THIS year’s Scottish International Storytelling Festival theme is “Right to be Human”.

Purposefully crafted to be a statement and a question, the theme is rooted in celebration of the 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the international document adopted by the United Nations General Assembly that enshrines the rights and freedoms of all human beings.

Storytellers and creatives across the world were given “Right to be Human” as a prompt, by the Scottish Storytelling Centre in Edinburgh.

“For example, we have a piece called Arise, which is about the production of bread,” Daniel Abercrombie (below), associate director of the Festival, tells me and laughs but explains the link, "it is taking inspiration of the right to healthy food, you know. There are just things like that where it's been a bit of an inspiration for people to think of bigger ideas”.

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The team purposedly removed “the” from the theme title, to create an “almost question”.

Abercrombie explained: “The other thing about the right to be human is that we have taken “the” out of the title - so it is Right to be Human and is then almost a question as well.

“What is it? What is right, and what are we doing correctly? What could we be doing a lot better?”

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Anyone could apply to this commission, for a show to feature at the international festival running from October 13 – 29, and the result from one four-letter phrase is a range of inspired performances for all.

One of these is by Gauri Raje (below), who will open the festival with stories from Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, India, and the horn of Africa, “woven together to question the beauty and horrors of exile from across the world”.

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“Gauri has done a lot of work in asylum seeker camps in England over the years”, Abercombie shares. “Working there as a creative artist and what she's learned from that, she’s now got these stories from people of their journeys, their experiences and she has the ones she carries herself as migrant who's from India originally, then England, and Scotland now.

“She has some quite moving stories to tell from there, but also from different parts of the world. It's not just stories she's read, some of them will be, or they won't be first person stories all the time, but a lot will be what she has heard and learned”.

“It’s not all serious is it, being a human being?"

Along with the inclusion of LGBT+ stories exploring Section 28, the programme includes stories addressing the climate crisis, war, jealously, generational rifts, linguistic and religious prejudice, and censorship.

The centre also wanted to ensure people had fun alongside topics with a palpable depth for society, and one way it is being done is through the festival’s evening shows - the Collective Treasures.

This strand of the event is “a lighter tone”, said Abercrombie, with events such as Gillian Paterson and Nicola Wright’s show The Girl’s Own Survival Guide to History, teaching audience members “how to avoid being called a witch” but also showing how women have, and continue to use, stories to find their voice.

The evening shows also include a Scots performance “touring” the range of Scots tale as well as a Gaelic show, Sgeul - Mighty and Magic, which features musicians to assist in telling stories from the John Francis Campbell collection alongside their English translation.

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For younger audiences and families during the October school holidays, there are a range of shows and events for children such as story walks in the Royal Botanic Garden in Edinburgh which includes a performance of Rewilding Cinderella: An Eco-Storytelling Concert with stories from all over the world about the ash-child told by the Storytelling Choir.

Music, dance, crafts, theatre – are all key features of storytelling performances by professionals, elevating the tales being told, ensuring entertainment along with learning, and the centre are keen show this as much as possible.

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Abercrombie, who is also programme and events manager for the upcoming festival and the centre’s recent Edinburgh Fringe events, added: “We just finished a full Fringe program in August where storytelling was right at the centre of it and lots of people coming had not actually been exposed to it or realised that it's something that can be enjoyed with music, with theatrical elements, with dancing, with crafting. It’s not all serious is it, being a human being?

“So, we've got basket weaving stories at the festival. It’s something you don't need to have like a super skill to do it. Just like storytelling, it's something we actually all do, all of the time, at the kitchen table”.

That is something the storytelling community wants the public to know: this is still a predominantly oral tradition.

Abercrombie explains: “We're so privileged to have this centre here in the middle of Edinburgh, which is dedicated to the specific art form of storytelling.

“It’s still one of the things that we have to, I think at all stages, try and explain to the wider public that it is this oral tradition. A professional storyteller working now will always say ‘I heard this story from such and such, and I would love to share it with you’.

“It's never them putting themselves up on a pedestal and saying, ‘I'm going to tell you a story’, it's more about the sharing part because then you can take that story, pass it on and share it”.

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Festival director Donald Smith (above) will be hosting new Art of the Storyteller in-person, weekend workshops led by with various professional storytellers, giving the public the chance to learn and improve their storytelling skills and better connect with their audience.

The audience and their participation in the festival is as important as the storyteller performing.

Storytellers do not perform a monologue, Abercrombie said, describing it as the “distinct difference” from theatre or film, “they're not on a script where they're having to hit certain words and rhythms all the time”.

The three-week festival intends to harness this by hosting storytellers and musicians at three Open Hearth events. The programme invites the public to come along, stating: “as the darkness closes in and minds glow with pictures in the symbolic fire, this is the perfect way to end your day”.

“It's about feeding off the audience”, Abercrombie adds, explaining that at the sessions, the audience leads the performance.

“The storytellers will appear at the event and maybe they think they know what they might tell, but then somebody will tell a story before them and that’ll change their mind and they think ‘I've got a story that comes off the back of that’ and they're able to adapt and they're able to think ‘I'm actually going to expand this part of the story’ because the audience seems to be loving it or a group will it”.

How does a professional storyteller collect stories?

When asked how professional storytellers learn a story, Abercrombie said it is not simply down to memory (although, a good one is incredibly useful), but a long, in-depth conversation is key.

He explained: “If they want to learn the story then they often have a longer conversation with the storyteller who shared it with them, really learn it and about it.

“The great thing is nowadays, a lot of these stories are published in bigger collections, especially the more traditional ones”.

In Scotland, History Press publish collections of stories from different parts of Scotland, with several local publishers ensuring diverse, local tales are also documented.

The Scottish Storytelling Forum, a charity and a membership organisation based at the centre, operates nationwide with links to storytelling communities across the world, supports storytellers through an apprentice scheme, maintains a directory of professional storytellers, and establishes storytelling outreach projects in communities and schools.

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“To have these storytellers recognised as professionals and supported – it’s really good for them and storytelling.

“We've got this professional directory of storytellers that we support throughout the whole country, there's about 140 of them, and there's many more operating that just aren't on that directory. They can get booked for gigs in Scotland but also worldwide as well,” Abercrombie said.

The Storytelling Centre is now also adding to the catalogue of stories as well as hoping to elevate Scotland’s storytellers on an international platform through their new podcast, aptly named, “Another Story”.

The six-episode series which is being released weekly in the run up to the Festival, with the first out at the time of writing, will culminate in a live recording in Edinburgh.

Each episode hosts two connected storytellers exploring a new theme each week, such as migration or lost stories.

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Abercrombie hopes the podcast will continue after the Festival and bring Scottish storytelling to an international audience outwith the international event, as well as continuing to build on a growing younger audience.

“We saw last year a younger demographic come along to the festival”, Abercrombie shared. “We made an effort to keep prices very low and, in our programme, we were engaging with younger performers creating great work that then had a knock-on effect into our Fringe program this year where we had quite a lot of young performers really celebrated. With younger performers comes a younger audience”.

Young or old, new or professional, Scot or not, the Scottish International Storytelling Festival is to explore the most innate right for a human being, to be, through the most innate action, sharing stories.

You can access the full programme for the festival here and listen to the new podcast here.