The night was dark and the wind whistled around, screaming like a banshee as it forced an icy draft through every crack and crevice in the stonework of the small thatch clad house… This is the home of the storyteller.
Stories can evoke memories of childhood, of times past, and bring together people who have a sense of shared experience.
Have you ever become lost in the pages of a book and the threads of a story? I love this escape from the world. I need and crave it in equal measures, and lately I’ve been finding myself lost in old Shetland folk stories, enchanted by their magic, dipping in and out of their pages and wondering at their meanings. I keep returning to them and thinking about the storytellers behind the lore, the folk tales they tell us and the place of the storyteller in society today. It’s sad to think that so many of these stories - the very fabric of our society, the cloth that we are cut from - risk being lost to history forever. Should we grieve that the seasonal patterns of life that went hand-in-hand with the storyteller are under threat in our modern world. In a culture where everything is found at the click of a mouse, are we more disengaged than ever?
Locking people into their magic for millennia, folk tales were at one time an integral part of the lives of our ancestors here in Shetland (and beyond), passed down through generations from one-to-another, woven into the very heart of our culture with family lore, love and legend. It was cosy and intimate, warm and reassuring. It involved the meeting of eyes and the exchange of words. It was not an email trail, or a flurry of messages, likes and emojis on social media. It was real. It was tangible.
Shetland, as anyone who has been here between November and January will appreciate, endures a very long dark winter. In its slow and wintery depths, the sun will merely lift its head above the horizon, nod an acknowledgement - a reminder that it’s still here, still present - before sinking once more below the horizon, plunging the islands into a shadowy darkness. And it’s in this shadowy darkness that the tales of time are spun, stories webbed and mapped out as the storyteller nestles into his easy chair for the evening.
Hands at work, making horse hair fishing lines.
Winter here was characterised by hard work, but a different kind to that of summer, it was a time of preparation, of planning and making ready for the coming year. Of hope and anticipation, of waiting on weather and light. Yet, it was a sociable time, the bitter cold and incessant wind was softened, the sharp edges dulled by time spent in the company of friends and neighbours. So, as the fishing lines were made, the yarn spun, and the kishies formed, people chatted, whiling away the long dark hours in the company of friends.
And as legs tired, and the lamp dimmed, stories - the telling of a good yarn - was invariably the end result of these friendly nocturnal gatherings. It’s not surprising that many a good storyteller has come out of Shetland, equipped with tales able to challenge even the most highly acclaimed Booker prize winner. Stories which have been passed down through the generations and told around a glowing peat fire.
Lawrence Tulloch, one of Shetland’s most loved storytellers, wrote that “good stories did not have to be epic folk tales, it might be no more than someone telling of a trip to the shop.” But it was the way in which they could tell a story, spin-a-yarn and captivate the imagination of the audience, no matter how insignificant the event or topic might be.
I’m no storyteller. I’m happy writing, but I’m not sure I can tell a story, weave magic and drama, mystery and suspense, the way a storyteller might. My stories lack the drama, the mystery and the suspense that a storyteller might evoke. So, in this digital age, what and who are the new storytellers? Are they bloggers, social media users or writers, or are we on a path to losing this part of our heritage altogether?
When I began writing this (a while ago…) I was stuck on the freight boat (of all places!) outside Aberdeen thinking about this blog. I began talking to one of the other passengers, a lady, who told me she had been in Shetland researching storytelling. I turned my laptop around to show her what I was writing ‘What’s in a Story’.
Through the window. Shetland Crofthouse Museum.
And in that serendipitous moment, against the humming drone of the crippled engine, and under a fractured mackerel sky I realised that actually, as long as we still love a good story, as long as we still enjoy getting lost in the magic of the unreal – there will always be a place for the storyteller in whatever form that may take.
For anyone who would like to find out more about our storytellers, there are a few whose books and work I can recommend:
Lawrence Tulloch from Yell
Andrew Williamson from Mid Yell
Jessie M Saxby, originally from Unst
Jeemsie Laurenson from Fetlar
And for general folklore information and inspiration:
James R, Nicolson’s Shetland Folklore
John Spence’s Shetland Folklore
Ernest Marwick’s The Folklore of Orkney & Shetland
Hello, and welcome to my blog. I hope that you find what you're looking for, whether you are planning that perfect holiday or maybe you're from Shetland and looking for some inspiration. Hopefully, there is something here for everyone.