George MacPherson, Scotland — Storyteller

At the end of November and during December we were visited by the Scotsman, George MacPherson, a Master Storyteller who is interviewed by Helen McKay. Editor

Helen: George MacPherson. You’re a storyteller visiting Australia from the Isle of Skye in Scotland. Where exactly is that?

George: Skye is an island in the west of Scotand – it is closer to the North Pole, than Moscow.

Helen: Sounds cold. How did you become involved with storytelling?

George: I started when I was three years old. My grandfather would take me on his knee, tell me a story and I would tell it back to him. If I hadn’t got it quite right, I would retell it until such time as he was happy that it was absolutely correct. Later on, my father would tell me stories, working with some ridiculous story or riddle and then tell me the story behind it, giving me the genealogy with it. My granduncles, and granddads were the same. As I grew up, I would talk to the old people. I would rather sit, listening to them, than do other things. So, I just kind of fell into storytelling as a part of life. I was very lucky because both sides of the family had this specialist storytelling, so I gathered a collection of stories from them which ranged from up to 2500 years ago. I used to tell when I was about 10-12 years old.

Helen: Did you feel then, that you would become a full-time storyteller?

George: Not really. It was just about ten years ago that, out of the blue, I got this chance to start telling stories and get paid for it. I suddenly realised that you could tell stories as a career and be paid for it. Up to that time, I’d never even thought that what I had been doing was valuable. Since that time, I have been telling professionally and have told stories at many places, right round the world.

Helen: That’s an interesting start; you were very young. Do you always tell traditional stories? Do you sometimes tell stories from your personal experiences?

George: I tell all types of stories, some traditional and other more modern, made up stories. I don’t tell non-traditional stories and try to claim they are traditional, which happens very often these days. I give a background to my stories, whether they are or not traditional. Sometimes, I tell who gave me the stories and the circumstances in which they were given. But, a lot of the tellers who passed them on, didn’t want their name used in connection with the stories. That is part of the tradition – that the stories were important – not the person who passed them on. I’ve made a decision that I don’t use other people’s stories, unless I have their permission.

Helen: I agree. That’s something we are trying to impress on our members. People’s personal stories are copyright. Especially the Aboriginal Dreamtime stories, where you really do need to seek permission; they are regarded as cultural property. Besides, you need to understand the background and spirituality behind these stories before you tell them.

George, I’m fascinated by the wide range of stories in your repertoire. How long did it take you to collect them and, was it easy to memorise them?

George: Usually, I find it easy to memorise them. As I said, I started when I was three and I’ve collected them ever since. I still do collect stories, so I’ve been collecting stories for well over 60 years or more. I don’t know exactly how many stories I have now. It would be several hundred, at least.

Helen: You have a very wide repertoire. You virtually have a story for any particular occasion, haven’t you?

George: Pretty well. I have stories for children and stories for everyone. I even have traditional stories, I have collected from China and Sweden and places like that, which I have been given permission to tell.

Helen: That’s wonderful. They’re good stories, with great messages in them. Whereabouts do you tell your stories? Just in Scotland or in other places?

George: No, I tell in many countries beside Scotland. This spring, I was telling in Sweden and Denmark. I did a television program for Germany. I’ve done storytelling in France, Spain, Malta, Wales and Ireland. And even England. Now I can add Australia to that list. Gosh, I didn’t realise, I’d been in so many countries. I thoroughly enjoy going to different places to tell stories, because when I travel to other places, I always get the opportunity to gather some more stories for my collection.

Helen: Yes, that’s true. And have you done that here?

George: Yes, I think I have.

Helen: You were saying yesterday that you were teaching at a University in Edinburgh?

George: I do occasional lectures there, yes. But, not storytelling

Helen: But it’s related to storytelling isn’t it?

George: It’s parapsychology, which covers ESP, Telekinesis, and second sight.

Helen: Which is related to storytelling in many ways, because many of the old stories are involved with that subject.

George: Especially, a lot of the very old Scottish stories. They have elements of second sight, ESP and telekinesis.

Helen: How did you get involved in that area of study?

George: I think there was a bit of it in my family – second sight – that is, and I’d always been interested in it. I started examining some of the Russian and American research that was looking into ESP, second sight and telekinesis. I became quite fascinated by some of the things I found out. It is interesting that some of the discoveries they made, were actually known in Ireland for many years. People there had just accepted them. And some of the other things that were discovered, were very new and quite astounding.

Helen: Did you go looking for stories that contained these elements?

George: Oh yes. Then, I was invited to take part in some of the courses, as a lecturer, at Edinburgh University’s School of Social Sciences; especially in the area of parapsychology. It just developed from that point.

Helen: Wonderful, Sounds extremely interesting.

George: It’s really interesting stuff and it draws you in. A lot of research has gone into the subject – undercover research. The governments of America and Russia have done some experiments and, seemingly, shattered some scientific theories in this area.

Helen: I’m sure they have. This topic’s been treated as a not very valid or valued skill, for years, by the academics. Now, suddenly, they’re proving there is something solid to back it up. I notice the FBI have a unit using these techniques in the States.

George: One of the experiments they’ve discovered with ESP was, using two different people, in different localities, they can send messages from earth to a sattelite and back to earth again. The messages going out from one person and arriving back to another, are instantaneous; there’s no pause in between them. These messages travel faster than the speed of light. Of course, the scientific theory was that, `nothing can travel faster than the speed of light’. It’s only recently, using this research, they’ve discovered that something can. The same with second sight. They now know that people can see things ahead of their time – perhaps days or hours ahead, or perhaps, even months or years ahead. It can be seen.

Helen: And you know that storytellers are very aware of this. They have sent silent messages to their audiences through their stories for years. The pictures in the mind.

George: That’s right. The audiences might not pick it up immediately at a surface level, but it goes deeper and eventually, the messages get through. That’s why stories were used to carry messages; the messages were hidden deep inside the story, but would get through, eventually. The person listening in the audience, might not realise there was a message – other than the surface story, but later, they would discover there was an inner message.

Helen: Storytellers really are the culture keepers in our societies.

George: Historically, when a country was conquered, the victor often endeavoured to totally eliminate the country’s culture, replacing it with their own. It has happened right throughout history. It even happens in the world today, where nations are at war. In Scotland, this happened on a number of occasions. All the literature and historical material was burned and replaced with the new culture. Fortunately, some literature was hidden. So the storytellers became the most important persons in the community, as they held the history and stories of their people in their heads. They travelled round the villages, surreptitiously keeping the culture alive. In some places in Scotland, they could tell of the hiding places of some of the precious early literature, which went back centuries. These sites are now being excavated and the contents are being preserved in Museums.

Helen: ├┐George, do you believe that healing can take place as a result of storytelling?

George: Very much so. In the highlands, many stories carried traditional forms of medicine within the story and told of the way these healing methods should be used. But also, in another instance, I sometimes go to schools where there are classes of `disturbed children’. Usually, when I am being briefed about these classes, I am told that the children have an attention span of about three minutes. I can go in there and the children will sit still and listen, wanting more stories even, when the time has well passed. You can tell for an hour – two hours even – and the children will sit quietly and still want stories. They ask me questions on the stories they’ve been told. The questions they ask, show they’ve really listened to my stories. Sometimes they draw great pictures of my stories which show how much of the story has been absorbed. Yet, these are the children the teacher will tell you have no attention span and can’t learn anything! Through storytelling, I have regularly proved that you can get lessons through to children. Even so-called normal, active children, will sit and listen to stories. They stay quiet and listen intently, for quite long periods.

Helen: But George, you’ve got to have special skills to do this. They’ll sit still, only as long as those stories are interesting and they’re connected to the teller.

George: You’re right. You have to have a certain level of skill, when you’re storytelling, the same as with anything else you do. If you don’t have that aptitude or skill, then it won’t work in the same way.

Helen: This is moving into an area where people are now realising that oral storytelling has a lot of value in the classroom. A while back, the perception was, that storytelling was all just fairy stories. Educators are now coming to realise there might be something more to it.

George: Well the real Scottish traditional stories, especially the highland ones, were not fairy stories. That is why they were successful.

Helen: Then they were not just for entertainment initially?

George: They were for entertainment as well, but the main part to them, was to carry on the culture. As I said previously, in many cases, they carried traditional forms of medicine and healing. These elements, were actually contained in the stories – the way to do certain things. They also carried the history – the genealogy of your clan and surrounding clans – so they were much more than just stories. And it’s now been proved, some of these geneaologies were changed in the stories. They had to be absolutely correct in every detail as they went back, sometimes, twenty generations.

Helen: How amazing!

George: Some of the stories have also been changed in their content, where you mention names, etc. One story in particular, told by myself, is over 2000 years old. It travels from a small island off the coast of Ireland, to Ireland, to the west coast of Scotland, to the Isle of Skye, then, across from the east coast of Scotland, to Holland, to France, then to Italy and then back to Ireland. That story tells the geneaology of the persons involved, who they met, what they did, where they went, and what the consequenses of their actions were going to be in Ireland in future years. These are the descendents, who live in Ireland in the present day. The story was checked recently and was found to be absolutely correct, so far as the details of people’s names, what they did and so on.

Helen: Who is doing this sort of research?

George: There are different universities – one that comes to mind is Dublin University in Ireland. We also have universities in Scotland doing some research and quite a number of American universities are also involved in research into these stories.

Helen: So, academic institutions are beginning to understand the importance of these historical stories?

George: Yes, we’ve even had students sent across from American universities, to learn stories from our storytellers, so they could use them in their doctoral and other studies.

Helen: Isn’t that wonderful! I bet you didn’t think storytelling was going to gain this importance, when you started out as a storyteller.

George: No, I did not. To me, it was just a very nice way of life, listening to and telling the stories. Although, it was always pointed out, in the process of learning them, that these stories were not to be tampered with.

Helen: How far down the track did you come to the realisation of their importance?

George: I don’t know. I was pretty young, when suddenly, I began to understand that there was so much more to the stories, than just the surface of them. That there was symbolism in them, there was healing in them, there were all sorts of things in them which fascinated me.

One of the things I’ve found you need to watch out for, is that people of the Victorian era, were very adept at taking some of their own legends and altering them – Christianising them. They gave them a Christian aethos, whereas, the Druidical morals in the original story, contained better morals than the Christian morals.

Helen: That’s the same with Aboriginal stories – they cannot be altered. If they are tampered with they lose their credibility. They are not really intended as entertainment but are more cultural education. It’s an interesting sort of similarity isn’t it?

George: You have to actually see these lines of stories in the highlands. The main line are the seanachie stories, the `big’ stories. They may not be long stories, but are often, quite short stories. It’s the content in them that makes them `big’ stories. They told of the history, culture and geneaology.

Then, there were the midstream stories – the lighter stories. They might contain some history too. The facts in them might have changed, but the embroidery round the facts didn’t change.

Then, you have the very `light entertainment’ stories, which were made up. They were, usually, very humorous and were told to the world to suit the particular place where you were telling. So, you had those three streams of storytelling all the time and the old seanachie could tell all three. Some of the lighter storytellers couldn’t tell the big stories.

Helen: When you say `Big’ stories these are big in depth and also long?

George: Not necessarily so. They can have very great depth and very strong content but they can be very short stories. But they have this power in them, which is quite astonishing.

Helen: I’ve read that in Ireland some storytellers can go on telling one story for several days. Is this the case in Scotland?

George: Yes. It can be. The longest story I have can last for three days. I know other storytellers, who have stories which last for long times as well. These stories are in sections, as you might say, and are told over a period of three different nights, starting at six o’clock at night and going ’til 11:30 or midnight. They continue the next day at six o’clock and so on, until the final night, when the telling would continue until the end of the story.

Helen: How do you remember epics of that length?

George: You don’t remember the words. You just see the pictures in your head and you tell from the pictures. You just tell what the pictures are showing – the pictures are just what flashes in your head. I know of instances, where there are people in the audience who don’t speak the language of the teller, but who understand the story. They had seen the pictures transferred from the storyteller’s head and were able to convert the story into their own language. That’s a form of ESP again.

Helen: I saw this happen in New Zealand at the National Storytelling Festival, when a young Maori boy told a story in the Maori language. There were many people present, who did not understand the language, but his Mana and body language were so good, you were literally drawn into his mind. The pictures were being freely transmitted from his mind to his audience. A fantastic performance.

George: This is the thing, story has this power in it and the storyteller has the ability to project these images, so that other people can pick up the images without knowing the language at all.

Helen: Thank you, George, for a fascinating interview, I’m sure our members will enjoy it as much as I have.

If you wish to write:├┐George MacPherson
Fasach House, Glevdale, Isle of Skye, IV 55 8WP – Ph/Fax 01470 511340

by Helen McKay