George W. Macpherson is the last traditional storyteller on the Isle of Skye. His Gaelic name is Seoras. He is a national treasure, truly. This man has thousands of years of story put to memory. He has the ability to tell a story in his soft thick Scottish accent that will transport you from wherever you are into a different time and place, a distant place where giants roamed the landscape and the fairy folk danced. As I sat in his living room, along a ridge above Glendale on the Isle of Skye, his voice carried me away. I was surrounded by color and scent, I heard the voices of those he described and stood in the middle of each tale, fully engaged, fully part of it. It was magical.
I asked when he first began telling stories. “Well, I started when I was three years old. My grandfather took me on his knee, and he told me a story, and I’d have to tell it back to him. And he’d say, ‘No, that’s not the way it was.’ And he’d tell it to me again, and I’d have to retell it till I was tellin’ the story the way he told it. And I did that then for seven years till I was ten. Then, I was allowed to tell a story outside the house for the first time. That was the kind of training at that time for a seannachie. After that I was collecting stories and telling them ever since. So all together I’ve been learning and collecting and telling stories now for over eighty years.”
He comes from a long line of seannachies. (Pronounced shan-nach-hee.) Both his paternal and maternal grandfathers were seannachies, as was his father. So all the stories and all that comes with this ancient bardic office funneled down to him. He told me there are three levels of stories for story tellers, the “big stories,” the “middle stories,” and the “small stories.” Only a seannachie could tell the “big stories,” and they must be told exactly the same, word for word, as they were passed down. If you aspire to be a storyteller, you should begin with at least fifty stories committed to memory, always building your collection to include more and more. George has hundreds of stories. Eighty years and generations upon generation of stories passed down from his ancestors and others. He has one story that takes three days to tell. “I’ve only told it once!”
He also said he knows many story tellers today who practice in front of a mirror, so they can get all their facial expressions and hand motions and body movements down just so. “They’re trying to tie attention to the teller not the story. And that’s wrong, it’s not the teller that’s important it’s the story.” The power is in the story. I loved these words. So much truth in them on so many levels.
Seoras Macpherson is the last Skye seannachies and one of the last three in all of Scotland. He has been writing his stories down and publishing them, so as not to lose all of them. It is an oral tradition, an oral office of bard, clan historian, druidic heritage, but we have lived long enough to see the last of these great men and women aging without apprentices to carry on this legendary gift. I found myself saddened as I listened to this wise, gentle man and his powerful stories, and I wished with all my heart to be three again and sitting on his knee, repeating them . . . word for word . . . until I heard him say, “That’s just right. Now for the next story.”