I tell stories. A lot of stories. As a performer I relish the experience of hooking an audience (or the Tax Man) with the nicely-turned twist of a tale. Making them jump. Making them laugh. Live storytelling is becoming a lost art – a shame, as it’s something just about everyone can do, and there is no shortage of raw materials on every street, in every town in the land. This stuff is the ‘Cultural Currency’ of our communities, and it’s being eroded all the time by a homogenised mass-market media. Let’s face it, most people probably have a better grasp of the history of Coronation Street or Albert Square than they do of the lane, wynd or estate they grew up on.
Mind you, I don’t subscribe to the folklore-purist’s view that storytelling is something that should be fixed in time: that tales exist as absolute entities, complete in themselves. That’s nonsense. The ‘personal touch’ is what establishes the rapport any entertainer, storyteller or stand-up enjoys with his audience. It’s what makes good storytelling unique.
Stories evolve in all manner of quaint and curious ways. Sometimes they are shaped by chance – new elements added over time as generation upon generation of tellers and their own distinctive tweaks and tropes, sometimes transforming the original tale beyond all recognition - or this narrative renovation can be a more calculated process.
Local legend in Stirling has it that Jock Rankin, the Royal Burgh’s last torturer, choked to death on a chicken bone after greedily guzzling a bowl of broth, and that his guttural gagging can still be heard in the shadows of his old haunt, the Tollbooth jail. Complete nonsense. He died of old age on his brother’s farm in Ayr, but the dramatic irony of his imagined passing – a hangman choking to death - was so irresistible to the townsfolk that it became accepted as truth even while he was still alive. They wanted the fiction to be true.
Legend has it that the ruinous Mar’s Wark – late16th-century townhouse of John Erskine, Earl of Mar and third Regent of Scotland during the infancy of James VI– was never completed because the Protestant (and cheapskate) Mar toppled the walls of Catholic Cambuskenneth Abbey to steal-away the bricks he needed for construction. He was cursed by the Abbot – who, aside from his holy duties, was feared far and wide as a powerful Black Magician (terrible…the Pope hates Moonlighters!) His house was never finished, his family fortunes failed…blah-de-blah!. All true. Up to a point. Mar’s Wark was never finished, his family did fall from courtly grace and honour, but the fearful ‘Curse of Alloa Tower’ which predicted the perils faced by his bloodline was utter balls - concocted more than a century after John Erskine’s death by Courtly rivals who, observing his superstitious descendant ‘Bobbing John’ Mar’s dithering dalliance with Jacobitism in the run-up to the 1715 Rising, wanted to remind the errant Earl of the error of pissing off the side with Papal support.
Similarly, those familiar with the lore of the Ladies’ Hill – the stern, rocky promontory which dominates the centre of the Holy Rude Cemetery - know that it was here that the blind evangelist Alick Lyon battled with the Devil, defending the selfsame drunkards and dullards who taunted him for his Temperance. That Blind Alick was so named because he was blind-drunk six nights out of seven, had been cast out of his strict Presbyterian kirk for his wanton ways, and died alone and unlamented in his lodging-house in King Street – known to his ironically inclined neighbours as ‘Quality Street’, as all the muck and mire of the Old Town streets gathered there and low property-prices made in the natural home for the town’s brothels, gambling-dens and doss-houses – is conveniently forgotten.
The true irony of this tale is that though the Temperance movement latched onto Alick’s legend and made it popular, the story itself seems to have evolved into it’s familiar form courtesy of the Whistlebinkies and the Seannachie – the storytellers and entertainers who regaled drinkers in the ale-houses through the long winter nights. In most versions he vanishes in a puff of fire and brimstone by striking Auld Hornie with his Bible, sacrificing his own prospect of rising again upon the Sounding of the Last Trump - but saving the souls of Stirling’s sinners.
Um…why does an 18th-century blind man need a bloody Bible? And doesn’t it diminish the impact of his fiery finale when you can see his gravestone in the grounds of the old Erskine Marykirk (currently the Youth Hostel)? Nah. The tale’s the thing!
As as a folklorist I love tracing back the evolutionary line of these legends, as they reveal a great deal about the prejudices and preoccupations of our predecessors. As a storyteller I relish the miraculous malleability of Story as an organic entity. I’ve used our ‘Manic Street Preacher’ in many scripts and stories over the past years – as hero and hypocrite, fearless Defender of the Faith and foolish fall-guy. I’ve told the tale from the perspective of the blustrous barkeep who cast him out into the street on the night he ‘died’, and of the Devil himself – set upon by a belligerent drunk while he was enjoying some ‘down-time’ on the Ladies’ Hill. I’ve added my own ‘window dressing’ from time to time (such as giving the aforementioned barkeep a name – Tam Bone (rambunctious proprietor of the Stirling Arms, in the 1790s– and as good a candidate for that particular supporting role as any), and found them picked up on and employed by other storytellers.
Same story. Same broad narrative strokes…but capable of infinite reinventions – adapting to contemporary concerns and different storytelling environments: grim and gritty is great for a small group on a dark and stormy windswept eve, but the quaint and comic works so much better on a busier, breezier sun-shiney day.
If you can tell a Joke or recite a dirty limerick you have all the skills you need to be a storyteller – so find a tale, and tell it. We have some of the best raw-materials for fantastic fantasy and horror on our doorsteps, and ignore it in favour of bland homogenised crap. So what if most of it is founded on nothing more than piss and wind. That’s not the point. Story is the point, and, as I’ve said before on these pages, you should never let a little thing like the truth get in the way of a good story.