Surfing on Stories

10 Apr 2012 in Ian Stephen Blog

For the last month, I’ve been surfing on stories. Part of my working week has been working intensively on a novel-in-progress and part has been spent in navigating my way through the Morrison Manuscript – Traditions of the Western Isles. The novel has been on the stocks for about thirty years so I’m reasonably familiar with parts of it. And I’ve been dipping into the stories collected by Donald Morrison, a Stornoway Cooper, (1787 to 1834) for about the same period of time.

I’ve always been interested in the relationship between spoken and written language and this is central to both these areas of work. I hope the novel has the rhythms of spoken language in it, with voices from Lewis and other areas of Scotland to the fore.

And the Morrison Manuscript is the work of a passionate collector and teller of tales. The style is very direct and so there is still a strong sense that the tales have come from an oral tradition.

Restricted Vessel (© Ian Stephen)

This is the difference. There comes a time when you have to put a stop to revisions, to a book which will be published. But you re-make a traditional story every time you tell it. So the written version is not really the definitive one, simply a recording of one telling of it. Whereas a work of literature is as complete as you can make it – though sometimes you want a rough finish rather than a shiny one.

I have also been gathering new and previously published poems and I’m still making revisions so even previously collected poems will appear in a slightly different form.

However, I hope to pass selected stories from collections in Western Isles Libraries to people who will be faithful to the rich material in one sense but make it their own in another. After the holiday, Events newspaper will publish my retelling of one of my favourite stories in the collection. And I hope to tell it on Isles FM and to share it with school pupils. The notes reckon the story took place at around 1700 but for me it’s timeless and placeless.

For a large part of 2011, I’ve been organising a linked series of exhibitions for an Lanntair Arts Centre. All of these have explored the different forms a story can take – sometimes a film and sometimes a printed text or a handwritten one or the spoken voice or music or dance made in response to that story. There have been versions on most of Scottish islands public galleries and the final exhibition is at Highland Print Studio, Inverness till 14th Jan.

I’ve come to the conclusion that a storyteller really is like a seagoing vessel that is restricted in its ability to manoeuvre, perhaps a deep-drafted ship in areas where there is shallow water.

When you are telling a story that may have been honed over generations, you have a duty to be faithful to the essential form of it and the tone of it. You can’t really go anywhere you want to, the way you can in a novel or a narrative poem. But if you don’t make the story your own, it won’t come alive.

I’ve two recommendations from the lending collections of Western Isles Libraries. 
Storytelling Scotland, A Nation in Narrative, by Donald Smith (398.09411)

Traditions of the Western Isles, Donald Morrison, edited Norman Macdonald,

For a taster, here’s the introductory summary from the Morrison manuscript to “MacKorr – the Clever Grieve” (p 194)

“ A near ‘fairy story’ of a clever young man whose talents consist of “sleeping long in a storm, keeping bairns from the fire and being good at gathering friends to a feast,” and who proves this to his employer at Callanish, Isle of Lewis, circa 1700.”

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© Ian Stephen, 2012