The small auditorium is so quiet you could hear a pin drop. All attention is focused on the two storytellers seated on wooden chairs in the middle of a stage suffused with warm yellow light. One has a small harp at her side. For a moment I feel like I am looking at the storytellers from around a village fire, eagerly awaiting the next enthralling tale.
Well, a tale or two is what I am here for. The ancient art of storytelling and folklore is very much alive at the Scottish Storytelling Centre, which is hosting the 28th run of the Scottish International Storytelling Festival. The event sees Scottish storytellers unite with yarn-spinners from around the world, exchanging tales and sharing them with willing listeners.
World of the Bear explores the central role of a powerful creature – the bear – in different cultures, and tells of how it came to be placed in the sky as the constellation Ursa Major. Linda Williamson, a storyteller of the Scottish Traveller tradition, brings us to ancient Greece and Nova Scotia with legends about the Ursa constellations. Using only her dramatic voice and gestures, she shapeshifts into Callisto, Artemis and Zeus, before telling an amusing tale of how the hungry chickadee chased the Celestial Bear across the skies.
Mio Shapley, an accomplished harpist and experienced storyteller, matches Williamson story for story with tales from her faraway homeland of Japan. Soft strains of the harp play as she tells of the Ainu in Hokkaido, who welcome bears as gods visiting the human realm in disguise.
Williamson and Shapley could probably go on trading stories until morning, but sadly time runs out all too fast. The fluorescent lights flick back on as my fellow listeners and I blink at each other, disoriented.
A good story told well makes listeners momentarily forget their own reality. Walking home, I half-expected stray bears and goddesses to go rushing down the Royal Mile. It’s definitely been an entertaining evening! My only gripe is that having just four stories leaves one feeling somehow unsatisfied. Or perhaps I’m just being greedy? Fortunately the festival lasts till the end of the month – and there are plenty more tales waiting to be told!
World of the Bear
The Scottish International Storytelling Festival runs until 31 October
Photo credit: Mio Shapley