This year’s Scottish International Storytelling Festival saw dozens upon hundreds of shows, events, and workshops occur across Edinburgh – with over one hundred of these free across the city. A wealth of theatrical and performance-orientated events took place at the Scottish Storytelling Centre, a hub for diverse creativity to flourish and nurture its emerging ideas.
Join us by the hearth, as we Have a Gander at two of the Scottish International Storytelling Festival’s highlight performances over the course of their spectacular programme. One which encouraged miscellany, and emerging talents and promoted financial accessibility. A monumental success for all involved, and a significant reminder to the people of Scotland, and the world, at the value of shared and inter-weaved stories.
This time – we move up into the sweeping shores and highlands of Scotland, where the Nordic influences are at their strongest in these lands so akin to the sea and winds. Focusing more on the mythos we share, but have perhaps forgotten, these are some of Scotland’s oldest and most influential tales of Warrior Queens, Norse deities, and outcast daughters.
The Story of Auslag: A Saga from Unst
There is a remarkable art to storytelling, one which requires a conviction and firm grasp of language and timing. So, is it any wonder that in unearthing a 9th-century epic, comedian and storytelling Marjolein Robertson provides such a nuanced and authentic recital for Edinburgh audiences?
The Story of Auslag (Aslaug for our Norwegian readers) is no mere fable of Barthian narrative structure; this is a rather complex and intimate tale entwining two landmasses in their shared history and culture. A saga of family, character, and struggle for supremacy over the northmost (inhabited) isles of Scotland, Unst. And what a wonder Robertson makes of it all, without diluting an ounce of integrity to the story, and indeed their own distinctive brand of delivery.
Quickly, the Shetland storytelling sets a pace for the recitation – offering a timely sense of purpose as Robertson imbues the remarkably intimate story with a sense of purpose, a sense of mortality. An important aspect is given the initially downtrodden nature of Auslag’s story, Jarl’s cherished daughter, forced into exile after the family’s fortune falters. There is an undeniable connection Robertson shares with the tale, one which she expresses through an untethered sense of appreciative joy and savours. There is no rushing Auslag’s story. Every ounce of adventure, joy, and yes, despair, is performed with the authority and care of a communed performer with the history and weight of what they speak.
The world Robertson manifests is an old one. A missing one, and a world of forgotten tales. For just one hour it feels as though some pages of lost chapters reveal themselves once more. Embodying a variety of characters – from ferocious Vikings to land-settling Nordics, to the Trows of Shetland lore and more, Robertson brings a dramatic presence, but not one which detracts or distracts from the momentum of storytelling. Their ability to forge a connection with the audience raises the curtain between the past and present, in a way only masterful storytellers can do.
And what a world to live in. On the crashing shores, with a bitter, yet comforting salt-laden air caressing the face. And as the grimness of the story takes hold, and the fate of enemies is presented to the eager crowds, the sympathy and sincerity in Robertson’s voice echo through Auslag’s story – a collective experience on these clifftops, from a storytelling, better equipped than most to act as a guardian of the tale – not to hide or avariciously consume, but to share and respect.
Sgiath: Warrior Queen of Skye
To mark the conclusion of this year’s Scottish International Storytelling Festival, where better to find ourselves than within the company of one of the nation’s oldest, and most revered pieces of traditional telling; with a refreshed telling of Sgiath: Warrior Queen of Skye. Shrouded in equally as much folklore, history, and landscape as the country itself – Sgiath’s tale is an embodiment of the nation’s alternative path of Herstory, forged in the bedrock of storytelling and myth.
Adorning the Scottish Storytelling Centre’s Netherbow stage is a cacophony of intricate and historical instrumentals to salivate audiences’ expectations of the methodology of storytelling they are about to receive. And on this Samhain, musician John Kenny takes a hold of their magnificent, boar-mounted Carnyx, to ring in and invite the Old into the present for one night only – to imbue this tale with a charge of the ancient, of the lost.
A medley of evocative sounds provides the backdrop for Marion Kenny’s more traditional storytelling methods – as they regale audiences with a less-obvious take on Sgiath’s story, but of course, beginning where all good tales of Scotland do; with a storm. Long ago in ancient Skye, the birth of a Queen is heralded amidst a hurricane. A storm which would bequeath its ferocity to the young Queen, Sgiath. Kenny’s take on the tale follows a different path than others who focus entirely on the upbringing and legacy of the Warrior Queen.
Sgiath, though the titular role, is not told from her perspective – but that of her star pupil, a determined young man of crimson and gold who would rise to challenge her greatest foe and claim a victory and aid in bringing peace to the land. It makes for a more mysterious dynamic, as the titular Queen is shrouded in somewhat of a mystery, enabling Kenny’s soundscape to play with the narrative with the various instruments at hand. Swirling shields and misty mountains are all conjured by a series of percussive and brass instruments.
Magic and myth interweave with history in this epic tale of ancient storytelling, which offers a brief and inspirational take on women in Scottish history but is not forced through the obvious perspectives of false empowerment – retaining prestige and power over the men in their story.
Saut an Bluid: A Scotsaga
Now, if one had imagined that the Director of both the Festival and the accompanying Scottish Storytelling Centre was one to rest upon their laurels behind a desk – you’ve evidently never been sat at the Haggis Hut to see the blur of tasteful plaid whizzing to catch the latest piece, or in this case, perform for an eager audience.
And not merely overseeing the operations, Donald Smith locates a sliver of time to launch two new pieces of writing – Storm and Shore, and Saut an Bluid; extracts of which are the topic of today’s recitations.
In the world of fable and storytelling – three has a special place. And so, Smith adopts this doctrine once again as Saut an Bluid as audiences are led through the cold stone steps of a castle, the warmth, though no less mystery of Pittenweem, and into a more familiar den of a local tavern. Each recitation, sometimes multiple per locale, is given a sense of character from Smith, though they all fed into the foundation of the mysterious Skald, Norseman, and storyteller.
Tone varies as audiences traverse the multiple tales; initially told with a more sombre affair from the vantage of the present, a contemporary historian reflecting to the legacy of Skald’s exploits. Smith takes a relish in moving between the characters, particularly when playing Skald themselves as they hunt for an elusive coin as add additional records to the cloistered compendium. Smith has an authentic sense of command behind the spoken word, reassuring any unfamiliar with his performance techniques, and a proud understanding of the backdrop and history of the words he speaks.
In this year of Scotland’s Year of Stories – it is fitting to find parts of the tale delivered within a make-shift tavern of sorts, our final locale. Reminding audiences to stretch a welcome hand across the seas, both to raise a musing to the Norse gods with a welcoming Sláinte mhath, and to toast a skål to their Scandinavian kinsmen.