WHILE “unbelievably amazed and honoured” to be given the Hamish Henderson Lifetime Service Award for his commitment to the traditional arts of Scotland, Donald Smith jokes that he also finds it a bit worrying.

“Do they know something I don’t?” he asks, laughing. “It does make you look back though and here’s the thing – I’ve never been interested in a career. It’s really just a lifelong love affair with Scotland and its people. I don’t need an award because it has been its own satisfaction.”

This love affair began when Smith was just a child. Adopted into a Church of Scotland manse after his unmarried mother travelled from Derry to give birth in a mother and baby home in Glasgow, Smith had the misfortune of losing his first adoptive mother when she died. He was taken in by another manse family and became firmly connected to the life – and the stories – of the community around him.

At that point, he didn’t identify their language and stories as a cultural phenomenon and it was only when he went to Edinburgh University and met Hamish Henderson that he realised that the stories and language he was passionate about were not only cultural but political.

Henderson, who is widely regarded as the father of the Scottish folk revival, introduced him to the country’s travelling people and their living storytelling tradition.

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“I began to understand there is this cultural thing of storytelling and the traditional arts and see the significance of them,” said Smith. “They are not narrow in any sense but completely international and the birthright of every Scot.”

Smith, the director of the Scottish International Storytelling Festival and former CEO of TRACS (Traditional Arts and Culture Scotland), was presented with his award at the Scots Trad Music Awards in Dundee last night.

“It’s amazing to be connected with that award because it was Hamish who gave me the impetus to see that what I was in love with had all these other dimensions and from then on, it was a life’s work and is a life work still,” Smith says.

Smith’s achievements since meeting Henderson have been many, although he doesn’t recognise them as such. Instead, he says, his part in the revival and recognition of the Scottish traditional arts and the storytelling tradition has been simply to make a “contribution”.

Joining the Netherbow Arts Centre in 1982 after studying for a PhD at the School of Scottish Studies, Smith became director of the Scottish Storytelling Centre from 2003-2014. He is also a founding director of the National Theatre of Scotland and is artistic director of the Scottish International Storytelling Festival.

The National: Hamish Henderson is credited with reviving Scotland's folk traditionsHamish Henderson is credited with reviving Scotland's folk traditions

He has written a series of non-fiction books on Scottish culture including Freedom And Faith, a book about Scottish independence, and co-authored A History Of Scottish Theatre.

Smith has also produced, adapted or directed more than 80 plays and published a series of novels on turning points in Scottish history, including The English Spy, Between Ourselves, Ballad Of The Five Marys and Flora McIvor.

It was when he was director of the Netherbow that Smith set up the Scottish International Storytelling Festival, now in its 35th year and with connections across the world.

He was inspired to do so after realising the importance of storytelling in Scottish cultural life.

“Stories were being recorded and put in archives but I thought that since we had all this contemporary culture, we should ask people to come and perform and from the very start, people responded,” says Smith.

“There was a momentum and we put storytelling back into the public culture because it had been marginalised. It was in retreat – it was out in the islands, it was in backrooms and old pubs, it was round traveller campfires but it had lost its place in the public culture even though it is so important to Scotland’s identity.

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“I just opened a door and said ‘we have all this so why not put it in the public domain in the contemporary culture and stop pretending this is some old, quaint, faddy-daddy thing for the archives’.

“I’m not criticising having archives but we were so lucky in Scotland because this was still a living culture although it was shoved to the margins. We had seen how folk song had been brought back into the centre so why not storytelling too?

“I don’t like the word achievement, but if there is a contribution I have made then it was simply to say that all this is going on and here we are with an arts centre so why don’t we put it here and see what happens.”

AS Scotland began its journey through the 21st century, it was recognised that a national base was needed for all the storytelling events and festivals that had started to spring up throughout the country.

“I thought there was going to be a rumpus about where it was going to be but there was an overwhelming desire for it to be in the capital city because this is a proud part of our culture,” says Smith.

“Yes, it has to radiate out from the capital city but it was decided that the centre should be in Edinburgh and it was my job to convert that into some sort of reality.”

The National: Children enjoy the show at the Scottish International Storytelling FestivalChildren enjoy the show at the Scottish International Storytelling Festival

Through the festival and centre, contacts have been built up all over the world and globally, there is a kind of storytelling renaissance with Scotland at the forefront, according to Smith.

“We were one of the first to put it back in its rightful place at the centre of community and cultural life, and that, to my mind, that is not too much to ask,” he says.

“I think it is really prized in Scotland now because everyone tried to hammer it out of existence. Religion, the schools, the government – for centuries they oppressed storytelling, local languages and local culture. The official establishment had no interest in Scottish culture and really repressed it.”

Smith adds: “That was one of Hamish’s big things – he pointed the finger at people and they did not like it as he said it was ministers, broadcasters, teachers and journalists that had been selling Scotland’s culture and the talents of Scottish people short. The establishment was too Anglocentric and had signed up for this whole British Empire idea.

“What Hamish was doing was turning the confidence thing around. He was saying we can have confidence in who we are because we are connected across the world. We can speak for ourselves – why should we be run by a bunch of ex-public schoolboys in Westminster? It is kind of ridiculous.

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“There is a political side to it, but in some ways the politics follows the culture because if you restore that sense of confidence and self-worth to communities then they want to take initiatives and take things into their own hands.”

Now Scotland does have a better sense of itself, Smith believes.

“We are in a much better place than when I was young because there is a confidence in the younger generation and people understand how the culture and the landscape go together and that is powerful,” he said.

“The big negative to me is that social media tendency to take sides and shout at people but there are resources in these cultural and social traditions that we have inherited that helps counterbalance that.

“It is very important to listen and the tradition gives you that. Once you know your enemy’s story, they are no longer your enemy. It’s better to listen to people’s experience and understand where they are coming from rather than stick a label on them and abuse them. You can’t be a good storyteller unless you can be a good listener,” says Smith.