The death of Orkney storytelling was greatly exaggerated

Orkneyology.com illustration used by kind permission of Stromness artist, Bryce Wilson. From The Mermaid Bride, by Orcadian storyteller, Tom Muir. Copyright Bryce Wilson

“So, how did you become a storyteller?”

“By accident.”


That's how this conversation always starts. People assume I'm a storyteller because that's what I wanted to be.

The truth is, I ended up as a storyteller because I couldn’t not be one.

This is the story of how we saved our stories.

Beloved Edinburgh storyteller David Campbell charms the audience at the Orkney Storytelling Festival, Orkney Islands, Scotland.


It all started with an old Orkney folklorist ...

1994 was the centenary of the death of the folklorist Walter Traill Dennison from the island of Sanday, who did so much to preserve Orkney’s folk tales.

At the time, my boss at the Orkney Museum was the Orcadian historian, author and artist Bryce Wilson, whose artwork you're enjoying on this website.

Knowing my love of the old tales, Bryce asked me to write an exhibition about Dennison and the folklore. 

Photo of Walter Traill Dennison, Orkney folklorist from the Orkney island of Sanday who collected folk tales from Orcadians.

Skip down the page to find out how to attend the Orkney Storytelling Festival

I was horrified! Me? Write an exhibition? I was dyslexic, with no education worth speaking of and found writing extremely difficult. In fact, I avoided writing – didn't even write shopping lists.

But Bryce believed I could do it.

I took his challenge and studied deeply. In the end, I researched, wrote and designed the exhibition, also working with Bryce and Howie Firth of the Orkney Press to republish Dennison’s folklore work.

Orkney Folklore & Sea Legends by Walter Traill Dennison was published in 1995, making some of Orkney’s folk tales available once again.

Orkneyology.com - Orkney folklore illustration used by kind permission of Stromness artist, Bryce Wilson. Copyright Bryce Wilson

 If you want to try to locate this wonderful but out-of-print book and others inspired by traditional Orkney storytelling, see the bottom of this page for our suggestions.


Creative collaborations

I had dragged Bryce out of retirement as an artist to illustrate the Dennison book and the exhibition. The creative bug must have bitten him, because then he wanted to do some more artwork.

But he needed a project to work on.

“I’ve always hoped that someone would make a book of Orkney folk tales," I said. "Since no one else seems to be interested, why don’t I give it a go? We could work on it together.”

Bryce agreed, and so we began.

Orkney storyteller Tom Muir's book of Orkney folk tales - The Mermaid Bride. Illustrated by his friend, Stromness artist Bryce Wilson.

We encouraged each other in our work, and the result was The Mermaid Bride and other Orkney Folk Tales.

The following year, 1999, we made a booklet of tales from my mother’s native island of Westray. 

The Storm Witch, and other Westray Stories was a fundraiser for the Westray Heritage Centre.

This wee book can still be purchased at the centre, with all proceeds going to their important heritage work.

Old anchors in Pierowall on the Orkney island of Westray, Orkney, Scotland.


An unwitting storyteller

In 1996 BBC Radio Orkney asked me to host a show called Trowie Tales. I was to dig into their archive recordings, reel-to-reel interviews with old folks, recorded between the 1960s and ‘80s. I suppose this helped my reputation as being a storyteller of sorts.

At about that time, I was also asked to do a series of illustrated talks on Orkney folklore by Aberdeen University, who were running winter events around the islands of Orkney.

Storyteller Tom Muir tells stories at a harvest home gathering in Orkney. Tom is currently the only living native Orcadian traditional storyteller.

I gave a brief description of the supernatural creature from Orkney's folklore for this talk and then told a story to illustrate it, using Bryce’s artwork on a slide projector.

I didn't know that what I was doing was "storytelling." But after that I kept getting asked to come along to tell stories at events. 


Orkneyology.com - Orkney folklore illustration of a finman, used by kind permission of Stromness artist, Bryce Wilson. Copyright Bryce Wilson


Yin owld dirt?

As I became more deeply involved with old Orkney lore, I was surprised to come across deeply-held prejudices in some older Orcadians. Sadly, they'd been brought up to consider the old tales worthless - just old fashioned superstition.

“Why are ye botherin’ wae yin owld dirt?” one asked.

“Because I like yin owld dirt!” I replied.

Following one talk I gave to a senior citizen group, an old woman in the front row declared in a loud voice, “If yin’s the best they can come up wae, I’ll no be comin’ back!”

It seemed that Orkney’s folklore was despised by some of its own people. 

Orkneyology.com - Orkney folklore illustration of a hogboon, used by kind permission of Stromness artist, Bryce Wilson. Copyright Bryce Wilson

A fortuitous visit

One October day in 2000 there was a knock at the exhibition room door where Bryce and I were setting up a new show.

I was up a stepladder hanging a picture when a strange woman came in and asked for Tom Muir.

She introduced herself as Sheila Faichney from Visit Orkney. Sheila wanted to hold a storytelling festival, to extend the tourist season into the dark winter months.

Would I come along and tell a few stories?

Two of our broonies helping out at the festival: Sheila Faichney, who helped start the Orkney Storytelling Festival, and Meggie Tulloch, wife of Shetland storyteller Lawrence Tulloch.Sheila and Margaret are not drinking all that wine. It's for the raffle - really!

I had been vaguely aware that other people were kicking about telling stories, but had never heard of entire festivals built around stories. 

I happily agreed.

Sheila said there was a professional storyteller from Shetland coming to the festival, too - a man called Lawrence Tulloch.

I was amazed. A professional storyteller?

Lawrence would later say that our meeting passed into legend, like that of Livingston and Stanley.

Scottish storytellers Heather Yule, Tom Muir of the Orkney Islands and Lawrence  Tulloch from Shetland telling traditional Scottish folk tales in Eigeroy, Norway.

If you want a real treat, get yourself a cup of tea, settle in and listen to this BBC Shetland radio programme about Shetland's folklore. There's a bit of Orkney in there, too, as we're sort of cousins.

You'll hear me and a few friends blether about stories. Most importantly, you'll get to hear the late and terribly-missed Lawrence Tulloch, Shetland storyteller and dear friend, do what he did best ... tell stories.


The Great Lawrence Tulloch!

I entered the Still Room of the Stromness Hotel that night, walked to the bar and bought a drink.

I looked around and saw a man sitting at a table with Sheila Faichney and storyteller Marita Luck. I knew it must be him - the great Lawrence Tulloch.

Shetland traditional storyteller, the late Lawrence Tulloch, often-time guest at the Orkney Storytelling Festival with native Orkney storyteller, Tom Muir.

I was nervous about meeting a real storyteller, so I didn't say much.

Lawrence interpreted it differently. To him I seemed aloof and arrogant – “some sort of Orkney intelligentsia." I've since been told that he was less complimentary in private.

But as soon as we started talking, Lawrence and I just clicked.

Scottish traditional storytellers: Lawrence Tulloch native of Shetland and Tom Muir, native of Orkney. Keeping Scotland's stories alive

I told two stories that night. It was the first one - Assipattle and the Stoor Worm - that caught Lawrence’s attention.

On the strength of that story I was invited to Shetland’s first storytelling festival in 2001.

Little did either of us know that we would soon find ourselves traveling the world together, telling stories from Iceland to Slovenia.

Traditional Scottish storytellers, Tom Muir of the Orkney Islands and Lawrence Tulloch of the Shetland Islands. Keeping Scotland's stories alive

So you see, it was my friends who started me off on the road to Orkney storytelling.

Bryce got me started.

Then Sheila and Lawrence opened the door to storytelling festivals all over the world. 

Traditional Scottish storyteller, Tom Muir, native of Orkney, telling stories at the Edinburgh Storytelling Festival. Keeping Scotland's stories alive


The Orcadian Story Trust is born

After that first festival in 2000 a group of us formed the Orcadian Story Trust to continue the work we'd begun.

In 2001 we had a larger festival. It was a great success, but by 2002 we were running out of steam due to job changes among the organisers.

However, we'd received a grant to record stories around Orkney, with bits of folklore and customs thrown in, so we persisted a bit longer and completed this task.

Orkneyology.com - Orkney illustration used by kind permission of Stromness artist, Bryce Wilson. Copyright Bryce Wilson

Our recordings were placed in the Orkney Library & Archive, where I hope to go through them in the near future.


And so for  long time the Orkney Storytelling Festival passed into the shadows .... 


Native Orkney storyteller, Tom Muir spellbinding his Swedish storytelling friend, Jerker Fahlstrom at a storytelling session.


Meanwhile ...

During those festival-free years, I was part of an EU project called 'Destination Viking – Sagalands.'

We looked at using Icelandic Sagas and storytelling to promote tourism within the Nordic countries.

Native Orcadian storyteller Tom Muir, wearing his Viking garb made for him in Storholmen Viking Village, Sweden.

I wrote a couple of books and created an 'Orkneyinga Saga Trail' of interpretation boards for the project. You'll come across these at various sites in Orkney.

I hung out with Vikings a lot in those days.

It's become a lifelong habit. 

Viking storytellers, Tom Muir of Orkney, Hjorleifur Stefansson of Iceland and Jerker Fahlstrom of Sweden - at the Orkney Storytelling FestivalThe Vikings are coming!

Stories, stories everywhere

I made some very dear friends on that project.

To my delight, it led to invitations to tell Orkney's stories in Newfoundland, Greenland, Iceland, Faroes, Norway and Sweden.

Other countries would later be added: Denmark, Ireland and Slovenia. What a great way to see the world!

I once told Orkney stories on a beach in Cheung Chau in Hong Kong with the South China Sea lapping gently behind me ....

But that’s another story. 

Orcadian storyteller Tom Muir in his Viking garb. Tom is the only living traditional native Orcadian storyteller.


Storyteller to the crowned heads of Europe

When I first met Rhonda, I told her that I was storyteller to the crowned heads of Europe.

I might have been trying to impress her.

The funny thing was, it was true. Lawrence and I once told stories to the Lichtenstein royal family in a 13th century Austrian castle.

Happy times. Cheers, Lawrence.

Bothy singer Scott Gardiner and traditional Shetland storyteller Lawrence Tulloch drinking the bride's cog at the celebration of storyteller Tom Muir's marriage in the Orkney Islands.


The Orkney Storytelling Festival rises from the ashes

In 2010, I had another visitor at the museum.

I knew Fran Flett Hollinrake, but not very well. She'd attended a storytelling workshop with my old friend Donald Smith of the Scottish Storytelling Centre.

Part of the workshop was to create a hypothetical event. Fran wanted to plan an Orkney storytelling festival but, we thought, why plan a non-existent festival? Why not actually start one?

Storytellers Clair McNicol and Heather Yule performing at the annual storytelling festival in Sotland's Orkney Islands

I had some good news for Fran. We had a bank account ... and there was still money in it!

We regrouped, reinstating the Orkney Storytelling Festival that same year. We chose the same time of year as before - the last full weekend in October.

Late October is the perfect time for Orkney storytelling, a time for sitting by the fire and spinning yarns, as all of our ancestors once did.

Orkneyology.com - Orkney folklore illustration of Assipattle, used by kind permission of Stromness artist, Bryce Wilson. From the Orkney tale, Assipattle and the Stoorworm. Copyright Bryce Wilson

Below is a wee clip from one of our musical storytelling moments. Icelandic storyteller Hjorleifur Helgi Stefansson joined us for our 2017 Orkney Storytelling Festival.

Hjorleifur charmed us with traditional Icelandic stories that he learned from his grandfather. "Spotted Arse" was my favorite. Look for his upcoming book of Icelandic folk tales.

(Sorry I cut your head off in the film, Hjorleifur.) 

~ Rhonda


The little festival with a big heart

I continued in my old post as Chair for the first year or two before handing the baton to our capable Fran.

I wouldn't escape that easily, however. I was made President-for-Life, which I'm informed I can only get out of by dying.

Fran’s dynamism has driven the Orkney Storytelling Festival forward. It's popularity continues to grow.

Our peedie festival is gaining a reputation as a really good and friendly experience. It truly is the "little festival with a big heart."

Scottish Storyteller Fran Flett Hollinrake poses with festival mascot, Story Hare, at the annual storytelling festival in the Orkney Islands.

Broonies!

The Orkney Storytelling Festival has a dedicated committee and many other helpful broonies. These are just a few of them.

We all work very hard to keep our stories alive and see them safely passed into new hands. 

Some of the story-gang at the October 2018 storytelling festival in Scotland's Orkney Islands.
Broonies helping at the annual storytelling festival in Scotland's Orkney Islands
Broonies who help at storytelling events at the Quoyloo Hall, Orkney Islands, Scotland


To all our broonies: thank you.


Stories in our schools

What I am most delighted about is the way our Orkney storytelling events and republished tales have put our traditional stories back into our schools.

Traditional Orcadian storyteller Tom Muir, native of Scotland's Orkney Islands, telling stories for children

My outreach work at the museum often finds me in schools telling the bairns folk tales and stories from their history, but our stories have gained an international audience, too.

An Orkney story from Mermaid Bride was used in a German school book for learning English. Another story was used in a text book in France.

Orkneyology.com - Orkney folklore illustration of the Caithness Giant who made the islands of Hoy and Graemsay. Used by kind permission of Stromness artist, Bryce Wilson. Copyright Bryce Wilson

Trowie Tales

The Orkney Children's Theatre Club performed a wildly creative play based on Orkney folk tales in 2017. 

The play was dramatised by our friend, the multi-talented Aine King, also a fabulous storyteller. 

Storyteller and artist, Aine King of Highland Park House, Kirkwall, Orkney, telling a Christmas ghost story at The Orkney Brewery.

Find out more about 'Trowie Tales,' Orkney Children's Theatre  and Aine's theatre productions here.

Aine and her husband Antony own and run Highland Park House, a gorgeous and historic B&B in Kirkwall. 

Aine told me that when she asked the bairns what they most enjoyed about making the play, one  child responded that it was great to be using their own stories to retell in their own way.

I could have greeted (wept) for joy. Truth be told, I probably did.

Poster from a children's theater play based on Orkney folklore, and a thank you note from the performers to Orcadian storyteller Tom Muir, who collected the stories for his book, The Mermaid Bride


Stories online

A further promotion of Orkney storytelling came through a project by Education Scotland.

Along with others, I wrote some tales to be used to promote Scottish stories and culture in schools. My friend, the artist Kate Leiper, created some amazing paintings to accompany them.

The Scottish Storytelling Centre was heavily involved in this project. Several storytellers and I gathered in Edinburgh in 2009 to record stories on film and audio for use on the website.

For several years these stories were used throughout Scotland’s schools.

Arthur Rackham illustration of an old storyteller enthralling children with his tales

Until ...

Sadly, Education Scotland inexplicably dismantled the site. But I hope that TRACS (Traditional Arts & Culture Scotland) will host it on their new website in the future.

The stories of all people are a priceless treasure. They should never be carelessly discarded.

Orkneyology.com - Orkney folklore illustration of a selkie maiden, used by kind permission of Stromness artist, Bryce Wilson. Copyright Bryce Wilson

How to attend the Orkney Storytelling Festival

For the latest details on the annual Orkney Storytelling Festival, see our festival website. We welcome storytellers from all over the world, as well as nurturing storytellers in our midst.

Events and storytellers for the current year's festival are usually on the website by August or September ... or as soon as our festival broonies get all the details sorted. 

If you want to plan a trip to Orkney that includes the festival, remember that it always takes place the last full weekend in October.

The weather that time of year is cold and windy. The days are short and the nights are long - perfectly atmospheric for the spinning of a few tales. 

Andrew Hollinrake looks into his crystal ball at a storytelling event in Orkney, Scotland

Just be sure to dress warmly.

And watch out for Story Hare at our storytelling events. He's our mascot, created by storyteller Chris Perry and looked after by his foster-mother, Fran.

Story Hare comes to all our events. You never know what that peedie trickster will be getting up to.

The woolly mascot of Orkney's annual storytelling festival held in the Orkney Islands in October - Story Hare
The woolly mascot of Orkney's annual storytelling festival held in the Orkney Islands in October - Story Hare
The woolly mascot of Orkney's annual storytelling festival held in the Orkney Islands in October - Story Hare
The woolly mascot of Orkney's annual storytelling festival held in the Orkney Islands in October - Story Hare
The woolly mascot of Orkney's annual storytelling festival held in the Orkney Islands in October - Story Hare
The woolly mascot of Orkney's annual storytelling festival held in the Orkney Islands in October - Story Hare
The woolly mascot of Orkney's annual storytelling festival held in the Orkney Islands in October - Story Hare
The woolly mascot of Orkney's annual storytelling festival held in the Orkney Islands in October - Story Hare
The woolly mascot of Orkney's annual storytelling festival held in the Orkney Islands in October - Story Hare
The woolly mascot of Orkney's annual storytelling festival held in the Orkney Islands in October - Story Hare
The woolly mascot of Orkney's annual storytelling festival held in the Orkney Islands in October - Story Hare


The Orkney Storytelling Festival is a wonderful way to celebrate the winter months and remember the stories of our elders.

We'd be so happy if you'd join us.


Storyteller Jerker Fahlstrom of Sweden and Hjorleifur Stefansson of Iceland go a-Viking in Orkney, Scotland, at the annual storytelling festival


We promise not to make you wear funny hats.

See you soon!

Tom Muir's suggested reading list

I guess you could say I'm a fanatic bibliophile. I know there are more like me out there. You know who you are.

This addendum is for you.

The first group of books I'll recommend are available to buy internationally through our local Orcadian Bookshop.

Click on the books if you'd like to purchase them. We'll make a wee bit of income, and you'll get a new book!

The second group are out-of-print or harder to find. I'll give you some tips for hunting these elusive beauties.

Tales of the Viking Lands by native Orkney storyteller and historian Tom Muir
The Mermaid Bride by native Orkney storyteller and historian Tom Muir
Orkney Folk Tales by native Orkney storyteller and historian Tom Muir
George Marwick, Master Storyteller compiled by native Orkney storyteller and historian Tom Muir
Orkney book, Around the Orkney Peat Fire
An Orkney Anthology: Selected Works by George Marwick, volume I
County Folklore of Orkney and Shetland Islands
Orkneyinga Saga, History of the Earls of Orkney
The Hogboon of Hellihowe - a traditional Orkney tale for children by Tom Muir, Orkney storyteller
Assipattle and the Stoor Worm - a traditional Orkney tale told by Orcadian storyteller, Tom Muir

You might have to hunt for these next books. See our book-hunting suggestions after the selections. 

Shetland Folk Tales by beloved Shetland storyteller, Lawrence Tulloch
The Foy and Other Folk Tales by Shetland storyteller Lawrence Tulloch
The Hogboon of Hell and Other Strange Orkney Tales by Nancy and W. Towrie Cutt
Orkney in the Sagas, by Orcadian storyteller and historian Tom Muir
The Ultimate Viking by Eric Linklater
People of the Sea by David Thomson
Orkney Folklore and Traditions by Walter Traill Dennison
Orkney Folklore and Legends by Walter Traill Dennison

Also recommended by Walter Traill Dennison: The Orcadian Sketch-Book Being Traits of Old Orkney Life 

The Folklore of Orkney and Shetland by Ernest Marwick
Njals's Saga - an Icelandic saga
Heimskringla or Lives of the Norse Kings by Snorre Sturlason

Looking for delightfully obscure Orkney books? 


We suggest a scrounge through the virtual book shelves of the reputable book sellers below.

But first, a hint or two to help fellow bibliophiles to track down that elusive book ...

Out-of-print Orkney book prices are often more reasonable on the AbeBooks and Waterstones websites than on Amazon, but not always.

It's a good idea to check them all if you can't find a decent deal. Sometimes one site is advertising a ridiculous price, while another has a very reasonable offer. Check back occasionally if you don't see what you want. New sellers and new offers are constantly added to these sites. 

And I'm sure I don't need to remind you of the happy chance that you'll discover unexpected bookish dainties while you browse.

Happy book hunting!


AbeBooks UK - AbeBooks has been acquired by Amazon, but many of their book sellers aren't on Amazon, so they're worth browsing. Most of the individual sellers on AbeBooks will ship internationally.

Waterstones - This UK-based company will ship internationally, too.

And last but not least, you can search in ...


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Native Orkney traditional storyteller Tom Muir tells the story of storytelling in Scotland's Orkney Islands at Orkneyology.com

Mermaid image (Rhonda's pages) and storyteller image (Tom's pages), and all other illustrations except where noted are here by the courtesy of our dear friend - Stromness author, artist and historian, Bryce Wilson MBE, who owns all copyrights. Thanks, Bryce!

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