“So, how did you become a storyteller?”
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.
Stories don't die - how it began
How to attend the Orkney Storytelling Festival
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 ....
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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."
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.
To all our broonies: thank you.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
We promise not to make you wear funny hats.
See you soon!
Enjoy a sample of Orkney Storytelling Festival 2020 Films:
Orkney Folktales in the Landscape
Fins, Furs and Feathers: Natural & Supernatural Animals of Scotland and the North
St Magnus Cathedral – Tales From the Darker Side
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 but will be worth the hunt.
You might have to hunt for these next books.
Also recommended by Walter Traill Dennison: The Orcadian Sketch-Book Being Traits of Old Orkney Life
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!