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Meet the Storytellers (6): Ian Stephen

Updated on March 16, 2014

Ian Stephen: Storyteller and Writer

The aim of this article, as it is with all the others in our 'Meet the Storytellers' series, is to encourage more people to be storytellers - in their own family, community, business, or even professionally.

Ian Stephen

Ian Stephen was born, and still lives, in Stornoway, on the Isle of Lewis, in the Outer Hebrides.

He graduated with distinction from Aberdeen University in 1980 with a B.Ed teaching degree and Honours in English and worked for 15 years in the coastguard service.

After becoming inaugural winner of the Robert Louis Stevenson Award in 1995, he left the service to work full time in the arts. He was the first artist in residence at StAnza, Scotland's annual poetry festival at St. Andrews.

Since that time Ian has gained distinction for his poetry, short fiction, plays, and storytelling. He has also worked collaboratively with other visual and performance artists across Britain and overseas. He has performed at many storytelling festivals, including the Edinburgh International Storytelling Festival. Ian was a Reader in Residence with the Western Isles Library service in 2011, with particular emphasis on supporting the development the strong oral storytelling tradition in the outer Hebrides.

Ian's poetry has been widely published in books and journals in Britain and overseas. His first collection of poems, 'Malin, Hebrides, Minches' was published in Denmark in 1983 and his work was included in the Oxford Poets (Carcanet Press) 2013 anthology. 'Adrift' , a selection of his work, was published in English with Czech translations by Periplum, Czech Republic, in 2007.

Ian is a qualified sailing instructor, and the sea, and his response, to it is integral to his work. He was been involved in a number of creative projects, including a Creative Scotland Award in 2002-3, to sail sea routes and retell and respond to traditional stories linked to these.


Why Storytelling?

To leave the security of the coastguard service for the peripatetic life in the arts was a big step for Ian. I asked him why he had taken it.

What made you pursue a career as a storyteller?

" I grew up with stories being told, in the family and by fishing, sailing and coastguard colleagues. I met great tellers such as Stanley Robertson, Belle and Sheila Stewart, Betsy White and Duncan Williamson, many of them through Hamish Henderson, who of course was a fine poet as well as a leading figure in the folklore revival. "

"It was through Hamish that I realised the stories from my own background in the Outer Hebrides could be seen in an international context. I’ve been privileged in meeting and hearing many other fine but less famous tellers and feel a sense of duty as well as pleasure in passing on what I’ve heard."

"Storytelling is part of my activities as a 21st century crofter in the arts. I write and perform poems, lead workshops in poems and stories and make combined arts work with collaborators, both exhibitions and performances, often with educational outreach, from primary schools to universities. My first novel will be published this year - and that is really also a different kind of storytelling. But I’d miss the contact with friends and audience if I was solely a writer and not a teller as well."

What can the audience or listener gain from a story?

"A sense of being human. We are not as unique as we think we are, in our deep-down make-up. We can recognize something familiar in the exotic and the impossible. Enter worlds which may exist under the surface of water or up in the air. But somehow, the territory is not completely foreign."

What advice would you give an aspiring storyteller?

"Become completely involved in the story you feel a need to tell. Perhaps you only need to hear it once from the right person or perhaps you might need to weigh-up different versions. I’d say you want to be aware of its sources but not constrained by them. The irony is that you have to lose yourself in the telling to really make it your own. I’d also suggest you tell it first amongst friends, round a table. Then when you tell it to a wider public you can hope to keep that natural ease."

What makes a ‘good story’ for you?

"I’ve just had to address this in choosing and retelling stories for Western Isles Folk Tales. I’d say there’s not one kind of good story but many – from the timeless adventure-myths of selkies and fin-men to premonitions to riddles where quick wit or eloquence can get you out of trouble. But I think all good stories have clarity. There is an inevitability in the progress of the narrative. Once you’re on the path you must continue and you cannot avoid its end."

If you click on the link below you can see and hear Ian tell a story, 'Blue Bonnets'.

'Blue Bonnets' - Comments

This short story, filmed on a rock face on one of the Monarch Islands in the Outer Hebrides, took me by surprise. It is a tale of the local men who risked their lives hunting for the sea birds and their plumage on the cliff faces of the Island.

There is a light sense - at first - in the story, with the men joking among themselves as they climb. Their appearance - wearing grey coats and blue bonnets traded for the plumage they hunted - combined with Ian's relaxed delivery (despite his position on the rock face) adds to this sense of conviviality and camaraderie.

But suddenly the story changes.

If you haven't read it yet, I'm not going to spoil the ending for you. But the ending lingered in my mind.

The beauty of this story is that the ending is open to a number of interpretations.

What's yours?

Write your comments and reactions to the story in the 'Comments' section below.

What's Your Interpretation of 'Blue Bonnets'?

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    • Settle Stories profile image

      Sita Brand 4 years ago from Settle, North Yorkshire

      Thanks Fontaine. There's five others in the series, with more to come.

    • profile image

      Fontaine 4 years ago

      Absolutely fascinating. I love story telling. There's not enough of it about. When I ran children's parties as JJ the Clown (years ago) I always included a part where they sat down and listened to a story. The children loved it. Thanks for an interesting blog,Colin. I'll be back to read more.