Setting up a new event is like taking a running jump off a pier. You don’t know if the water’s going to be freezing, or tangled with seaweed or possibly even infested with sharks. But you just have to do it. Even in time of covid when the complications are multiplied and people are afraid. Especially in time of covid.
And so it was that musician Hamish Napier and myself took the plunge with The Storylands Sessions in September. It’s a new series of events in Badenoch, the lesser-known cousin of Strathspey, higher up the legendary river. Meaning ‘the drowned lands’ in Gaelic, this beautiful floodplain between the Cairngorms and the Monadhliaths is a rich source of stories, from Pictish battles to Jacobite strongholds, the Ossian epic to the Wolf of Badenoch.
It has led to a new name for the area, ‘The Storylands’, in a drive to celebrate its unique heritage. But the stories are not just from the past. Like the Spey, they loop and flow on down the generations, changing course and character as successive peoples come and go, adding new voices and making new stories. So the idea for The Storylands Sessions was born. These are two monthly events in Badenoch, one an open mic focused on storytelling and poetry, with music weaving it all together, and the second a trad tunes session, threaded with stories.
The venue for the open mic is the Loch Insh Watersports centre, so I decided our first theme would be ‘water’ and desperately begged everyone I knew to come and, better still, tell a tale. I was terrified only two-and-half people would turn up and it would feel like slowly setting concrete. But I arrived to a room bright and beautifully arranged by the Loch Insh team and a gradual trickle of people with eager faces.
In our Introduction to Storytelling workshop we started by talking about the common sayings and mottos in our families, like “Waste not want not” or “Blood is thicker than water”. And then we asked: who were the natural raconteurs of our upbringing? The repositories of family history and local legend? There are stories all around us and we tell them all the time, from our explanation for being late to the blow-by-blow account of Auntie Yolanda’s disastrous wedding.
After the workshop, Hamish kicked off the open mic with a bright reel on the whistle called Spey in Spate in celebration of this waterway so prone to flooding. We then listened to Duncan Freshwater’s story of his father Clive’s landmark battle to win access rights on the river in the early days of the Loch Insh watersports centre.
Then the night flowed on through poems about eels, the Spey and The Grey Coast; a comic ballad about an old fisherman, a song about boats and more music on piano, guitar and bazouki. There were hot pies and cold drinks and the stories spilled out: the one from Alice Goodridge, our channel swimmer who was ‘billy no mates’ when she arrived here looking for dookin buddies and has gone on to set up Cairngorm Wild Swimmers and Loch Insh Dippers, with hundreds taking the plunge.
I told the story of The Chapel of the Swans, our ancient church above Loch Insh, with its monks, myths and magical bell. We listened to the tale of a runaway canal barge and a woman’s memories of carrying water to her Irish grandmother’s house. The evening finished with the story from Alistair, my husband and a local GP, of the time in Kathmandu when his unconventional use of ‘Water of Life’ – electrolyte solution – saved a woman’s life. Hamish played us out with his original piano piece, The Dance, and by the end, the place was brimming.
People were talking and laughing – masks and space retained where necessary – but still wallowing happily together in the great wash of good company. Afterwards, when we were packed up, I was exhausted, but high as a kid catapulting off a pier.
Two weeks later, we rode the wave again at The Ghillies Rest bar in the Duke of Gordon Hotel, Kingussie. This time Hamish was master of ceremonies for the Trad Tunes night, and his workshop, A Guide to Folk Sessions, was booked out. With guidance on everything from handling beginners’ nerves to arranging jig medleys, it covered the ABCs of making these mysterious, slippery community gigs work.
Once the music struck up, we had fiddles, whistles, guitars, keyboard, bodhran, a banjo, two harps and a set of small pipes. Keeping everybody in tune and time is no mean feat, but Hamish never once resorted to whacking folks with a shinty stick. He’s saving that for next time. Along with a host of eager amateurs, we were lucky to have top local musicians Ilona Kennedy and Charlie McKerron on fiddles and Sandy MacDonell on pipes. There was even a song, with everyone belting out the chorus of Yellow on the Broom. Together, we lifted the roof.
We have longed for this: to come back together and share our stories, our songs and our lives.
The Storylands Sessions are on every first and fourth Tuesday of the month till February 2022 – and hopefully longer. The second Tuesday of the month is the storytelling event at Loch Insh Boathouse, Kincraig. Our next one is October 12th and the theme is Migration – of wildlife, people, ideas, languages or however you wish to interpret it – so come and share your tale, poem or music! We’re very lucky to have Traveller, author and storyteller, Jess Smith, as our special guest, who will be telling stories and leading a workshop at 7pm on The Natural Voice. Advance booking is essential: click here.
Then, the fourth Tuesday of every month is Hamish’s Trad Tunes session at the Duke of Gordon Hotel, Kingussie. Again, the workshops start at 7 and need to be booked in advance, while the sessions start at 8.30 and are drop-in. For full information and bookings see here. If you’re in the area, come on in – there’s a seat for you.
A shorter version of this article first appeared in The Sunday Post.