Living stream of stories and memories

21st August 2009 at 01:00
Storytelling is not just a way to get toddlers off to sleep, it can also help adults when applying for a job or pitching an idea for business

Here's your starter for 10. Where was the Declaration of Arbroath drawn up? Yes, it was signed at Arbroath, but it was actually drafted at Newbattle Abbey in Midlothian.

Newbattle has long played a pivotal, if little known, role in Scottish history. It was the medieval monks who first mined coal in Scotland and who established the country's salt economy on the Firth of Forth at Prestonpans. Now, it is the site of Scotland's only adult education residential college, and its associations with history, its chapel and crypt, its Italian Garden and ancient native woodlands make it the perfect setting for a Storytelling Festival.

On August 29, Newbattle Abbey College will host its first one-day Storytelling Festival. Open to all, the event will function as a taster for its Contemporary Storytelling Course, the first SQA-validated storytelling qualification which the college established in conjunction with the Scottish Storytelling Centre last year.

The 25 students who completed last year's course included FE lecturers, librarians, care sector workers, business people, church group leaders, tourist guides, professional storytellers, primary teachers and nursery nurses. "The broad range of participants reflects the vitality and the versatility of storytelling," says Rae McGhee, festival and course organiser and Newbattle's heritage development officer.

"The discipline involved and the skills learned enhance communication. If you're doing a presentation, a job interview or pitching for business, you need to have your story right and to make it count," she says. "The skills help in any lecturing or teaching situation. They help if you're working with a reminiscence group of elderly people or with young children or with people with additional needs. They're good for creative writing and for boosting confidence in any public arena."

Donald Smith, director of the Scottish Storytelling Centre in Edinburgh, will hold a "Storywalk" around the Newbattle grounds, uncovering connections with cave hermits, with a mass grave of Scottish soldiers, with the Spanish Armada, with the marriage of Margaret Tudor and James IV, and with the "Rough Wooing" of Henry VIII when the Abbey was sacked.

Alette Willis, a graduate of last year's course, will offer "An Audience with Mary, Queen of Scots", exploring her many connections with Newbattle, including the baptismal font used at her christening at Linlithgow Palace. It is now housed in the old Abbey chapel.

Newbattle is associated not only with stories but also with storytellers and Catrina McGillivary will recount the college's connections with writers, poets and dramatists like Edwin Muir, George Mackay Brown, WS Graham, Tom Scott and Bill Findlay. And along with an evening storytelling ceilidh, in which anyone can participate or just listen, there will be An Introduction to Live Storytelling and Skills by renowned storyteller Bea Ferguson.

"We are a nation of storytellers," says Ms McGhee. "The success of the Homecoming, which drew thousands back to Scotland from all over the world, is proof that stories and memories which the emigrants passed on to their descendants is a living stream which still affects us."


This session's residential Storytelling Course (SCQF Level 7) starts on September 25-27, with a second residential weekend May 14-16, 2010. Areas covered include effective oral presentation, story sourcing and analysing the purposes of oral storytelling in different professions.

Lea Taylor, a community learning worker and a student on last year's course, has no doubts as to its benefits. "It was of immense help on a variety of levels," he says. "It made me passionate about storytelling and I use many of the skills every day. It was inspiring."

Donald Smith, director of the Scottish Storytelling Centre in Edinburgh, is equally adamant. "The students gain the confidence to be creative and learn how the art of storytelling can make a difference in many areas of society today," he says.

"Scotland has a rich, ancient tradition of oral storytelling and many professions are using aspects of it."

The Edinburgh centre offers opportunities for education professionals. Day schools next year include Scottish Culture and Scottish Learning; Storytelling and Emotional Literacy; Storytelling for Language Learning and Development; and Storytelling and Mental Health. There are monthly storytelling events for "wee ones" (six months to three years) in the autumn and regular adult sessions through the centre's Guid Crack Club.

Newbattle Abbey College hopes to make the one-day festival an annual event. Places are available for New-battle Storytelling Course and Scottish Storytelling Centre's day schools.

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