Donald Smith, Director, Scottish Storytelling Centre

Updated on January 25, 2023 by Meg
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I came across the Scottish Storytelling Centre while meandering down the Royal Mile from Edinburgh Castle at the top of the Castle Rock down to Holyrood Abbey. The Centre is located about halfway between these historic monuments in a building that encompasses Edinburgh's oldest house, which was once home to Mary Queen of Scots' Catholic goldsmith and Scotland's controversial religious icon, John Knox.

Donald Smith

Donald Smith is Director of the Scottish Storytelling Centre, and himself a storyteller, playwright, novelist and performance poet. Born in Glasgow of Irish parents, Donald has worked in theatre and literature in Scotland since the seventies. Director of the Netherbow Arts Centre from 1983, Donald Smith became founding Director of the Scottish Storytelling Centre in 1996. He was also a founding Director of the National Theatre of Scotland and first Chair of the Literature Forum for Scotland. In addition to his creative work Donald has written and lectured widely on Scotland's cultural and religious life, past and present.

Donald Smith has produced, adapted or directed over fifty plays and published a series of books. His second novel, 'Between Ourselves', came out in 2009 along with his book on Burns, 'God, the Poet and the Devil: Robert Burns and Religion'. Donald is currently working on a novel about Mary Queen of Scots and the Scottish Reformation. His adaptation of 'The Matchmaker' is touring in Scotland and his essays on twentieth century Scottish playwrights are presently being published in Edinburgh University's 'Companions to Scottish Literature' series.

I hope you enjoy this conversation with Donald Smith as much as I did. His themes of memory, identity, and connecting with ourselves, others and our environment are universal and, as one would expect from a storyteller, eloquently expressed.

Meg: What do you see as the significance of storytelling?

Donald: Storytelling is a first of all a form of memory. We naturally think, feel and remember in stories — whether consciously told, or kept within our own minds and emotions. I think that means our identity is created and expressed through stories. For me storytelling is a way of acknowledging, communicating and celebrating all that personally and collectively. It's the language of human values and experiences, and in a highly specialized and subdivided world, it is more vital than ever because it is a common language open to everyone.

Donald Smith tells tales of Robert Burns to Royal Mile Primary School children. Senior figures of the Scottish National Party, Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon, listen in. Credit: Lindsay Corr.

Scottish Identity Linked to Landscape & Power of Place

Meg: I too believe at the heart of story-telling is identity. For future visitors to Scotland, how would you define Scottish identity? I fear many Americans might think of kilts, whiskey and golf. Can you go beyond that?

Donald: Scotland's identity is shaped first by our landscape with its varied contrasts of land and sea, highland and lowland, rural and urban. It's very distinctive yet our geography also makes us a very open culture — we're in the middle of routes north, south, east and west. Scots are restless, passionate and enterprising but often divided between the tug of home and the need to branch out. We're not a conservative or backward-looking country but we do value our past and do not like being misunderstood or patronized. In my lifetime we have become much more confident and creative about our society and ready to take on some of the big economic and social problems that have affected us in the modern period. I am not against kilts — tartan is beautiful and colorful — whisky or golf but always say to people — come and explore, there is a richness and diversity about Scotland.

Meg: Are there one or two locales in Scotland that you view as closely linked to Scotland's identity, places a visitor to Scotland should experience for themselves to get a sense of what the land means to its people? For example, I was very moved by Glenfinnan and Glencoe — I think what I knew of their histories influenced my perception but I also think I would have somehow found them quite evocative locales even without knowing about events that had occurred in each spot, they are each very powerful places.

Donald: My suggestion would be to go on a journey — you have to do that anyway of course in Scotland! To travel for example from Iona to St Andrews, or the other way round, is a journey through the spiritual heart of Scotland. I have just been researching and describing that route as a 'Pilgrim Way'.

There are so many others too though. For example to travel right round the north coast from Fort William to the Black Isle and Inverness is an unforgettable journey. I was brought up as a younger child in Edinburgh and Glasgow — which are both spectacular cities — but spent most of my youth in Stirling. If you were to push me to one place it would be to stand on Stirling Castle Rock from where you command a panoramic view of Highland and Lowland and how they flow together at that place — it's the crossroads, the navel perhaps — of Scotland.

Meg: Is there a particular place in Scotland that inspires you, where you go to "listen" to what is within you, connect with those emerging stories?

Donald: Go up a mountain. That is the way to commune. I am always uncomfortable too far away from a hill. When I was growing up it was the Abbey Craig and Dumyat in the Ochils, but in recent decades I have lived at the foot of Arthur's Seat in Edinburgh. Again the summit commands that inspiring sight of land and seas, city and country, mountain and valley intermingling. You feel the past all around but also something greater — a spiritual continuity that carries us forward and reconnects your struggling individuality to something bigger. I think Scotland is a very spiritual place though people are reluctant to speak about it — reserved about what matters most. It comes out obliquely in poetry and song.

Meg: You are founding Director of the Scottish Storytelling Centre, which came into being in 1996. What inspired you to establish the Centre?

Donald: There are several layers here. The first one is personal. I had a disrupted childhood with early emo­tional loss, different parents, and, at points, repressive overemphasis on institutional religion. I don't wear any of that on my sleeve, but it definitely made from the start very sensitive to identity, the language of the heart, and a profound human need to share stories. In early adulthood I was drawn into a ferment about Scottish cultural identity and values, and in that crucible I discovered some very old storytelling traditions which seemed to me to meet a contemporary need — to explore and share identity without aggression or conflict. These traditions included Gaelic Highland, Lowland Scots, Northern Isles and Scotland's Traveling people, who lived like the Romany but are indigenous to Scotland. These traditions and communities were marginalized and shoved into the background, but to me they were inspiring, and with a few like-minded spirits — very few at the beginning! — we started in a modest way to try and reconnect live storytelling traditions with contemporary society.

The Storytelling Centre seemed to take root spontaneously and naturally in the Old Town of Edinburgh. I was already working there as Director of the Netherbow Arts Centre so I was able to help make connections. But actually it was all so obvious — to be in the heart of a city of stories and dreams. Scotland's capital city as well — but that as they say is another story!

Good Storytelling Revolves Around Connection & Chemistry

Meg: What do you consider important in telling a good story?

Donald: Storytelling is first and foremost about live encounter between people. Good storytelling has to involve the imagination and feelings of everyone there, so the relationship between storyteller and listener is the critical litmus. Is everyone participating? This means that good storytelling is always fluid and evolving — responsive. The story changes as it is told. There may be a background type, pattern — a story frame if you like — but the threads have to be woven anew each time and brought to life there and now for all those present. That makes storytelling exciting and risky. It seems simple but actually it's rich and elusive. Will we be brought together? What is the psychological and emotional chemistry? There is another metaphor actually — storytelling is a crucible in which the matter of ordinary, shared experience may be transformed into something unique and special.

Meg: You were also a founding Director of the National Theatre of Scotland and have produced, adapted or directed over fifty plays, and you have also published a series of books. What observations can you make about the different genres of storytelling?

Donald Smith performing The Odyssey. Credit Peter Dibden.

Donald: Theatre was part of that ferment I have described, from the nineteen seventies. There are commonalities of course with storytelling — principally the live chemistry of it all. In addition, Scottish theatre had been a poor relation in the modern arts compared to the elite forms of opera and ballet which were seen as safer — less politically and socially volatile. At the same time there are important differences because storytelling does not depend on the conventions of acting or the institutional and economic structures needed by theatre. I wanted to make theatre more widely available and closer to communities, but recognized also that there was a wider reach for storytelling woven into the fabric of community life at every level.

The big experiences for me on the theatre side are all about working as a team with the actors, techies and so on — the moment when it comes together and starts to take wing. First in rehearsal, and then with a live audience. It's a complete mystery as to why and how this happens. All you can do is nurture all the ingredients and then stir the pot gently or vigorously as required. You have to love everyone involved at some deep level even if a few of them are driving everyone else mad. I do love the people who make theatre work — when it really works. Yes, love is not too strong a word because if people are not truly valued then the extra special something they have to contribute may not happen.

On the storytelling front it's the ceilidh. I should explain that ceilidh is taken nowadays to be a dance but it originally meant visiting — folk coming together to share stories, music, song and perhaps dance depending on place and mood. We have revived all that in open sessions where someone acts as host but the programme is made by those who are there and willing to contribute a story, song or whatever. Now this is another risky business — will it come together or fall flat? But when it flies it soars. There is a shared creative dynamic as contributors respond to each other, and to the whole group, while individuals surprise themselves! Again there is a mystery here as the collective is much greater than the sum of the parts. There is a link between storytelling and theatre — they both tap into the mystery of what humans can create together, beyond anything that the individual experience can conceive.

Meg: What is your most favorite memory of storytelling?

Donald: At the Edinburgh Folk festival in 1979 I went along to listen to two Scottish Traveller tradition bearers — Belle Stewart and her daughter Sheila Stewart. It was mainly ballad singing but in the middle of it Sheila launched into a story called 'Orangie and Aipplie'. That was the first time I had heard someone whose whole culture was shaped by oral storytelling deliver a magnificent traditional tale with complete personal and artistic commitment to story and audience alike. It is also a tale about childhood vulnerability. Anyway, it was a conversion moment. In some ways it was a seed that bore fruit much later but it was never forgotten. It's special for me that Sheila is still on the go and a dear friend.

Read: Discover the Grey Cairns of Camster in the Caithness and Sutherland areas of northeast Scotland! 

Scottish Storytellers Robert Louis Stevenson & John Knox Revealed Duality of Human Nature

Meg: I know your personal hero is Robert Louis Stevenson — tell me why you admire him.

Donald: Stevenson's work is about identity and storytelling. Also he soaked up all the traditions and influences I have mentioned and turned them into great literature. But he never lost his connection with the local places and stories, and when in later life he lived in the South Seas he was committed to supporting the local culture. That is why the Samoans called him 'Tusitala' — the Storyteller. Loving your own culture as Stevenson did made him open to other cultures and identities as well. How the world needs that spirit- sharing and celebrating our diversity. Stevenson is one of the great human beings of world literature and culture.

Meg: I have heard that Stevenson's 'Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde' was written about the two faces of Edinburgh, its Old and New towns — any idea if that's true and/or any commentary about the city's identity, historically and today?

An entrance to a "close" - an alleyway leading off the Royal Mile.

Donald: This is that divided self again. In Edinburgh it's the Enlightenment rationality and order versus a darker bed of superstition, moral corruption and emotional license. There is some truth to that in the way Edinburgh developed, but there is a profounder psychological truth that Stevenson plums here about human nature and the power we have sometimes to deceive ourselves and lose control of who and what we are. John Knox and Stevenson come together here! Incidentally the fable also sets medical science alongside the misuse of drugs which is a very contemporary conflict.

Meg: I understand you are an authority on John Knox — what about him interests you and can you share a little bit about his role in Scotland's history and the role storytelling played in his career/life?

Donald: John Knox is a defining figure because of his progressive ideas about democracy, literacy and education. These values remain core to Scottish society and politics. But in religious and cultural terms he is controversial — a mixed blessing one might say. I don't personally rate Knox highly as a theologian and religious thinker, and though he strength­ened Scotland's love affair with words and ideas, he denigrated our rich visual culture and attacked many positive aspects of communal life and tradition. Unfortunately also the Reformation he achieved was not as radical as he desired and in the longer term Presbyterianism developed an oppressive social and religious identity rather than a liberating and radical one. Institutional religion dramatically declined in late twentieth century Scotland because the Churches failed to fully re-assess and re-engage with the core issues. They became protectionist and conservative. Whatever else Knox is he is a ferment man! He has been hero-worshipped and demonized, but his actual complexity tells us a lot about Scotland good and bad.

Meg: There is an interesting architectural detail on the exterior of the John Knox House that caught my eye . . . can you tell me a little bit about it?

Royal Mile Renaissance Sundial. Credit: Catriona France.

Donald: That is a renaissance sundial — from the time of Mary Queen of Scots when her goldsmith lived in the house. It shows Moses receiving the revelation on Mount Sinai from the Sun symbolizing the light and wisdom of God. This then relates to the motto above the door "Luve God abuve al and ye nychtbour as yersel," (old Scots) which is what Christ said when asked 'what is the most important thing in the Torah i.e., Jewish law.'

So it's a piece of religious symbolism and ecumenism all in one. It dates from a few years before John Knox's association with the house and from reforming Catholic rather than reforming Protestant movements . . . a lot of history!

Meg: You were a Member of Edinburgh's Unesco World City of Literature Bid Committee. Can you describe what this designation is, and what your role on the committee was, and the attributes that resulted in Edinburgh receiving this designation?

Donald: The Bid was a tremendous collective effort by all those who played a part in Edinburgh's literary life. I was just a small part of it along with other writers, literary organizations, libraries, universities and so on. I think even we were surprised by the extent to which the identity of our city was expressed through literature. We managed to put the story across though and Unesco were quickly convinced. We were the first city to win the designation and now there is a growing network. It's up to each city to build its literary life and identity, and we are still working out the full potential of the designation for our own citizens, for Scotland as a whole and for visitors. I am very actively involved right now in a fresh effort to enhance what has been achieved and take it forward in new ways.

Meg: Being of Irish descent myself, I was brought up with the notion that storytelling is in the Celtic DNA. What are your thoughts on storytelling as a Celtic tradition?

Donald: I think every culture has storytelling in its DNA but it appears to be more upfront in Celtic traditions. There is a love of color and humor, an openness to the marvelous and magical, and a certain loquaciouness that revels in language. Mouth music. I like to feel we are still connected with all that.

Meg: The Scottish Storytelling Centre is hosting a workshop in early May on the connection between spirituality and landscape. This is a subject near and dear to my heart — can you describe this workshop and share your thoughts on this theme?

Donald: The landscape is a reservoir of memory and of meaning. Walking and traveling is a way of connecting with these dimensions — thousands of years of history. We need to restore and nourish this connection between humanity and nature or we will destroy the ground of our own existence. So it's a healing process too. Often the stories and myths of landscape are latent rather than explicit — I talk sometimes about listening to the land, just as you might listen to a storyteller. The weekend workshop brings together artists, archaeologists, storytellers, walkers and cultural explorers to open up so many perspectives on this theme. There is a real movement here around walking, pilgrimage, and landscape art. One of the best things about my storytelling involvement has been traveling to all parts of Scotland. We are living with an extraordinary environment, rich in beauty, inspiration and tradition. We can feel all that on our skins because actually it's already bred in our bones.

Storytelling on Edinburgh's Arthur's Seat.

Meg: What is your view of the significance of "place" in storytelling?

Donald: Place is the ground — even in the virtual age, perhaps especially in the digital age. Place your feet on terra firma - walk and think and walk again. Use the senses directly — eye, ear, touch and perhaps that sense of motion. That then wells up in the storytelling and helps people break out of the stress and connect with what makes life life and people persons. Of course everyone has to discover that for themselves but stories help.

Meg: Can you describe a few of the other offerings of the Centre and talk a little bit about the people who avail themselves of its programs?

Donald: We have many performance events, workshops and conferences. We are also the support hub for a national and international network of activity. Storytellers love to work as well with musicians, singers, dancers, visual artists and theatre-makers. We are not into hard edges — bridge people not walls. There seems to be a growing public interest. But I never take that for granted. Also sometimes the small group is as important as the big turnout.

The storytellers are professional artists, aspirant professionals, tradition bearers, educators, community workers, enthusiasts, volunteers. . . .

Meg: How important is an audience and "being heard" to good storytelling?

Donald: Encouraging people to find their voice and contribute is vital — enabling people to be heard. Fostering skills of listening, telling and participating.

Meg: Was there a moment when you felt you had "found your voice"?

Donald: I spent many years listening and that is still central. But I have gradually learned the arts of telling. I am a kind of bit by bit person, respecting the process, accepting the elusive, learning patience, attending to things. That said I have been writing more recently. We will see where all that takes us.

Meg: Storytelling for me is a way to make sense of the past. Is this a view you share?

Donald: Past, present and future — a continuing stream.

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