Telling stories is one of our most ancient pastimes, reaching back long before reading. Way before the first scribes were noting the edicts of ancient Egypt's great and good, hunter-gatherers were enlivening their flea-picking sessions round the fire with a tall
tale or two.
This great oral tradition managed to survive rather well in Scotland, where Burns was reared by two illiterate women: his mother and her servant. Although they could not read or write, or perhaps because of it, they had minds and imaginations well stocked with remembered tales and songs.

Even as that era passed, the told story remained a feature of the ceilidh well into modern times.
More recently, though, the art of storytelling has diminished as the written word has taken over.
However, there are some signs that the oral arts may be fighting back. The Netherbow Theatre in Edinburgh is soon to re-open as the Scottish Storytelling Centre (SSC). It already has more than 90 traditional storytellers registered as working with communities throughout Scotland. This week the Scottish International Storytelling Festival is also sponsoring a programme of events in Edinburgh theatres, restaurants, libraries, galleries and on the streets.
Beth Cross, an American-born storyteller who is based at the SSC, says there are exciting things happening culturally in Scotland, with storytelling at the forefront. ”Nobody is staying in their boxes any more,” she says. ”There is a lot of cross fertilisation and storytelling, long used in schools as a form of entertainment and to provide a break from routine, is now being seen as a way to deliver some of the national curriculum and at the same time motivate and inspire sometimes hard-to-reach children.”
As part of her mission, Cross is working on an innovative project in Glasgow’s Springburn area. As resident storyteller at Knockburn Primary, she is helping five- and six-year-olds to shape tales from their experiences of life and their own cultural references.
”The children who excel at telling stories may not be the same ones who find reading and writing easy,” says Cross. ”For some of them,
having that oral ability recognised can give them the confidence and the motivation to stick with what may be the difficult task of learning to read.
”Children who are dyslexic or who for other reasons struggle with written work or are simply turned off by school can be given a new place in the class pecking order and can become motivated through engagement with a story.
”It feeds their imagination in a way that television or even books don’t. If they look at a picture of a lion, that is one image, but if you are telling a story about a lion, there can be as many lions in the room as there are imaginations. There is something magical about seeing a story come alive in a child’s eyes.”
Cross believes the benefits don’t stop there. Indeed, she has seen how telling their own tales has given children a greater fluency and ability to communicate. ”The teachers I work with all seem to agree that children are coming into school with a lower level of articulacy than 10 or 20 years ago. They are not as familiar with nursery rhymes, they don’t have as wide a vocabulary. I think this is a result of more group care and more television.
”To me, what gives a child good language skills is not how much language they’re exposed to but how much the child is listened to.”
At Cross’s storytelling seminars, she plays tapes to teachers of a circle game where a group of children improvise a story together. What some teachers find difficult is that the pupils are left to contribute as they wish. There are no raised hands and the story does not go strictly round the circle.
”Some children do speak more,” says Cross. ”But this is about learning social skills, about finding a space and speaking into it and about learning to listen to other people and let them in.” These are important life skills, Cross says, and the circle story is an ideal way to let children learn them.
The project in Knockburn is the brainchild of Glasgow’s first full-time cultural co-ordinator, Christine McCandlish, a former headmistress who has the brief of bringing arts into schools. She arranged some storytelling seminars for teachers on Sunday afternoons in central Glasgow. Knockburn’s primary two teacher, Sandra Jodah, was one of the teachers who gave up weekend time off to be inspired and became one of the first to work with a resident storyteller.
McCandlish felt that storytelling could enable schools to foster language and communication skills and creativity, and help to deliver the national curriculum in what she thought would be a sustainable way.
”Sometimes when arts are brought into schools, you can get a very expensive project which is great for six weeks but, at the end of it, it’s as if it has never been,” she says. ”This class is going to go on up the school as storytellers and that is going to grow and develop with them.”
Jodah feels that it has been a big success. ”What I really notice with the storytelling is how the themes and ideas from the stories they have told keep coming up,” she says. ”I don’t remember children of this age, in 20 years of teaching, ever drawing on the books we have used in the same way.”
She is also impressed by how the storytelling has helped the children to become more relaxed and confident about talking in class. ”Before we started this, I would say to them, ‘How are you?’ and I would get a shrug. ‘What did you have for dinner?’ and I would get a shrug. Now everyone talks and everyone contributes.”
The project has also lowered their resistance to writing: before the storytelling project, Jodah sometimes struggled to get the children to write at all. Now, feeling they have something to get down on paper, they are, in many cases, keen to get on with writing.
Amy Neal, aged seven, likes spiders, which have featured heavily in the stories the class has constructed with Cross. Her favourite thing about school now is ”writing stories. Sometimes I sit and write them in the house”.
Even a little boy who claims to hate school and all its works is clearly animated and enthusiastic during a storytelling workshop.
Sitting in the storytelling corner, Cross embarks on a long story about a man with a noisy house complete with animal noises enthusiastically produced by the class. At one point, she breaks off to ask the children: ”Do you have a noisy house?” and is rewarded with plenty of answers, including one little girl who tells a story about someone threatening to call the police to her noisy neighbours.
Next the class is divided into groups of four and allowed some lively discussion time to plan their own stories. They are all given the same premise suggested by class members which is that Nancy, a spider and a popular character in their tales, is bad in this story.
Who decides who gets the star part of Nancy? ”They do,” says Cross. ”It’s about knowing when to intervene and when to stand back and let them work it out. Sometimes they will play it out.
”One time everyone wanted to be the spider and they couldn’t agree. Then one child started to be the spider doing a dance and that led into them all taking turns at being the spider. Sometimes you have to trust their instinct to play as a way of finding a solution.”

The Scottish Herald
October 25th 2004