A Tale of Celebration – 30 Years of Growing Stories

It’s the 30th anniversary of the SISF, with 66 events in Edinburgh and 27 around Scotland, including strong collaborations with local and international organisations and a Scotland-wide Storytelling Campaign that encourages communities and individuals to engage with storytelling. 

A birthday is the perfect time to reflect on the journey and achievements of the past 3 festival decades, growing from a small seedling into a far-reaching blossoming tree. To this date, there are three storytellers that have performed in every festival since it’s conception, founder Donald Smith and storytellers Seoras (George) Macpherson and David Campbell.

David Campbell was born in Edinburgh in 1935 and brought up in Fraserburgh, Aberdeenshire. After working as a teacher and BBC radio producer, David decided to fully devote himself to the art of storytelling and became one of the apostles of the Storytelling Festival. Of course, we couldn’t pass up the opportunity to hear the story of the Festival itself, so we asked David how the ball got rolling:

“In 1987, our incandescent Donald Smith was discussing the need for a Storytelling Festival with a City Council Arts Officer.  A young woman overheard him, introduced herself, and said, ‘I’m married to the Traveller Storyteller Duncan Williamson’. Bingo!”

The first storytelling festival, which took place a year later in 1988, was so well received, showing a real hunger for storytelling and such festivity, that the following year turned into a week-long celebration of music, word and song.

David tells us about that week;

“Donald went to fertile roots, gathering the rich tradition of the Scottish Travellers, including the luminous and stormy Duncan Williamson, the fey and compelling Stanley Robertson, the genial gentleman of the road Willie McPhee, as well as eloquent Islanders, George Petersen from Shetland and George Macpherson from Skye. These were the master spirits of the Traveller and Island storytelling community, joined by the torch bearing apostles Paraig MacNeil, Alison Millen and myself.”

In the early years, the festival took place in various old town venues and folk scene haunts, including The Waverley Bar which still hosts monthly Guid Crack Storytelling Sessions, the National Library of Scotland and St Cecilia’s Hall, before it found it’s home in the newly built Scottish Storytelling Centre in 2006.

You can sense fondness and nostalgia that resonates through Campbell’s words, as he remembers those initial years;

“Things were crowded and cosy in these early days. Many native and international tellers were staying in my house, gathering around the kitchen table, the scene of endless post performance ceilidhs. I recall Stanley Robertson terrifying two telephone engineers working in the flat who were listening to his eerie Halloween tale. It ended with an eldritch howl that startled us all out of our skins.’

With the support from the then City Arts Council and the opening of a Scottish Government Festival Expo Fund (2007), it was only a short matter of time for the Festival to grow both locally and internationally, becoming a true Mecca for storytellers. Festival founder Donald Smith admits that it fills him with great pride to have the Centre described to him by a Danish visitor as “The Storytelling House.”

David Campbell continues to live at the heart of the SISF, telling tales in 5 different performances this year, including the grand ‘Ossian – The Pipes & The Story’ opening event at Stirling Castle. He praises the great work the Storytelling Centre does and reminds us of the Centre’s patron George Mackay Brown’s words;


Without the story in which everyone living, unborn and dead participates… we are no more than bits of paper blown on the cold wind.’


It’s the artists and the audience’s participation and imagination, which bring stories to life and contributes to what makes this Festival the wonderful extravaganza it is today. So, whether you’ve been along to an event before or you’ve never got around to getting involved, make sure you get at least one date in your diary, and Grow Stories with us this autumn.

Highlights from 30 years of SISF

Take a look at the History of the Scottish International Storytelling Festival, from its early beginnings until today.

  • 1987 – idea was born to host a dedicated storytelling festival
  • 1988 – First Storytelling Festival takes place, over the course of 2 days, with support from Edinburgh City Council
  • 1989 – Festival expands to a week-long celebration of music, song and dance
  • 1990 – From the second year we began inviting people from abroad, because it was clear that Scottish Storytelling was of international interest
  • 1995 – Scottish Arts Council, started supporting SISF and recognised its significant cultural contribution
  • 2006 – Opening of the Scottish Storytelling Centre was a huge milestone and meant that the festival and storytelling now had a home and a shop window in the heart of Scotland’s capital.
  • 2007 – the Scottish Government began the Festival Expo Fund, which included SISF and allowed for its much wider international expansion
  • 2011 – The Year of Islands, marked a big leap in events across Scotland through Festival on Tour including 11 Scottish and 6 Mediterranean islands involved, all culminating in the complete retelling of the Odyssey
  • 2012 and 2014 and 2017 – were all years with significant increase and wide spread of visitors, linking with the Olympics in London (2012), the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow (2014), and the 70th anniversary of Edinburgh as a Festival City (2017)
  • 2017 – Perhaps our most important creative year so far with The Global Gathering, based on the Earth Charter. Just as Edinburgh’s Festivals began to build peace and reconciliation through culture, so SISF renewed its international purpose supporting the contribution of storytellers to global earth values and a peaceful and creative future