Year of Coasts and Waters: Day in the Life with Orkney Folklore and Storytelling Centre

29 July 2020
Lynn Barbour, Founder of the Orkney Folklore and Storytelling Centre speaks about the rich history and heritage of the island and its inhabitants, as well as their deep relationship with the coast that surrounds them.

Orkney has a strong storytelling tradition - what is so special about the culture of storytelling on the Islands?  

I think George Mackay Brown, the Orkney writer and poet, says it beautifully: 'We cannot live life fully without the treasury our ancestors have left us'.  

The distance of 6,000 years, from the first Orkney Island settlers to the here and now of the twenty-first century, is bridged by their ancient oral traditions of storytelling, sagas and ballads, songs and rhymes. The weavers of the island peoples' stories were the islanders who worked the land and fished the seas. Their stories have been spoken in at least 3 languages, from Pictish to Norse to Scots ‘mither tongue’, and in a weaving of these in the old Norn language of the Orkney and Shetland Islands.

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Stories were traditionally passed from generation to generation, why was that important to the people and families?  

Every day everyone has a story to live out and share. The telling of these stories, passed on and preserved in memory from one generation to another, is the life story of a land and its people, their oral lore and genealogies, work customs and social traditions. In the Scottish Highlands and Islands the past families’ oral traditions are all part of the ‘tapestry’ that is the history and heritage of their own small communities.

Why is it important to keep these stories alive?  

These crofting fishers and farmers are our ancestors who have shaped today's social landscape. We cannot separate the myths, legends, folk tales and rhymes from the social and work customs of the people. This was their 'living lore', so when we tell these stories and legends today we share a glimpse back to those lost times around the peat fire in long, low earth houses.

This 'living' storytelling experience, in the present moment, not only bridges the gap of time but carries their voices into the future. George Mackay Brown writes, 'The enchanting tongues went on and on beside the fish oil lamps, then the grey of morning entered the crofts and called the islanders back once more to their hard work of ploughing and fishing'.

Tell us about the Folk Art Studio  

The Folk Art Studio is part of the Orkney Folklore & Storytelling Centre. On arrival, guests discover the 'Peedie' Gallery with the 'Seeing Stories' exhibition in inks, pastels, photographs and storycards.

There is also the Orkney Folklore and Heritage Library with old Scottish and Orcadian books, maps and photographs of the island fishing and farming families from the late nineteenth century. The Hamnavoe Room has contemporary Orkney writers' books, island craft books, children's books and images of Orkney's coasts and seas.

In the Folk Art Studio guests sit around the big peat fire for a traditional Orkney evening, and other events, that combine legend, lore and social customs with music, song and dance. There are wall murals and collages of the island myths and legends alongside masks, models and social customs of the Orkney Folkloric characters and creatures. All made from recycled and beach combing materials. 

What makes its location so special?  

The Orkney Folklore and Storytelling Centre and Via House* sits in 3.5 acres in the middle of the UNESCO world heritage site 'The Heart of Neolithic Orkney' – just 3 miles from the Ring of Brodgar and Stenness Standing Stones and 2 miles from Skara Brae, the Stone Age Village. 

*The word ‘Via’ comes from the old Orkney word 'Veeo' meaning 'A Sacred Place' (of Worship) and we have aBronze Age Barrow Mound outside the studio door.

People come from all across the world to the Folklore & Storytelling Centre, why do you think that is? 

The art of storytelling is ancient and universal. Everyone can identify and connect with characters who take them on a story journey. From the beginning of time we have needed to tell each other who we are, where we have come from and what might be possible in our own life journeys.

We have moved into an age of instant media communication where information is moved around more rapidly. Storytelling communicates the wisdom of older traditions and our own ancestors, their knowledge and life experiences - people from all over the world can sense this and feel this magical transformation that they share with the storyteller. It is a sensory experience.

What is your favourite coastal tale?  

I love the old world magical Selkie tales of the tidelands. In Orkney, we have many legends about Selkies, the only seal that could transform into the human male or female with no need of sorcery. At one time here in the Orkney Isles, the Selkie tales were spoken of in every island. My favourite Selkie tale is ‘The Goodman o' Wastness’ – a story about a young and profitable man who ends up marrying a Selkie Maiden…

“Often you would see the Selkie wife walk along, in the glimmerings...and many a long longing look did she fix on the sea as she listened to the seal songs that whisper on the winds.”

Do you have a favourite place or memory connected to Scotland's coast or waters?  

In Orkney it has to be the Bay of Skaill, where Skara Brae sits. I was studying Archaeology at Glasgow University and came looking for Skara Brae... and stayed! My sons were born here, and I've lived in Orkney for 33 years of my life.

Every time I stand there I know I have come 'home' and am still awe-struck looking across the sea to the horizon that there is no other land until you reach the Canadian coastline. In Scotland we also discovered Farr Bay, near Bettyhill, along the north west coast towards the Cave of Smoo. The silver white sands and black rugged outcrops of rock are just stunning; isolated and ancient.

We are moving into phase three of the Scottish Government's Route Map, and more businesses are opening up across Orkney. Where are you most looking forward to visit?

I'm looking forward to just wandering through Happy Valley in Stenness, then going to the Merkister Hotel for lunch. The Merkister Hotel is a fishing lodge that sits by Loch Harray. Their meals are superb, all local food produce, and the staff hospitality makes everyone just feel so welcome to Orkney.

Make sure you check the Orkney Folklore and Storytelling Centre website for the latest Coronavirus updates, information and opening times. 

Scottish International Storytelling Festival

Storytelling with a coastal theme will also be the focus of this year’s Scottish International Storytelling Festival (13-31 October 2020). The festival will be keeping audiences ‘In the Flow’ with an eclectic mix of online events spanning across the globe, celebrating Scotland ‘a nation shaped by water’, taking audiences on voyages at home and away. It will include ‘Voyage’, a series of new works developed by storytellers and musicians for Scotland’s Year of Coasts and Waters, supported by the Scottish Government’s Festival Expo Fund. There will also be collaborations with The Orkney Storytelling Festival and The Wild Geese Festival in Dumfries and Galloway. Find out more here.

For more information about Scotland’s Year of Coasts and Waters 2020, please click here.


2020 is Scotland’s Year of Coasts and Waters, a year celebrating every aspect of our beautiful shores and waterways and the stories they inspire #YCW2020

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