What’s the story? In Edinburgh’s Storytelling Centre there are a lot of them being told
Tall tales and time machines in a glistening sandstone city that is the jewel of East Lothian
Edinburgh Castle high above the city illuminated green for St Patrick’s Day. File photograph: PA
I’m sitting in the Storytelling Centre on the Royal Mile in Edinburgh listening to a high-energy interactive musical tale about heroes, monsters and hapless humanfolk recounted by an ensemble group called the Armagh Rhymers, as my youngest daughter shrieks in either delight or terror. It’s not clear even she knows which.
Frankly, as Brexit approaches, this seems like the kind of thing we should all be doing a lot more of.
It is not for nothing that Edinburgh is known as the Festival City. At the last count, it was home to 11 of them – including the International Festival, the Fringe Festival, the Film Festival, the Science Festival. There are festivals of books, art, jazz and military history. There’s Hogmanay, of course. And then there’s the lesser known Scottish International Storytelling Festival, which has been celebrating the very Celtic art of spinning an unlikely yarn for the past 31 years.
Last October we constructed a midterm mini-break with our three children – then aged 12, 10 and four – around this more manageable and family-friendly of Edinburgh festivals. The storytelling sessions – featuring folklore tales of warrior women and witches and ghosts – were typically high-energy, meandering fun, if not for the shy and retiring. We celebrated Samhuinn, Scotland’s take on Samhain, at the Storytelling Centre, with a family day of games, stories, songs and face painting that was probably more suitable for the very young.
Storytelling isn’t a passive art form in Scotland any more than it is in Ireland and, as with the other festivals for which this stunning city is best known, the audience should expect to be very much part of the performance. Where our children were concerned, it was a case of trying to stop them – and of course, no one did.
Given that it’s Edinburgh – an eminently walkable Unesco world heritage city brimming with history, culture and architecture resonant of Hogwarts – there is plenty beyond the festival to keep the bairns entertained.
The castle, perched on top of a volcanic crag and dominating the city from every angle, is well worth the easy clamber up for its breathtaking views and colourful history. The crowds and the biting winds that whip around it in autumn can be punishing though, so get there after it opens, wrap up very warm, and bypass the worst of the crowds by giving the decidedly unspectacular crown jewels a miss. Audio guides, which are included in the admission price, add an extra dimension to the tour.
Despite the profusion of shops selling touristy tartan and expensive fudge (the free samples went down well with the younger members of our party), a wander up and down the medieval Royal Mile is an evocative experience, for its history, architecture and the sense of a place at the heart of Scottish political life.
Of course, the joy of immersing yourself in the city’s history and culture only gets you so far with three under 13s – which is where the Camera Obscura and World of Illusions came in handy. Five floors of mind-bending magic and sciencey fun in a house that was formerly a 17th century tenement, it has magic galleries, light shows and a slightly creepy Eye Spy Edinburgh, a real time camera which allows you to zoom in, Big Brother-like, on the faces of unsuspecting tourists. Probably best not to think about the GDPR implications of that one.
The other highlight for the small people was Dynamic Earth, an ambitious take on an interactive science museum, housed in a Millennium Dome-like pin cushion structure on Holyrood Road. It takes visitors in a time machine back to explore the primeval forces of nature that shaped the planet. Separate galleries recreate the effect of the big bang, allow visitors to experience volcanos and earthquakes, take them on a flight over a glaciers, and zip through millions of years of evolution.
There are impressive graphics and lots of things that move, shake, rumble and roar. There is an important climate message at the heart of it too, but it’s not overwhelming for very little ones.
Finding somewhere good to eat with the family in Edinburgh is not a struggle – from healthy light bites like halloumi cous cous at Hemma, to a pilgrimage to Spoon, where JK Rowling penned the Harry Potter novels. Civernos lived up to its recommendations, with hearty pizzas that can be ordered as single slices. Our accommodation was in a well-appointed, spacious apartment in the Adagio Aparthotel, which is brilliantly located on the Royal Mile and meant we didn’t have to take a single taxi during our three-day break.
City breaks with three small people in tow can sometimes feel like more effort and expense than they’re worth, particularly if they involve long, expensive flights and lots of persuading tired feet around sprawling cities. But Edinburgh offers the perfect combination of geographically close and compact, yet culturally distinct enough to make it the ideal spot for a two- or three-day family break.
This year’s Storytelling Festival takes place at the end of October with the theme of Beyond Words. There will be ceilidh nights, talks, discussions, workshops, film screenings and family events, most of them taking place in the Scottish Storytelling Centre.
The Scottish Storytelling Festival is from Friday, October 18 until Thursday, October 31 11.30pm. More information from : https://www.sisf.org.uk/ Jennifer O’Connell travelled as a guest of Festivals Edinburgh.