Dark tales and the art of storytelling

Mara Fiona 975x400

October's Scottish International Storytelling Festival showcases of the art of the spoken tale, with expert tellers weaving their magic on the gathered audience. Storytellers Mara Menzies (above left) and Fiona Herbert (above right) discuss the appeal of the artform and what to expect from the festival.

Scotland and Edinburgh's history is renowned for its ‘darker’ side - can you tell us about some of the key points in the city’s history, especially those that make for great stories?

Mara Menzies (MM): Edinburgh's history is incredibly violent. We have countless characters across the centuries whose depraved imaginations have caused unbelievable misery and agony for thousands of people. From the horrific torture tools designed by Sir George MacKenzie in his persecution of the Covenanters, to the inevitable drowning of supposed witches in the Norloch, despite their innocence.

These in particular are hugely popular because they speak volumes of the culture of the time, which in itself is fascinating and we like to believe that we are no longer capable of such incredible atrocities.

Fiona Herbert 300x300Fiona Herbert (FH): The life of Mary, Queen of Scots was full of darkness and intrigue, most notably in the mysterious murder of her loathed second husband, Lord Darnley. Served him right of course, for having Mary’s close friend and secretary stabbed to death in front of her (while she was heavily pregnant), then shoving his bloodied body from the tower at Holyrood Palace.

We also still have reminders of the numerous public hangings, seen by many in Edinburgh as a lovely family day out. Those whose homes had a good view of the gallows would rent their rooms out to excited spectators.

And no one can forget Burke and Hare. With Edinburgh University being the leading light in medicine, dark deeds were needed to keep that light shining. Bright minds needed corpses to practise on, and there weren’t enough. Some entrepreneurs took to body snatching – digging up the graves of the freshly dead, to sell on to the University. But the towers in each cemetery had guards who would shoot any pilferer they caught, so Burke and Hare decided that was too risky – they became serial killers instead, happily supplying the university with their victims for which they were paid well, no questions asked.

Mara, you'll taking part in the Storytelling Festival's Guid Crack: Halloween - can you give us an insight into what to expect?

MM: Fear is a powerful force and stories that provide the possibility of things outwith the norm that may happen become tremendously exciting!

Expect stories of the paranormal that will send shivers down your spine. Stories that will linger in your mind and cause you to look around furtively on your way home. Stories of wicked deeds and incredible injustices that make you contemplate the very nature of who we are!

FH: Mara says it all above, but it’s also your chance to get up and have a go at telling a tale aloud in a welcoming environment of tale lovers keen to have your words send a few shivers up their spine...

You can also hear a winning selection of Ghostly Tales for Telling, penned especially for the Storytelling Festival on Halloween evening at the National Library of Scotland, where I will be reciting one of the tales, alongside BSL interpretation.

The notion of ‘dark tourism’ was coined in 1996 and relates to visiting places historically associated with death and tragedy. Why do you think ‘dark tourism’ appeals to people?

MM: We are fascinated by what we are capable of as humans and equally we are fascinated by the mysterious, the things we do not understand. When we see an incredible magic trick we are sucked into its spell but when we understand how it works then the magic is lost.

With stories of the paranormal, there is nobody who has ever been able to explain it and so it remains the great mystery!

FH: Humans are intrigued by what we have been capable of, or had to endure, through the years, and these historical tales of death and tragedy appeal because we know they are shrouded in real events.

They say that tragedy plus time = comedy, or at least entertainment. Perhaps it’s the relief that such things don’t happen now, that we like to believe we have evolved so much since then. But switch on the news and it is clear to see that our capacity for cruelty has never really gone away, only changed its form.

As storytellers, can you give us insight into why this art is so important, and what people can expect at a storytelling session?

Mara Menzies 300x300MM: The most valuable thing [about] storytelling is that it is the most accessible. All you need is a listener and a teller. The listener is not passive but plays a role in the telling of the story, through their eyes, their voices, their reactions. The power is in the connection between the two.

Storytelling teaches us how to listen and how to express ourselves. With so many styles - from a frail body sharing a story from a chair to an energetic storyteller bouncing around the room - the options are endless and from each one you gain something different.

A good storyteller judges their audience quickly and knows how best to channel the flow. Expect laughter, a bit of banter, gasps and a good time! People leave a storytelling session with the powerful feeling that they have been at the very heart of the story.

FH: Mara’s got it in a nutshell. As she said, storytelling brings people together. It has an immediacy and a connection unlike any other art form. That’s why I love it.

This interview was originally carried out for Virgin Atlantic as research for this blog post. We gratefully acknowledge their assistance in publishing this article.

The Scottish International Storytelling Festival takes place from Friday 21 to Monday 31 October. Find out more about the Festival, including programme and ticket booking details.

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