“After nourishment, shelter and companionship, stories are the thing we need most in the world.” – Phillip Pullman
It was early 2013, the London skies were gray and rainy, but I was anything but. In fact, I was a young and eager student with a thirst for adventure halfway through a study abroad program in said London, where I was taking English and History classes focusing on Western Europe. Then came an opportunity to travel to Edinburgh, Scotland, where I would be able to pair my studies with real-life, tangible learning. I was thrilled about this trip, because when you are a fairly broke student abroad, you jump at any chance to travel even further than you already have.
So I went with my fellow students and professor to Edinburgh, armed with an open mind and excitement that I would get to explore yet another part of this fascinating continent. In just a few days, we sat in at the Scottish Parliament, visited the National Museum of Scotland, and explored an ancient fortress in the middle of the city. We had been studying the myths and legends of the Ancient Celts of Scotland, Ireland, and Wales, and in the back of my mind I could see the stories we had heard coming to life in the magical setting of Edinburgh—with its ancient castle walls and mystical hills.
These were all great experiences, but I was shamelessly travel-greedy and I wanted more. So, a friend and I decided to extend our trip, and it was without a doubt the loveliest side trip I have ever taken. We went to a local farmer’s market for picnic items and hiked to Arthur’s Seat, which lies at the top of a series of hills in the middle of Edinburg, where views of the entire city could be seen. On our way back, we walked by a pub with a sign in the window, and decided to come back later for the advertised “Storytelling Night.”
Keep in mind, we weren’t quite sure what a “Storytelling Night” would entail, but thought what better way to immerse ourselves in the culture of the area than participating in the local and ancient tradition of oral storytelling? So we went, and yep, you guessed it—it was magical.
Hosted in the upstairs room at a local pub, I was amazed at how many people could fit in such a small room. There weren’t many rules, just a mutual understanding that the floor was open and free from judgment. People told personal stories about their lives, stories that had been relayed to them, as well as tales that were more mystical in content. Some people had me on the edge of my seat, others eased into their stories without rush or big hooks. Even those without solid plot, though, had me interested because whatever they were, they meant something to the teller.
I didn’t tell a story that night, for nothing of substance came to mind and I was enjoying everyone else’s too much. A part of me strangely felt like an outsider in disguise, privy to some secret club. If anything, it gave me a certain longing and appreciation for ancient times, when oral storytelling was a way to bring people together, to share entertainment, and to find hope in dismal circumstances. The feeling of community that washed over me that night, even as an outsider, was uncanny.
Everyone who was there wanted to be there; they treasured and respected the integrity of the event. People from all walks of life enjoyed the evening, cramming themselves into a small space and convening joyfully. There was no prize, no incentive, just good honest people gathering together to share pieces of themselves, the past, and the imagination. This night was the embodiment of the power of stories.
Being in a place as old and rich in history and lore as Scotland, it is no surprise to me that there was a certain magic in the air. Something about how the ancient city is almost as old as the stories that are told in and of it made the night so much more meaningful. There is also something to be said for a craft that has been around since the beginning of time—storytelling is and has been a constant, and present in every society to ever exist.
Because if you think about it, stories are in everything we do. Long before technology and even widespread written language, people were telling stories. Our lives are built on stories, on history and myth. Television and movies are our 21st-century version, but stripped down, it is really just storytelling. I think there is a reason that we as humans get so attached to stories—because they speak to an integral part of the human spirit—and offer something different and meaningful to each person who listens. Stories allow us to reflect on our lives by examining ones of the past, or those that are created.
I was recently reading a collection of stories about the sea from Scotland, and the author wrote that there is superstition about storytelling that says a story loses its authenticity or magic if it is recorded as it is being told. Many of the folks who shared their stories with the author requested he write it from memory, so as not to lose said magic. I found this particularly intriguing, both in that these superstitions of magic continue to persevere and that the oral tradition has not been lost in our modern world of written words.
My night of storytelling, attended on a whim, at a random local pub in Scotland, taught me much. It reminded me that stories offer both an escape from, as well as insight to, daily life. Stories present new worldviews to digest and ponder. They allow us to push past fictional aspects and find the raw truth in the story and in ourselves.