The spirit of story: marketing Scotland to the world through storytelling and #ScotSpirit

Guest blog by Michael Williams

I’d like you to close your eyes for a moment and think of your “special place”. It could be your back garden, your home town, a place you visited on holiday, a beach, a mountaintop, or just somewhere that you feel relaxed in, a place that nourishes heart and soul.

Now sum up the spirit of that place in one word.

This was how I began my talk last week to a packed theatre at the Scottish Storytelling Centre in Edinburgh. The occasion? The launch of VisitScotland’s biggest ever global campaign and social movement, called “#ScotSpirit”. Guests included Fiona Hyslop the Scottish Cabinet-Secretary for Culture, Tourism, and External Affairs who spoke passionately about her love for Scotland.

As Scotland’s national tourist board, VisitScotland has the responsibility of selling the passion for Scotland to the rest of the world. It does this by working closely with private businesses, public agencies, and local authorities to ensure high-quality visitor experience and to ensure that Scotland makes the most of its tourism potential and assets.

My earlier question created quite buzz in the theatre as people shared their “special places” in Scotland and came up with words that captured the spirit of these unique places — “outstanding”, “peaceful”, “invigorating” and “awe-inspiring” were just a few. Imagine, I said, how much more you could convey in a story.

And this is exactly what VisitScotland wants to accomplish. In their words, “#ScotSpirit” aims “to harness the spirit of a nation to share inspirational stories and experiences about Scotland.” Local businesses, community groups, hotels, guest houses, B&Bs and anyone interested in sharing their experiences of where they live in Scotland can become a “storytelling ambassador”. Through story, visitors and potential visitors can both be informed and inspired, for as VisitScotland’s research has shown, information alone does not attract people to visit a place. Stories that inspire people with the spirit of a place do.

Expressing the spirit of a place is what the traditional arts do. Music, dance, poetry, and storytelling help to create and celebrate place: wild places, civilised places, and even imaginary places. Stories also bring people together; they are the social glue that helps create community and give it an identity. And furthermore, stories are the essence which attract others to visit these places and communities – some to stay, others to experience and enjoy the hospitality of their hosts before they return home.

Writing in the latest issue of Blethers (the newsletter of Traditional Arts and Culture Scotland), Scotland’s Storytelling Network Co-ordinator Mairi McFadyen reminds us that “In Scotland, the traditional arts are underpinned by the idea of hospitality. . . .  Storytelling, music, song and dance can play a vital role in promoting understanding between people of different faiths, nationalities, and abilities” (Blethers, Issue 32, Summer 2016, p. 2). At the heart of VisitScotland’s “#ScotSpirit” campaign is a commitment to this idea of story, hospitality, and the promotion of cross-cultural understanding. These ideas are best expressed through the experiences of the folk who promote, offer, and, of course, enjoy hospitality. And what better way to express these experiences than through story. It’s a natural mode of communication and who better than the Scots to share these stories. By word of mouth, the written word, and through social media, stories can capture the spirit of Scotland and become the invitation to come to this remarkable country. In return, visitors can also share their stories, something which VisitScotland is keen to nourish.

As a case in point, it was stories that brought me to Scotland some thirty years ago. At the time, I was considering where to take up my PhD studies: London, Oxford, or Edinburgh.  All three universities had sent me information about tuition costs, accommodation, libraries, and other details. But it was one–or more specifically, one particular professor–who inspired me. Professor Ged Martin, the eminent colonial historian and former Director of the Centre of Canadian Studies at the University of Edinburgh, somehow tracked me down in Ottawa where I was attending a literature conference. He placed a call to my hotel room and regaled me with stories of Edinburgh, its history, its people and its weather. Within twenty minutes I was entranced. My decision was made and the rest is history or, at least, another story.

So, in early October 1988 my wife and two little children boarded a plane for Scotland. Seven hours later we arrive at Prestwick Airport. It was raining sideways, gales blowing in off the Atlantic. It was a cold, damp, day and I had to get us all to Edinburgh. My wife suggested I ask a nearby bus driver. I climbed aboard and asked if he was going to “Edinburg”? A few moments later, I disembarked, a little shaky. “What did he say?” my wife asked. “I don’t know,” I replied, “I think he was a foreigner. I couldn’t understand a word he said.”

Somehow, I managed and we eventually arrived in Edinburgh and settled into our flat. We got our 5-year old started in Kindergarten and settled into creating our story of a life in Scotland, which was sent in instalments back to Canada in weekly, sometimes nightly phone calls. These resulted in visits from my in-laws, my mother, two of my brothers, friends, and friends of friends all within the first year.

Thinking our time would be short—I intended to finish my PhD in 3 or 4 years–we travelled at every opportunity – west coast, Highlands and Islands, east coast, the Borders, down to the Solway Firth, and out to Harris and Lewis. Up and down farm tracks, in and out of closes, wynds, and passing-places. I have so many wonderful memories of those times. My boys used to laugh every time I’d say “I wonder what’s down this road?” and they’d reply, “Another Williams adventure!” while my wife would mutter, “And another bloody story more like it.”

She was right. I could tell you a 1001 stories about my life in Scotland and about the many places and people I’ve met and in doing so, they’d invoke the seven spirits at the heart of VisitScotland’s campaign – spark, guts, warmth, determination, fun, humour, and soul. But allow me to tell you one, about a place I will always treasure—my special place—Nine Mile Burn.

After a couple of years living in a cramped tenement flat off the Royal Mile and above other tenants, my wife decided we needed to live in the country where the kids could run out the front door without falling down a narrow stone stairwell or being awakened at 1 in the morning by the students’ faulty smoke alarm which went off every weekend they came home from the pub and made toast.

To my amazement we found a place—a lovely house poetically named Honeysuckle Cottage—in Nine Mile Burn, a small hamlet nestled in the bosom of the Pentland Hills 12 miles south of Edinburgh.

However, when we told our friends and neighbours we were moving to the country, they warned us that it would take generations before we’d be accepted into the community. We’d always be “outsiders” or “incomers”. Undaunted, we packed up and moved.

No sooner had we arrived when an older gentleman “from across the road” knocked on the door and introduced himself, welcomed us to the community and asked if there was anything he could do to help. He was soon helping us unload the van. And, that evening, my son found a package on our doorstep—a freshly caught salmon wrapped in newspaper with a note simply signed “your local poacher”.

By the end of the month we’d met our neighbours who lived along our stretch of the road – the lawyer and school teacher; the astronomy couple who worked at the University and were experts in the Northern Lights; the retired teacher from Aberdeenshire; the young computer programmer and his wife; an engineer and his wife and their three children; old-man Alec who was born in the house he lived in and was the local carpenter and handyman; Isobel a retired shepherdess in her 80s whose father and grandfather had been shepherds on the Pentland Hills; and up where the road sputtered out halfway up the hill, George and his wife Janet who’d been sheep farmers for many years. All of them accepted us into their community and shared their stories with us, and we with them.

And soon we were also welcomed into the next village along, Carlops, home of the Allan Ramsay Hotel. It was at the Allan Ramsay that I reinstated an old tradition – the “ceilidh”. Not the kind, as my storytelling colleague Dougie Mackay describes as the one “that fills you with drink then sets you up to perform complicated skipping patterns around a community hall,” but the kind of gathering of folk that is, as he says, is more “about the gathering and sharing, with stories, songs, and whatever else folk had to offer. More about the craic than sets and reels” (Blethers, p. 7).

Each Friday, folk would come to the Allan Ramsay and gather around a couple of large tables and share their stories, riddles, songs, poems, or simply something that had happened to them that week. There might be 10 or 12 of us ranging in age from five to eighty-five. Over the weeks and months, as word spread, people started coming from the nearby towns of West Linton, Peebles, Penicuik, and even Edinburgh, to hear and share in the storytelling and singing. In fact, hill walkers and tourists planned their jaunts to take us in on their itinerary. Yes, the spirit of that place reflected warmth, fun, humour, and especially soul.

Even today, when I go for a walk in the Pentland Hills, I can still hear Isobel’s war-time stories of working in the fields on the slopes below as a young girl herding sheep or cutting grain. Suddenly, there would be a roaring in the sky and she’d look up to see retreating German fighter pilots following the line of the hills before heading back out over the North Sea following their raids on Clydeside or Edinburgh. To her mother’s dismay, young Isobel would wave to the pilots who, in return, would waggle their wings and wave to their young admirer. She also remembered Italian POWs coming from their prison in Penicuik to work in the fields. She remembered how happy they seemed to be because they were always singing. And on one occasion, at the end of the day, she was particularly thrilled because she got to drive the horse-drawn wagon that took the prisoners back down the road to their prison. Isobel is gone now, but her stories are very much alive in me and they are, in part, what draws me to those hills above Nine Mile Burn. What is a place other than people and their stories. When I think about going somewhere I want more than information; I want inspiration. I go because of the stories I’ve heard.

So I salute VisitScotland and commend their “#ScotSpirit” campaign and urge everyone in Scotland to support it. Become storytelling ambassadors, after all, you are all storytellers. Embrace the old ‘ceilidh’ tradition and make it new. As Dougie Mackay reminds us, it’s the ceilidh’s “simplicity and adaptability that makes it the key to the door linking storytelling and community development… [It] reminds us of our heritage of inclusion, hospitality, equality, self-sufficiency and decent craic. This is a resource dearly needed, perhaps now more than ever in a time with escalating cultural trends of isolation, competition, disconnect from the natural world and each other, and empty consumerism” (Blethers, p. 7).

Embrace these “seven spirits” of Scotland – spark, guts, warmth, determination, fun, humour, and soul – as my family and I were embraced by them in Nine Mile Burn and as I encounter them every day in my work as a storyteller and story coach travelling around to various parts of Scotland to work with individuals, community groups, charities, and corporate organisations. Those spirits are there in the stories told across this land and sea.

The truth is that Scotland is a rich story-filled place. There’s hardly a place in this country that doesn’t invoke a story or has one ready to share with you, even the wild places. The Scottish people are proud of their villages, towns and cities, proud of their natural heritage, proud of their history. And they love to share stories. What a rich resource to tap and share with others. And the stories are as diverse as the people who live here. Old traditional stories mixed with newer traditions. Ancient Celtic myths and legends, folk and fairy tales, tales of our Travellers, mix with modern urban legends, cutting edge theatrical performances, comic tales, and diverse multicultural stories told by the children, men and women who’ve journeyed here from across Europe, Scandanavia, the Middle East, Africa, Asia, North America, Australia and New Zealand and many other places besides.

Donald Smith, so instrumental in establishing the Scottish Storytelling Centre, reminds us that “were not international for the sake of it, were international because it’s part of the story” (Blethers, p. 3). So let’s leave here tonight with a commitment to celebrate the spirit of Scotland that lives and breathes in the stories we tell and listen to. The storytellers out there are waiting. Lets celebrate and share the spark, the guts, the warmth, the determination, the fun, the humour, and the soul of everyone and their story that make this country one of the most prized destinations in the world. Thirty years ago I came as a student intending to stay for a short time; thirty years later, I call Scotland “home”. That’s the power of story, that’s the spirit of Scotland.

Michael Williams is a storyteller, musician and songwriter. To learn more about VisitScotland’s #ScotSpirit campaign, go to