SISF Director at the Toronto Storytelling Festival

‘Canada-Scotland: Coast to Coast’ is the International Exchange for this year’s Scottish International Storytelling Festival (18-31 October).

The first leg has just ended with a tour in Canada by Scottish storytellers Jess Smith and Seoras Macpherson, which began at the Toronto International Storytelling Festival where Festival Director, Donald Smith, was also on hand to meet storytellers and Directors, and of course to share a few tales. He shares his thoughts from the trip below:


Toronto is a good place from which to preview Scotland’s Storytelling Festival as there are many similarities. As in Edinburgh, there are curated performances involving guest storytellers from the host and other nations. In both countries, there are strong indigenous traditions but also great cultural diversity, which is reflected in the programmes. We are grateful for the support of the Scottish Government’s Festival Expo Fund to welcome our international guests for 2019.

Storyteller Jess Smith with Toronto’s Artistic Director Dawne McFarlane
Storyteller Jess Smith with Toronto’s Artistic Director Dawne McFarlane

Both Storytelling Festivals reach out across their cities into the communities. Toronto is a happening kind of place and it was great to see storytelling in libraries, bookshops, the First Nation Arts Centre, the Centre for Social Innovation and community locales.

Similarly, in Scotland, because of the new PLACE Fund, set up by Edinburgh City Council and the Scottish Government, we shall be making many more ongoing links between storytellers and communities, which we will also roll out beyond the capital with Festival on Tour and the Community Programme, including the wonderful designated Story Exchange day on Wednesday 27 November.

Storytelling is at its best when truly connected with people and place. This is at the core ethos of TRACS (Traditional Arts and Culture Scotland) who programme the Storytelling Festival. Our audience will have the benefit not only of the world’s first purpose-built Storytelling Centre in Edinburgh but a host of interesting locations across the country, evoking the tales to be told and the magic of in-situ storytelling.

‘If you’re interested in exploring connecting people and place in your community, register for the People and Place: Take Three workshop in June (Sat 15).

Aside from the telling, challenges arise from listening in to Canadian conversations. Many issues relating to First Nation or aboriginal peoples in North America remain unresolved and that has cultural effects. Also, Scotland is directly implicated in negative as well as positive aspects of relationships between settler and indigenous peoples in Canada.

Scottish involvement in Canada is sometimes viewed through rose-tinted glasses but in reality, we played our part in what was an extended destruction through violence, displacement and disease that killed thousands of people. Moreover, the much-vaunted relationship with Canada includes Scottish-born Prime Minister John MacDonald (1815 – 1891). Under his government, the Indian Act was intensified through the implementation of mandatory attendance at day schools, industrial schools or residential schools in 1884, the damaging legacy of which remains to this day.

One vivid instance of all this are the human remains of the Beothuk people held in the National Museum of Scotland, though hopefully soon to be returned based on the latest news. These skulls are a poignant symbol of the extinct aboriginals of Newfoundland, whose demise involved displacement, disease and at least one massacre at European hands.

Our National Museum has very little to say about the interactions between land hungry Scots and indigenous peoples. Fortunately, there are also positive stories of interaction – trade, alliance and marriage – to set alongside things we still need to name and shame in this UNESCO Year of Indigenous Languages.

Such issues and relationships will form part of SISF’s week long Global Storytelling Lab, held in conjunction with The Earth Charter Initiative. This will be a unique development opportunity for storytellers, artists and educators of all kinds.

What Toronto and Edinburgh show is that there is a worldwide renaissance in oral storytelling sources and creative methodologies. But how are these to be developed and applied in contemporary contexts? And what skills may be required? Those questions will be part of the artistic maelstrom, the creative conversations and the sheer pleasure of being part of Scotland’s 2019 International Storytelling Festival!’