The Scottish Storytelling Centre is, in its own words, ‘a vibrant arts venue with a seasonal programme of live storytelling, theatre, music, exhibitions, workshops, family events, and festivals’. Open all year round, it hosts TradFest, a traditional arts festival in the spring, and the Scottish International Storytelling Festival in October. Predictably, in August it becomes a Fringe venue. Broadway Baby’s Richard Beck explains why the Centre is so important.
Tradition, then, is a story, learned from the past, told in the present, but looking to the future
Before discovering what goes on there it is worth noting its location, as the site itself is of considerable interest. Beside the medieval city gate, Netherbow Port, The Scottish Arts Council proudly proclaims the building to be 'the first in the world designed for storytelling'. Below is the Netherbow Theatre and in what might be regarded as a transition zone from the main room and cafe, the interactive Storywall, listening area, reception and bookshop lead into the famous John Knox House, allegedly the last home of the great Protestant Reformer. The building’s website points out that to visit is not just to see another historic building but that ‘here you can walk in the footsteps of its famous inhabitants and hear the drama unfold in every room. Look out for the tricks and traps to fool intruders; hunt for the devil hiding in The Oak Room ceiling and try your hand at our portrait puzzles that have stumped many visitors in the past’.
It is the wide range of events that brings the Centre to life, especially during the Fringe. In 2014, and again this year, I attended Cafe Voices. This is a monthly occurrence with an extra evening in August. Each night’s guest host heralds the session with a story or two before the evening is opened to the floor. Especially at this time of year, people of all ages and many nationalities are likely to be in attendance, with well-rehearsed tales from far and wide. Of my first visit I wrote that we heard ‘traditional stories and legends from long ago filled with mythical creatures, [...] a lady from the US, another telling a tale she had previously only ever recited in German, two young lads in full tartan and a resounding finale from two newly-landed Aussies, minus luggage, who gave a hilarious poetic performance from their free Fringe show What Rhymes with Kangaroo?’ This year Diane Edgecomb told remarkable stories and tales of adventure which form part of her show A Thousand Doorways, created out of her time with the Kurds in Turkey. Inevitably, no two evenings are ever the same, but a constant is the warm, hospitable welcome to a relaxed and uninhibited environment that is extended to everyone.
Cafe Voices is just one event among many. Daniel Abercrombie, Programme & Events Manager, puts it in context: ‘Throughout the programme there is a sense of community, friendship and fun. There is language and love, Shakespeare and Burns, African mythology and Indian reflections. There is Gaelic culture and Falkirk culture, questions of mortality and self-discovery, strong female narratives and poetry of the heart. There is human interaction here. The story is told eye to eye, mind to mind and heart to heart’.
Be they fact or fiction, stories have the power to enchant, inspire and thrill, but like a joke, if not told properly, their impact can be lost and the art of telling, if not practised, can wither away. This is why the Centre is such an important national treasure. Safeguarding this heritage, Traditional Arts and Culture Scotland (TRACS) was formed in 2012 as a collaborative body that brings together and represents traditional music, storytelling and dance.
So how is ‘tradition’ understood in this context? Gary West, Chair of TRACS, draws on the ideas of Hamish Henderson, an intellectual often referred to as the greatest Scottish poet since Burns. West maintains that ‘tradition is a carrying stream, flowing through time and picking up new ideas on its way. It is not a stagnant pool or a mere moribund memory, but is constantly being reshaped and renewed. It does so because its practitioners listen and respond to that which has gone before, yet enjoy the freedom to move it forward on their own terms. Tradition, then, is a story, learned from the past, told in the present, but looking to the future’.
Three years ago storytelling as an art form was something I knew very little about. Thanks to the Centre I am now better informed and have enjoyed listening to delightful tales and meeting fascinating people. For visitors, it provides the opportunity to indulge momentarily in the rare art form that it highlights. For locals it is a year-round source of entertainment that preserves and promotes the very heart of cultures.
As Sue Monk Kidd said, ‘Stories have to be told or they die, and when they die we can't remember who we are or why we're here’. So if ever you are feeling lost in life, make your way to the Scottish Storytelling Centre where you might just discover the stimulus to restore your memory and give fresh meaning to your existence.