This evening I took a break from today’s iPhone-connected monoculture in order to listen in rapture to traditional Scottish tales at the Scottish Storytelling Centre’s monthly Café Voices event. The chosen theme is ‘Tales of Mystery, Magic, Mischief, and Mayhem’.
The Scottish Storytelling Centre is part of TRACS (Traditional Arts and Culture Scotland), which draws upon and nurtures the traditional elements of Scottish culture. Tonight’s venue is in Edinburgh Old Town, with its appropriate backdrop of ancient streets and buildings. The contrasting modern setting for tonight’s performances comes as a complete surprise. Instead of the rustic theatre setting I had envisioned, I entered the room to find people sitting at tables, chatting away in a bright open-plan café, surrounded by cabinets filled with historical Scottish artefacts and documents.
The expectant hum of people increases as the time for recitals arrives. Our compere begins explaining how, by coming together to make our own entertainment, we are honouring the ancient Scottish tradition of the Ceilidh. Historically, such a gathering would be in the homes of friends and family members, so eager to hear new tales that wayfarers would be offered a bed for the night in exchange for an interesting story from distant lands.
Tonight’s storytellers are similarly drawn from our own gathering. The performers are members of the audience who take it in turn to come up front and sit on the large, wooden storyteller’s chair carved with a beautiful Celtic design. There is such an interesting mixture of passers-by from all over the world, and each story told was as unique as the individual who told it. Some use instruments, such as the harmonica, in order to create an intriguing atmosphere and break up the chapters. Others use props such as fairy dust, bubbles, and even magic tricks, which provides great entertainment for both adults and children alike.
The narrators’ clear, dramatic delivery and descriptions bring to life the events and characters in the stories. As expected in an immersive theatre event, audience participation is positively encouraged and provides great amusement for all. One particular story that stands out is a rendition of The Princess and the Frog told by Jack Martin. He enlivened the audience by getting them to boo and cheer at certain times as one would in a pantomime. He also performed a particularly impressive magic trick, by blowing a bubble which promptly materialised into a crystal ball.
Unlike impersonal screen-based entertainment, the live and almost incantatory delivery of the stories enables the listener to see the scenes depicted even more vividly. The stark surroundings of the venue must surely be deliberate – to create a space where visual stimuli cannot interfere with the magical effect of stories delivered in the oral tradition of Scottish storytelling.
Ultimately, listening to these storytellers is a truly magical experience. You’ll leave feeling extremely moved, with many doubts about today’s society floating around your head. Café Voices is truly about stories bringing people together, and the Scottish Storytelling Centre allows us to do just that – whether from Scotland or elsewhere – through our shared love of storytelling in a convivial shared space.
Image: Lindsay Corr