along the way. I often tell people that performance is only a small part of being a storyteller – most of the hard work is done in front of a computer screen. But now I have an idea of what work the bards put into it, and how that makes you appreciate the rewards – from the moments on a long day’s walk when the sun shines through the clouds and you find yourself singing out to it, to the taste of hot food and the feeling of bedding down on springy pine needles while owls hoot nearby.
What it really made me appreciate, though, is the stories. Seeing the way they light up each child’s face is something that makes you want to keep going until you’ve shared those moments of wonder with every child, young or old, that you can find. I’m back to using my car but I’m still on that journey and won’t be stopping anytime soon.
Stories of Natural Scotland was supported by Creative Scotland, with National Lottery funding.
Another long gap between posts! I’ve got an excuse as not long after finishing the Stories of Natural Scotland project I set off for a month in Mexico – more to come on this.
In the meantime, here is the text from an interview with the Southern Reporter conducted shortly before setting off on the SONS tour:
A former chimpanzee tracker is walking across Scotland and, in the tradition of bards, telling stories as he goes
East Lothian’s Daniel Allison, 30, is following the Southern Upland Way, camping wild, and telling children and adults traditional Scottish stories at several stops along the 212-mile route.
He told The Southern: “I’m doing this to educate children and adults about Scotland’s wonderful folklore and astonishing natural heritage, and hopefully, through sharing these stories and stories of my own adventures, I will encourage people to get out and explore themselves.”
The professional storyteller grew up in Dunbar and lived in what was once naturalist and author John Muir’s great-aunt’s house. Indeed, Muir’s output is the basis of a workshop Daniel offers children, when they go into a woodland or wild area and carry out nature-based tasks, and Daniel tells them Muir’s stories.
Daniel studied English and creative writing in Brighton and has travelled widely. He was a chimpanzee tracker in Uganda, where he also taught English.
He has taught English to Tibetan refugees in India and travelled in the Amazon jungle, and was latterly a massage therapist.
He explained: “I became a story teller because I’m a writer and I’ve always had a deep love of myth and folklore.
“I discovered there was an oral storytelling society in Scotland and that you could make a working living telling stories, and I thought that’s the job for me, I had to do it.
“I managed to wangle a couple of gigs and four years later it’s my full-time job.”
He offers workshops for children, teenagers, adults, and children with additional needs, and accompanies tales with didgeridoo, Native American flute, drums, rattles, shakers, Jew’s harp and Tibetan singing bowls.
Of his latest venture, he said: “Inspiration came from the tradition of wandering storytellers such as the Scottish ‘seanacaidh’ and Viking ‘skald’. They would criss-cross the land, gathering inspiration in the hills and forests then spend a few days in a rural community telling stories before moving on.
“As a lifelong writer and lover of stories and a keen explorer of wild places, I saw in the tradition of the wandering bard a chance to bring his two passions together as well as to introduce audiences to a little-known, but very important figure in Scotland’s folk history. “
He has walked 200 miles in the Himalayas, but, he said: “This is going to be a really different challenge because I have to be at certain places at certain times and be in a vaguely presentable state.”
Daniel will be sharing stories “that may well have been told by seanacaidh in the distant past – comical tales, hero quests and monster stories; stories of animals and fairies, wizards and shape-shifters; all part of Scotland’s astonishingly rich canon of folklore, ” he says.
He will tell tales to Borders schoolchildren at St Ronan’s primary in Innerleithen on Monday, Melrose primary on Tuesday and at Lauder primary on Wednesday, September 18.
He expects to reach Cockburnspath on Friday, September 20, and will hold a free hour-and-a-half event in the village hall at 7.30pm.
The tour is supported by Creative Scotland, with funding from the National Lottery.
Well, I’m halfway through the tour and taking a rest to let my somewhat hideous blisters heal a little before moving on. So far I’d say the tour has been a great success. The shows have been very well received and the school pupils have been incredibly enthusiastic about the whole concept of the wandering storyteller. The walking has been very hard going; long wet days on rough ground with very little time for breaks has been the norm. Apparently it’s about to get easier, though!
I’ll write a full report when it’s over. In the meantime, I hope to see you at the show at Cockburnspath or elsewhere down the road.
Details for the Scottish International Storytelling Festival shows are available now on the events page – the Open Hearth shows tend to sell out so get your tickets soon. Find the full programme at http://www.scottishstorytellingcentre.co.uk/festival/sisf13programme.pdf
The road goes ever on and on…
I’ll be performing at three events at this years festival – see the full programme and find booking details at http://www.scottishstorytellingcentre.co.uk/festival/sisf13programme.pdf
From tea house to tented village, gateway to groves and yurts to caravans, listen to nature’s eloquence through traditional stories and music. Journey between key locations in the beautiful Botanic Gardens and gather where stories will be shared in harmony with the elements.
John Muir – The Wilderness Within
A journey into the world of Dunbar-born pioneer ecologist John Muir, exploring the events and influences which shaped Muir’s profound appreciation of the natural world.
Join stprytellers and musicians in a relaxed traditional session around the hearth, as the darkness closes in and the embers glow. Hosted by Bea Ferguson, with Gica Loening, Daniel Allison and Marion Kenny.
Just a quick note to say what a fantastic festival Singing Sticks was this year. In case you don’t know, Singing Sticks is Northampton’s biggest and best didgeridoo festival and is held in a beautiful woodland every July.
I’d performed at the festival before so was very pleased to be asked back. Festivals this size – just a few hundred souls strong – are like family gatherings and by the time you leave you’ve met or jammed with almost everyone. It was great to see everyone again and share some new stories, though under slightly different circumstances. Last time I performed on the main stage at noon, at which time (most) people were sober. This time I was telling tales by the fire late into the night.
It was much more fun! The audience absolutely insisted at one point that I insert crystal unicorns, Joseph Stalin and mechanical Charlie Chaplin dolls into the myth I was about to tell. I almost managed it – as I was leaving on Sunday I was accosted by someone who was very upset that I forgot the crystal unicorns. Sorry again.
Anyway, I ended up leaving with an absolutely stunning new didgeridoo, Pollex; an enormous crystal-inlaid yew stick with a sound that has so far left more than one person lost for words. I’m huffing and puffing and hooting and tooting away on it every day in preparation for this month’s shows. Thanks to Paul Osborn for his wonderful craftsmanship – check out his work here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yOItUjHTjFI
Andrea Furlan from the video above played at the festival and did a stunning set, the other highlights being Didge Tall Paul and Mack Yidhaky.
I’ll get some footage of me playing Pollex up once I’ve got to grips with it!
As for shows in August, it’s private shows only this month I’m afraid. But there’s something very exciting happening in October – details coming very soon….
Once again it’s been awhile – but that’s all set to change.
Yesterday was my last day working part-time to support my storytelling. From now on I’ll be among the wild deer full-time, which means more time for blog posting and other such interesting things.
Today’s post is an article I’ve written on a trip I made to Turkey to present the art of storytelling to a conference during the recent protests. Thinking about it is making me misty-eyed; I made wonderful friends there among a wonderful people and I really hope I find my way back there sometime.
Here’s the article:
Are you free to do some storytelling? Yes. Next week? Yes. In Turkey? Why not?
The mission that the Storytelling Centre bestowed on me was to showcase the art of storytelling at an awards ceremony and conference held in Eskişehir by the Turkish EU Delegation. Each year the delegation (think embassy) sponsors a creative writing competition for GCSE-level high school students across the country, in which students are asked to submit a story based on a theme that promotes EU values; this year it was ‘unity in diversity’. The best 66 students and their teachers are invited to the awards ceremony and then spend two days attending workshops, talks and cultural events.
Some people thought I was crazy to go. The event was taking place right at the time of the protests and subsequent clashes with police over the bulldozing of Gezi park to make way for a shopping centre. The Foreign Office were advising against all but essential travel to Turkey.
After doing a little research I was at a loss to understand why such a high level of alarm, and I still am. The situation in Istanbul was more akin to the Occupy movement than the London riots. A large part of the Turkish people were uniting behind the protestors to make clear their dislike of the PM, who had responded to a peaceful sit-in protest with rubber bullets and tear gas. People on their way to work dropped off food for the protestors; doctors were arriving and setting up makeshift clinics in tents.
The event went ahead undisturbed but not unaffected. There was a wonderful mood of celebration amongst the students, and pride in their achievements. Friendships were being made everywhere and I met with great curiosity about Scotland and storytelling. But there was always someone checking Facebook on their phone and passing on grim news. The police were placing doctors who treated the protestors under house arrest; news channels covering the clashes were being given massive fines by the government. The head of the Turkish EU Delegation came and gave a speech making it clear how unimpressed he was by the PM’s actions.
These events both overshadowed the conference and invigorated it. As Turkey’s hopes of EU membership seemed ever more unlikely, the discussion panel based on the roles and responsibilities of writers took on an electric atmosphere. The students were passionate, argumentative and very serious about their country and about writing. It was a privilege to share the art of storytelling with them; no-one that I spoke to had ever met or heard of a professional storyteller before.
I sat on a panel, talked about storytelling and the Scottish Storytelling Centre, told some tales and ran workshops for the students. When the time came for my final contribution I told them one of my very favourite stories. In this ancient Russian story, a young hunter is given increasingly difficult and life-threatening tasks by a despotic king. Eventually the king’s pride leads him to jump into a cauldron of boiling water after seeing the hunter do it. Of course, he doesn’t survive and the hunter takes the throne. The thrust of the story is that renewal of the kingdom does come not from the centre but the edges, from the young and bold and daring. The challenges thrown their way by the old and weary are initiations necessary to fuel their growth.
As a stranger in a strange land I was wary of commenting directly on the situation, yet I sensed that this was the story for the moment and so I told it. The audience were delighted and by the final moments of the story the tension was almost unbearable!
That evening and the following day I talked to many students and teachers about the story and storytelling. Wonderfully, I am now in correspondence with a number of the students who have decided to become storytellers themselves. I was reminded that in the end we are only servants of the stories; they know where they want to go and it’s our job to get them there.
I left Turkey deeply grateful for the chance to have inspired the people I met and inspired in turn by their generosity, their kindness and above all by their sense that it is up to them, as individuals and a people, to determine their own future. The seed of a story has been planted and I hope the flowering will come on the day when we welcome some of these budding storytellers on stage at the Netherbow Theatre.
Life is good at Among the Wild Deer HQ! After a busy John Muir-focussed spring I’ve had the chance to enjoy some time off. I’ve been running on the beach, walking in the woods, lying in the garden and sleeping under the stars night after night.
The BBC’s wonderful ‘Islands on the Edge’ series beckoned me away again, though, so under a blue sky I set off a few weeks ago for a weekend camp on the island of Jura. Reckoned to be a Norse name for ‘Deer Island’, Jura is home to 200 people and 6000 deer and the north of the island is apparently the least populated place in Europe. Nothing not to like, then. A herd of deer waited on the tarmac at the ferry port and many more accompanied me on my way to the foot of the paps, Jura’s highest mountains, where I made my camp. I slept beneath the night sky while all around the stags roared.
I was woken by torrential rain that continued for two days. It didn’t matter. The Hebrides are beautiful in every weather and to be able to visit such a place is a blessing. I moved my camp higher, spending the next day and night at a lochan between two of the paps, cloud rushing through my tarp.
To spend this length of time alone and unmoving in a wild place is very different to passing through as a walker. The rhythms of earth and sky and the sharp notes of sunlight bursting through the clouds find their way into you. So it was that I came away inspired and the results will soon be ready to share.
Wild Land, Wild Lives will be my first solo public storytelling show in a good long while. It’ll also be my first one in the Reconnect to Self yurt, a beautiful and lovingly tended Mongolian yurt with a magical atmosphere that’s as potent as a goblin wizard’s tea. Halls and chairs are all very well but I like nothing better than for an audience to lie down under blankets, close their eyes and dream the story together, while the fire burns and the trees outside sneak closer to have a listen.
The stories on the night will comprise a journey through time in the Hebrides and on the wild west coast, from their very beginnings to the present day and perhaps beyond. I will be telling a mixture of traditional, original and re-imagined stories designed to take us through the veil of dreaming and into the myth world that, on these islands, is so close you can feel its breath on the wind.
We set sail at 8pm on Saturday 13th July. There aren’t many tickets available so get yours now by calling or texting me on 07540405125 or emailing me using the contact form. A second night is on the cards so keep an eye out for further details.
The Yurt, Knowes Farm Shop, Near East Linton EH42 1XJ
I’m off to Turkey to present the art of storytelling to an EU writing seminar on Tuesday, back on Saturday, straight off the plane to tell stories at a birthday party then straight onto a night bus, en route to Sussex for a week in the woods.
See you on the other side…
For those who don’t know, I’m very happy to report that the 21st of April 2013 will be Scotland’s very first John Muir day, marking the 175th anniversary of his birth.
I’m not going to try to sum up John Muir’s life here, but suffice to say that he was one of the greatest scotsmen and greatest environmentalists who ever lived. He was instrumental in creating the National Parks system that protects wild land all over the world today. America’s Yosemite Valley was his spiritual home, where he would set off into the wilderness for weeks on end with nothing more than a loaf of bread in one pocket and a notebook in the other. Nature sang to him, coursed through him and fed him, as is evident from these words:
‘Every tree was excited, bowing to the roaring storm, waving, swirling, tossing their branches in glorious enthusiasm like worship. But though to outer ears these trees are now silent, their songs never cease.’
‘The grand show is eternal. It is always sunrise somewhere; the dew is never dried all at once; a shower is forever falling; vapour is ever rising. Eternal sunrise, eternal dawn and gloaming, on seas and continents and islands, as the round earth rolls.’
‘The clearest way into the universe is through a forest wilderness.’
Come the day there will be celebrations all over the country, so have a look and see if anything is happening in your area. Alternatively you could head for the wilds yourself. Forestry Commission Scotland are offering free parking on the day so you can explore John Muir’s legacy in places like the Cairngorms and Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Parks. I will be telling a selection of John Muir’s finest stories at the celebration in Dunbar Community Woodland – details coming soon.
Some pictures from a recent adventure:
Today’s post is an article I was recently asked to write for the Therapeutic Storytelling section of the All Things Healing website. I’ve come to the end of a whirlwind of wonderful school shows and am enjoying the brief lull of the Easter Holidays before the summer term and then the summer festivals.
Here’s the article…
I recently made a trip to Dubai on the Arabian Peninsula to tell stories at a festival. Telling stories to any group of people always feels like a privilege to me; to be entrusted to guide people’s imaginations through darkness and danger, laughter and light. But this felt special in a different way.
Everybody’s story is different; we all walk in different worlds. I know that, but it was just so plain there that you couldn’t ignore it. In one audience there would be European and Australian expats; Emirate businessmen and their burka-clad wives; Lebanese children, their Filipino nannies and Indian and African security guards. Nothing made me so happy as when the latter came to see me on their breaks after word got round that I told a lot of Indian and African stories! It got me thinking—what is so special about this? Why do I love storytelling so much?
I love the way storytelling creates a community; even if it’s for one night, one hour, one story. Everybody gathered together beneath the skyscrapers listening to those stories forgot their differences for a little while; we sat with Sedna on her miserable perch together. We picked up the feather of the firebird together. It’s a kind of ceremony, and one that reenacts life itself. All on our separate journeys, darkness behind us and darkness ahead, we share a fire and share stories before going our separate ways, blessed to have met.
I love the connection stories give us to the ancient world. I love everything to do with the ancient world, to be fair, but stories are different. An old story told well is like an australopithecus skeleton that from time to time comes alive and goes wandering around the museum, spear in hand, telling passers-by about how things were in his day. Stories live. Stories breathe. They are a kind of life-form, obscure in origin, evolving and adapting to times and climes over thousands of years as they make their way across the globe. A story told at a fire one night might leave that fire in fifty different forms, to be carried to every edge of a continent and beyond.
Stories are deeply mysterious. To me, that’s a good thing. There’s an assumption in the world today that we have explored it all, seen everything worth seeing, with only perhaps some bugs and butterflies remaining in the Amazon to be discovered and filed away. That’s very far from being true, but that’s a different topic. The point is, a healthy psychic reality is one where the edge of the world is unknown; where no-one knows what kingdoms exist above the clouds; where serpent-kings probably do hold court in jewel-studded halls beneath the earth. Just as we relish the sublime messages we receive in the form of dreams from the unknowable depths of our subconscious world, so can we give thanks for the stories the earth and her ancient peoples have left for us. I know I will never get to the bottom of the stories that I love; and for that I am infinitely grateful. Because of that, I know I’ll remain in love.