The Treasure of a Warm Welcome

By Claire McNicol

In 2022, I took part in a collaboration between the National Library of Scotland with Learning Officer Beverley Casebow and the Welcoming, an organisation which does what it says on the tin, offering support for New Scots to integrate in their new communities.

Given the turmoil that was going on in the World, it was a year since the Taliban reclaimed Afghanistan and six months since Russia invaded Ukraine, there was a pressing need for children and families who have experienced severance from the land of their birth to be offered solace and sanctuary whilst they re-orientate, recuperate and repair.

And what better way than by singing a song of Welcome – naming each person in the room and clapping for joy that they are present, democracy in action, each life of equal value.

As a storyteller with 30 years experience in the field of social work, I have collaborated with a wide range of organisations. Truly, there is nothing I enjoy more than a good collaboration.  I am increasingly convinced that as a society we need to compete less and collaborate more.   So it was in the crucible of collaboration that a relationship between the National Library of Scotland and the Welcoming was forged.

Our summer workshops with the Welcoming were preceded by three family workshops between April and June on the themes of:

Treasure Boxes

Treasures of the Sea and

Treasures of the Land.

By happenstance we had a mother and daughter attend workshop 1 who had arrived in Edinburgh from Hong Kong ten months previously.  Another family from Hong Kong a mother and son who had only arrived three months previously attended workshop 2.  Serendipitously, both families attended workshop three.  We could see that the 7year old boy had a little more English and a little more confidence due to the passage of a month, but it was just a joy to see him light up at the opportunity to play with a little girl of his own age who spoke Cantonese, his Mother tongue.  The two children had SO much fun that afternoon whilst their mothers shared experiences.  I learned a huge amount about what is actually happening in Hong Kong by listening.  One woman explained that the Chinese government has completely changed the History that is taught in schools, obliterating any trace of the history of Hong Kong.  Some weeks later when I heard of the sinking of an iconic ship, which symbolized the splendor of Hong Kong, I wondered if this was an act of sabotage.

We had three different groups attend our craft and storytelling workshops in July.

On day 2 we welcomed a large group of 30 women and children from Afghanistan.  I had a lightening flash of inspiration as I left my house and stopped to gather some lavender.    I began by asking the group if lavender grows in Afghanistan, they all nodded and there was discussion about what the word for lavender is in Darsi.  We were very fortunate to have volunteers, including two who were helping with translation.

Zahra one of the volunteers, who translated for the group, grew up in Iran where her father worked for the UN, he travelled back and forth to work in Afghanistan and she imbibed much knowledge about the country from her father.  Zahra and I took the women and children around the Treasures exhibition and as I highlighted particular exhibits I was struck forcibly by how culturally subversive a figure such as Isobel Wylie Hutchinson is to a society where women’s rights are so brutally suppressed.  Isobel was the first woman to win a prize from the National Geographic Society in 1934 for her extensive travels in North Alaska and Greenland.  The beauty of a story is it is seemingly ‘just a story’.  I am finding in these times we live in my experiences of storytelling as a subversive force are becoming increasingly frequent!

Whilst showing the group around the PEN exhibition I remarked that I would love to see some writing in Dari. One young woman was inspired to create a language-sharing poster for me and invited me to practice writing in Pashto and Persian. I learned a lot including the value of talking about the meaning of names as a wonderful way of exploring more about cultural identity. Having explained that Claire means light in French I discovered that the names Huda and Dia also mean light in Arabic.

A mother and son from Ukraine enjoyed fashioning their own unique treasure boxes. The little boy is a huge Harry Potter fan and since arriving in the UK has had the opportunity to visit platform 9 and ¾ at in London.  To our mutual delight we discovered a Ukrainian translation of Harry Potter in the Treasure exhibition.   It strikes me when our physical and material worlds suffer huge upheaval and disruption our imaginations have the capacity to offer us powerful protection.


On our first day we had a family from Afghanistan who were new to the Welcoming arrive for the workshop.  The father had to leave after showing his wife and children the location of the library.  There was a little girl of @ 18 months in a buggy, dressed in a peach coloured dress, sewn with pearls. Her mum later told me the dress was handmade in Afghanistan and these kinds of dresses are very popular. The two little boys were beautifully dressed in matching shirts, the eldest who was 7 wore sunglasses and he stood holding the hand of his younger brother who was about five and had striking blue/green eyes.  Later the older brother spontaneously kissed his little sister on the head. The love in this family was palpable.

Initially the little girl was in her buggy and was creaking her neck a little to see me above the height of the table. After I told the first story about a Star Apple, I gave the little girl a box full of treasures from the sea: sea glass, driftwood and smooth pebbles.  She loved lifting one at a time, placing the treasure in my hand, looking deep into my eyes as she did so.  I was struck over the course of the three days how much I relied upon sustained eye contact, to connect and communicate.  I have been very fortunate to learn from some of Scotland’s most iconic Traveller Storytellers such as Duncan Williamson and Stanley Robertson, they taught me that stories and songs are shared, ‘eye to eye, heart to heart and mind to mind”.  I find it instructive how long it took science to prove the validity of this folk wisdom with the discovery that mirror neurons fire in our brains when we ‘synch’ in our communication.

At the end of this workshop the mother of these three children looked at me, put her hand on her heart and said, “I am SO happy”.  I put my hand on my heart in reply and said, “I am really glad”.  I felt touched to witness an emotional arc for this family from tentative yet hopeful to trusting and happy.

This welcome of the newcomers is at the very heart of the tradition of storytelling.

The Celtic Tradition of Hospitality was as follows, a stranger would come to the door, they would be welcomed in, offered food and drink and a bed for the night, before they even spoke their name.

Yestreen I saw a stranger and I brought him in, I put food in the eating place, drink in the drinking place and music song and story in the listening place.

Hard to beat the Treasure of a Warm Welcome and I felt honoured and blessed in return by these Strangers who are now new Scots.   As Duncan Williamson often said, “A stranger is just a friend who you have not yet met.

As I cycled up the Mound to the National Library it struck me that the words of ‘Aye Fond Kiss’, are so pertinent to the sorrowful partings that people from Afghanistan, Ukraine and beyond have experienced.  And so at the close of our workshops we sang the song the melody of which speaks to sorrow even where words might not be fully understood.  Then we laughed and said “We have a more joyful song to say goodbye, also written by Robert Burns” and we all stood holding hands and sang “Auld Lang Syne.”