Peer to Pier: Conversations with fellow travelers
I’m pleased to share May’s “Peer to Pier” interview with Donald Smith, Director of the Scottish Storytelling Centre in Edinburgh. I came across the 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, 56, is 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.
Think global; act local.
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.
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 Travelling 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!