Setting the storytelling scene

The Orkney Storytelling Festival will return this month with live events for the first time since 2019.

“It is wonderful, if a bit scary, to be in front of a live audience once more,” confesses Tom Muir as he considers the prospect of taking to the stage for the 2021 Orkney Storytelling Festival, which makes a welcome return this year as an actual physical event.

“While online events are a great way of keeping people connected, you can't beat the buzz of a real audience,” continues Tom, who is chair of the Orcadian Story Trust. “A good storyteller sparks off the audience and it brings it all to life. It can be difficult to get that same connection from a computer screen.”

Anyone who’s endured online work meetings or presentations over the past couple of years will understand where storyteller Tom is coming from. His is a craft fuelled by the energy emitted by a room packed with folk invested in a fine traditional tale, well told.

Tom Muir, chair of the Orcadian Story Trust

There’ll certainly be plenty of those on offer at this year’s festival, with a rich and diverse programme that’s sure to delight story starved audiences. It all gets underway on 28 October and runs for four days.

“We have three guest storytellers coming to Orkney, two of whom would have been here last year if circumstances had allowed,” says Tom. “Anne Hunter is a wonderful storyteller who lives in Edinburgh, but is originally from Lancashire, and she tells Scottish, English and international folk tales.

“Mio Shudo also lives in Edinburgh but comes from a long line of storytellers from the Alps of Japan. She tells traditional Japanese stories and is also a master of the tea ceremony.

“Last, but by no means least, we have Ailsa Dixon, an 18-year-old storyteller who is wowing audiences with her stories from around the world, as well as her native Aberdeenshire and her father's native Orkney.”

For Tom, Ailsa’s appearance at the festival will be particularly significant as he’s been mentoring the teenager for a few months. And, as a serendipitous bonus, Ailsa just happens to be the great grandniece of the late Orkney poet and author, George Mackay Brown – affectionately known as GMB - whose birth centenary is being celebrated this year.

“If it wasn't for Covid 19, I wouldn’t have heard of Ailsa,” explains Tom. “It all came about when the storyteller Cath Edwards invited me to tell stories online for the Lichfield Storytellers last June. At the end of the session there was an opportunity for people to say hello. A bubbly young woman appeared on screen and introduced herself as ‘the token young person’, which made me laugh. She said that her father had come from Stromness and that she was doing the storytelling apprenticeship with the Scottish Storytelling Centre, with a view to being part of the Directory of Scottish Storytellers. I was intrigued.

“For years I had wanted to pass on Orkney's stories to a young storyteller, just to keep them going. Here was someone who seemed perfect. I contacted Cath and asked if she could pass on a message to this young lady and to my delight she jumped at the chance. I found out that her name was Ailsa Dixon and that I knew her grandfather, the late Fraser Dixon, who was a great supporter of our festival. And, of course, she’s the great grandniece of GMB.”

Since that first virtual meeting, Tom has been mentoring Ailsa by telling her stories and sharing his insights about the tales via video link.

“She would work on one and retell it to me the following week,” says Tom. “She has a style all of her own and her storytelling skills are quite amazing for someone so young. She is considered good enough to be appearing on stage as part of a celebration of GMB during this year’s Scottish International Storytelling Festival, who kindly gave her a grant to attend our festival as well. She will delight audiences with traditional folk tales from Orkney and further afield.”

Stromness, Orkney, George Mackay Brown's hometown

Ailsa, who has a lifelong passion for myths, legends and folklore, was selected for the What’s Your Story teen creative development programme in 2018. After graduating from the programme, she became an apprentice storyteller, specialising in Orcadian and Aberdeenshire tales as well as international myths and legends. She’s continuing her apprenticeship and has also started a degree in Scottish Ethnology at Edinburgh University.

“Telling at the Orkney Storytelling Festival will be incredibly exciting,” she says. “My father’s side of the family were all Orcadian, and my grandfather used to love the storytelling festival, so I am particularly excited to go back to my roots and strengthen that family connection to the islands. As GMB’s great grandniece, telling stories in Orkney to celebrate his centenary feels extra special. More than anything, Orkney stories themselves are such a joy to tell – they are beautifully wild, the creatures and characters that fill them are extraordinary and, most importantly they are heavily rooted in the Orkney landscape itself.”

Other highlights on the storytelling festival programme include Fran Flett Hollinrake's popular graveyard tour of Warbeth Cemetery near Stromness, which is also GMB’s final resting place.

“The tour is a celebration of some of the people buried at Warbeth and, as it is GMB's centenary this year, we felt it only right to go back there,” explains Tom. “Fran will also be joined by festival regular Erin Farley for 'The Magical Literary Tour Goes East' event, a bus tour that covers the writers of the East Mainland. In all, we have events in Dounby, Kirkwall, Westray and Stromness, including a children's craft and story session in Westray, led by Marita Lück and Christine Perry.”

As you’d expect with a live event, every precaution is being taken by organisers to ensure the safety of performers and audiences.

“We’ll be taking information for the 'track and trace' scheme and will ask all audience members to take a covid test before attending an event,” explains Tom. “All storytellers and committee members will be testing themselves daily as well. Hand sanitisers will be provided at all venues and masks will have to be worn, in line with Scottish Government regulations.”

Last year’s festival was all delivered online but given the popularity of that event and its global reach, organisers have decided to film the main events from the 2021 programme.

“Links will be on our website during November,” says Tom. “Folk can make a donation for these events, which will help to create more festivals, but if you find yourself struggling financially, just enjoy the stories with our love. We are not called the small festival with the big heart for nothing!”

Full details of the Orkney Storytelling Festival programme and booking information are available on the festival website. Newsletter

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