Once upon a time when people talked

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Storyteller Fiona Herbert uses an expressive style of delivery when telling her tales.

What’s old is new again, as the art of storytelling experiences rebirth a and finds a home in modern Edinburgh.  

Storytelling is an ancient Scottish tradition. In fact, it’s a tradition all over the world, but few people have a clue of what storytelling actually is. Many people still think that storytellers read from a book and start with “Once upon a time,” but that is far from the truth. It is an art form that would be a great shame to lose.

When Fiona Herbert first moved to Edinburgh about six years ago, even she didn’t know that storytelling existed, but when she first saw the Storytelling Center, she knew this was something she wanted to try.

“Storytelling is something we all used to do, just a few generations ago,” she says. “Before we had television we all told stories. It is a way of finding our common humanity, sharing things, enjoying ourselves, learning from each other. And they are also just told for fun.”

Herbert has lived all over the UK, she was born in the Highlands and studied at Glasgow University. Since then she has lived in Bristol and in London for 10 years, but she never really felt like home. But then she moved to Edinburgh.

“It’s the best decision I ever made,” she says. “I love it here, I really do. If it wasn’t for moving here I would still be just teaching instead of being a storyteller, so I’m very glad I made that decision.”

When she decided to become a storyteller, she pursued her dream with great motivation and determination. She can still remember her first time she ever told a story in public. A lot of good feedback and encouragement had made her more confident about herself and storytelling.

“I went to Carrier Quarter’s pub in Leith. I had a glass of wine, and then another one. Then I got up and told a true story about an incident that happened to me in Africa, when I nearly got killed by a lion,” she says. “Luckily an elephant came along and scared the lion away. It was a true story so could really feel it, I didn’t feel like I had to remember it, because it happened.”

Her performance went so well that people in the audience wouldn’t believe it was her first time on stage.

“I got such a boost doing that, and I just thought ‘Okay, I’m a storyteller now,'” she says. “And then it took about a year of being very tunnel visioned and getting as much experience as possible; with children, festivals, old folks, pubs. And getting observed, learning from watching other storytellers and then I got officially accepted as a member of the national directory of professional storytellers.”

Herbert has been very successful in her storytelling career the past years. Last year she won the Tall Tales Oscar competition. But Herbert has not always felt comfortable being the centre of attention. Still after six years of experience she gets incredibly nervous and anxious before a gig.

“I was so shy in school that people thought I had mental problems,” she says. “I actually met a boy that I had a huge crush on all through secondary school in a pub in the holidays and he said he would have asked me out back then, but he thought I was mentally retarded, because I was so quiet.”

Apart from being very shy, Herbert also got bullied all through school. Not until she went to university and met likeminded people did she begin to loosen up.

“That is when I got into performing,” she says. “I think for having to be quiet for all those years really made me move on. But I didn’t actually pursue the performance for a long time, because I was teaching for about ten years and then I moved to Edinburgh. Getting on stage is addictive. I missed that. You do it at the university and then not that much after that, you have to enter the real world. So getting to perform again is a great feeling.”

Storytelling gave Herbert an outlet for her creativity, which is something she didn’t have while she was only teaching. A lot of the stories she tells she has invented herself.

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Storytelling helped Fiona Herbert overcome the shyness that plagued her as a child.

“They tend to be the ones that get the best response,” she says. “A lot of people would like to stick to the old traditional tales which should definitely be preserved, but I like to take things in quite a different direction. I like to tell my own versions of old folktales. They are great and not like fairytales where it is all about being pretty. Folktales are about what happens when the princess has married the prince and things have gone a bit wrong, so it is all back to reality. I like old folktales that have a connection to reality in them, where women are a bit cleverer and stand up for themselves more than they tend to in fairytales.”

“I also like stories where I can actually get into the character and distort my face; apparently I’ve got quite frightening eyes. I can be quite expressive, which I used to use in teaching,” she says. “Some people tell old beautiful Celtic tales far better than I do, I’m more into having fun.”

But unlike standup, storytelling is much more than just having fun and going for the laughs. It embraces all kind of emotions; jealousy, honesty, courage, and sometimes there’s a moral at the end. But most important is the human connection. And if we lose storytelling, we might lose the human connection as well.

“For example when I tell stories for elderly people in homes, they are all in their isolated worlds,” says Herbert. “Through storytelling we found out that one old lady used to drive ambulances during the Second World War. And I remember that a manager said to me after listening to all the stories, ‘it is terrible, normally we don’t ever hear this about them until we are at the funeral.’ It is just a shame that most people don’t use stories. It doesn’t matter how old you are.”

And storytellers are something we all are, more or less. At least we used to be at the time before dinner parties didn’t consist of people caressing their touch screens.

“I think we need to get that back,” says Herbert. “I think we are living in an age now where we are all isolated with our own little technological bubbles. I am afraid that we are losing something that really shouldn’t be lost, that human connection.”

Listen to Fiona tell a story.