Telling Ten Tales on Ten Tall Ships

The Scottish Storytelling Forum (SSF) is a membership organisation, dedicated to keeping the art of live oral storytelling alive and growing in Scotland – a diverse network of storytellers and individuals supporting Scotland’s vibrant storytelling community. It’s facilitated by Traditional Arts and Culture Scotland (TRACS) and based at the Scottish Storytelling Centre.

The SSF blog series hopes to introduce you to the many different strands within the storytelling scene in Scotland and beyond.

This month, we hear from storyteller Jan Bee Brown about her adventures on the high seas and her challenge to ‘tell ten tales on ten tall ships’.

‘Those who have been following my nautical exploits this summer may know that I spent 3 weeks in Norway fishing for stories of the sea in July whilst attempting to complete my personal challenge to ‘tell tales on ten tall ships’. Having trawled for tales that link our coasts and waters I can report that I came home with quite a good catch.

‘Linking up Leith and Lillesand, I stayed with Norwegian storyteller Hilde Eskild to research Norwegian author, poet and playwright Gabriel Scott who was born in Leith in 1874. I was delighted to find his hilarious shaggy dog tales of sailor Pider Rø and they have a distinctly steam-punk flavour. The one thing we have in common is the weather and in Kristiansand during a rainstorm a local lady offered to lend me an umbrella. We got chatting about my mission and I asked if she had any Scottish connections? Ragnhild Flåt explained that she was the granddaughter of Shetland bus hero Ingvald Eidsheim who completed 43 trips to Norway as commander of the submarine chaser ‘Hitra’ between 1943-45. During his retirement he championed the restoration of ‘Hitra’ which he found by way of a cold war crisis, the dramatic ‘Whiskey on the Rocks’ incident and a Swedish state secret: The Curious Case of the Flatulent Herring.

‘Having told tales on ‘HMS Unicorn’ in Dundee and on ‘The Glenlee’ in Glasgow before I flew to Norway, on my first day in Oslo I braced myself to be brazen and blagged myself a free shrimp supper in return for a story. As ‘The Christiana’ sailed up Oslofjord it dawned on me that this was essentially a booze cruise and that this crew were pretty well oiled however it wasn’t my story of Skye’s Amazon queen, Sgiath, that sobered them up but their bar bill with beer at £9 a pint.

‘I wanted to fully understand the power of the North Sea and so I joined The Jubilee Sailing Trust for a 10-day adventure at sea in company with The Tall Ships Race from Fredrickstad and with the wind in our sails a Force 8 certainly tested my sea legs! So ship number 4 was sail training ship Lord Nelson or ‘Nellie’ as she is affectionately known. The sea does not discriminate! The JST’s unique mission is to give people of mixed abilities and circumstances the freedom to explore their ability, potential and place in the world through inclusive adventures at sea. My trip certainly changed my attitude to ability, disability and integration. The permanent crew on board Nellie were fantastic and ensured we all sailed as equals, with their help we experienced 4 hour watches, life in the galley and took up the challenge to be ‘Hookers’ and ‘Tossers’ whilst hauling the anchor into the belly of Lord Nelson.

‘It was simply wonderful to have Norwegians on board who shared their knowledge of the places we visited and stories… Viking stories and love stories from them, including Harald the Fair-haired or Scruffy Harry who united Norway for the first time. Norway had until then been ruled by many minor kings and in defeat where did they go? Scotland, Ireland and Holland naturally!

‘I had the pleasure of sharing many stories with the mixed ability crew during the 10-day journey and to visitors during Nellie’s open ship event in Bergen. The story of Norwegian sea dog Bamse’s adventures in Port Edgar and Dundee was a firm favourite with families and the story of Betty Mouat, disabled and drifting for 8 days from Shetland to the shores of Lepsòy Island was also loved. However, for me the stories that were the most important were the true tales of tenacity at sea from the volunteer crew as we sailed. I listened with a storyteller’s ear to the personal stories as a random group of international strangers became a crew and folk shared their hopes, fears and their relationship to the sea.

‘I watched with interest as one member of the voluntary crew battled with her dragons. Her story, which was so intertwined with the sea, simply broke my heart. You learn more about humanity in one single trip with The Jubilee Sailing Trust than in a lifetime. Empathy, humility, courage, every single assumption was challenged daily, sometimes hourly as the permanent crew carefully guided us with humour and kindness to Bergen.

‘However, time was soon running out and I still had another half a dozen tall ships to tell tales on and I needed to be both tenacious and audacious. Over two days in Bergen I made contact with 6 more ships to complete my sponsorship goal! I told tales on German, Dutch, and Norwegian vessels and on the Sultan of Oman’s tall ship on Sultan’s Day.

‘My favourite experience was on the German training ship ‘Roald Amundsen’. Sharing stories in German, with a simultaneous translation by a young Russian interpreter, of U-Boat commanders in both world wars was my most important challenge. I wanted to tell these tales to illustrate the ‘International Law of the Sea’ and the futility of war to 60 young cadets from Germany and Russia.

‘At the crew parade, the fancy dress reflected the concerns of these young cadets and current worldwide issues as their ingenious recycled costumes and banners illustrated the war against plastics. The Tall Ships Race brings together sailors from around the world and so sharing stories with them during this sweltering summer of global environmental issues and racist rhetoric was certainly important to me.

‘Back on dry land I caught up with the news, the plight of Syrian refugees, wrecked ships and rescue ships that can find no port to take them. Sinking a free beer on my last night in Bergen whilst watching the fireworks I thought about the pubs down at the Shore in Leith back in July 1914 and again even in August 1939 and how sailors of many nations would be drinking together and singing sea shanties together just as we were…Cheers! Prossit! Skål! The ‘Law of the Sea’ ensures that any sailor should be saved regardless of their nationality. It is true that the sea does not discriminate but unfortunately governments do.’

Be sure to join seafaring storyteller, Jan Bee Brown, and Dutch shanty choir, Heeren van de Heijs, for plenty of stories and shanties at Ship to Shore: Shanties & Tales of Tall Ships on Saturday 28th of September at the Scottish Storytelling Centre. More information

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