by Erin Farley
Story Harvest (Orkneyology Press, 2023) brings together tales gathered by storyteller David Campbell over a lifetime of telling traditional stories. Campbell and his distinctive style of storytelling have been a mainstay of the traditional arts in Scotland for decades, and this new collection feels like both a reflection on a life well lived in story and a renewed commitment to passing on tales for others to tell.
Story Harvest is deeply rooted in Scottish storytelling traditions, particularly Traveller and Highland culture, tales from which form the core of Campbell’s wide-ranging repertoire. They are accompanied by stories picked up on the author’s travels to Japan, the United States, Australia and elsewhere. Most of the stories are introduced with a small note, in which Campbell shares some background to where he learned it, or the story’s role in his life, in the way they often would be in a live performance. Sometimes, these also include tips on telling the story as a performance, suggestions for actions or places to invite audience interactions. Although these notes are a relatively small part of the text, they go a long way towards bringing the stories to life, drawing you into the journey of collecting stories and reminding us that traditional story collections are at their best as a text which invites you to tell them aloud. Campbell’s writing reflects the flow of stories in voice, and in many places we are reminded of the overlaps between song, story and tune in Scottish tradition. ‘Loch Lomond’ recounts the story of the famous song’s composition by a piper sentenced to execution following the battle of Culloden, evoking not just the music itself but a powerful testament to the process of passing things on and how they resonate centuries later.
Perhaps my favourite aspect of the book is the way that, in several of the stories, Campbell’s writing shifts towards something almost like free verse, with line breaks evoking the rhythm of the spoken story. This works equally well – though to very different effects – in his versions of the Traveller tale ‘Auld Cruivie’ and the Japanese supernatural legend ‘Yuki-Onna.’ In ‘Yuki-Onna’, the verse-like way of telling builds up suspense in short, lyrical yet terse lines, creating a genuinely haunting story:
“The woman white as snow bent over him,
Lower and lower,
until her face almost touched his.
He saw that she was very beautiful,
though her eyes put fear into him.”
If you have heard David Campbell perform live, you will know that he brings a sense of enjoyment to his bardic role that is impossible to resist as a listener. This sense of humour and mischief shines through at many points in the collection, and in stories like ‘Gregor Armstrong,’ a ghost story told along with the unlikely tale of his learning it from a mysterious man in a Borders pub while on a storytelling trip with Duncan Williamson, real life and legend blurs in a very enjoyable way. Although a good collection of traditional stories is not always the sort of book which demands to be read in order, Story Harvest does move between tales with the flow of a live storytelling performance, gradually shifting from epic to tragedy to comedy and back again, connected by often small thematic links where one story brings another to mind. One such link works to great effect when ‘The Minister and the Skull,’ a darkly surreal Traveller’s tale full of enduring imagery, is followed by ‘The Holy Horse,’ a Western Isles story which is a wickedly enjoyable dig at self-important ministers.
As a storyteller myself, my favourite collections of traditional tales to return to are always those which remind you of the joy of the story as a living entity, something with its own sense of itself, to be collaborated with rather than simply performed. I have a feeling that Story Harvest is going to become one of these collections for me in years to come – it is a book of stories which makes you want to go and tell stories, and that is undoubtedly the best kind.