Mary Medlicott, Storyteller and Author - Storyworks

Storytelling Starters ~ Another question of truth

P1060450Beach-cleaning is one of two topics that have been in my mind this week. The other one – and they make an unlikely combination – is what makes a story stick in your mind and eager for you to tell it.

The beach-cleaning came up because a recent episode of Springwatch on BBC 1 showed clips from TV coverage of the horrendous oil-spill off the Pembrokeshire coast that, some years ago, caused mayhem to sea-birds and coastal ecology. The area has long since recovered from that. But, as Springwatch pointed out, continual damage is being done by the plastics that get onto beaches and into seas. The message of the programme was simple: if you see plastic, pick it up, dispose of it properly.

Well, we’ve been in Pembrokeshire over Easter and this week, we ended a long walk along Newgale beach with quite a horde of stuff  – one huge piece of green plastic tarpaulin and one small bag full of bits  of plastic fishing line, including a tangled clump from the skeleton of a sea-bird that had obviously died from getting caught on it.

What’s found on beaches: a Scottish folktale

Another recent reason for thinking about what you find on beaches came up because of a Scottish folktale I came across ages ago in a book called Thistle and Thyme. In the story,  a young mother has lost her baby and when it turns out that the baby has been stolen by fairy folk, she is determined to get him back. But how? The old gypsy woman to whom she is taken is able to ‘see’ that it’s the fairy folk have stolen the baby and also to warn her how loth the fairy folk are to give back a human child that they’ve taken.  Fortunately, the old gypsy woman also gives the young mother a clue as to how she might retrieve her baby. It’s that the fairy folk do not themselves possess the art or skill to make things that are rare and finely wrought. Yet they desire such things greatly.

Thus the young woman is plunged into thinking about what she might ever have heard about that was rare and finely wrought. After a while, she remembers stories she heard as a child and comes up with a memory of two things: the cloak of Nechdan and the harp of Wrad.

WatercompressNow she knows what to do – and here’s where beach-cleaning comes in. Without ado, the young woman makes for beaches near by. First she collects the white down feathers of sea-birds that have been left in their nests on the cliffs. Then she collects the whitened bones of a strange sea creature she finds washed up in a cove she comes to. Finally, she cuts off her own long golden hair. And now she is ready to begin her making. The feathers she weaves together to make a long, beautiful cloak which she edges with patterns of leaves and flowers created with some of the threads from her hair. Then she forms the bones she’s collected into the shape of a harp and, after binding these together with reeds, she strings the harp with the remaining threads of her hair.

Equipped with the cloak and the harp she has made, the young woman of the story has the wherewithal to retrieve her son from a great gathering of the fairy folk that the gypsy woman told her was about to take place. The white cloak ripples and shimmers so finely that the fairy woman she confronts on the edge of the gathering will give anything to have it. She’s even willing to accede to the young woman’s demand to be taken into the gathering. Then, when the fairy king hears the music that comes from the young woman’s harp, he will give anything to possess it, including giving back the young woman’s child. 

Telling the tale:

That story won my heart when I first read it but I’ve only ever told it twice. Once was in the London Welsh Centre. The other was two weekends ago in Fishguard, the place of my birth, at Cultural Connections, a two-day event organised by Myles Pepper who has supported a good deal of my storytelling work in the past. Why Stories Must Be Told was the Saturday storytelling session given by myself and Deborah Winter, a Bristol storyteller who has recently settled in North Pembrokeshire. On the Sunday, there were three inspirational talks, all with strong Pembrokeshire links. The first was given by the Welsh writer, Jon Gower; the second by Eric Sweeney, the Irish composer and organist and the third by John Metcalfe, the well-known Welsh composer.

A question for you:

03The strange thing is this – and hereby hangs my question for you: Ever since first coming across that Scottish tale about the young woman regaining her baby,  I’ve seen it as taking place in Pembrokeshire. An old Pembrokeshire friend of mine once told me about how she used to see gypsy folk encamped on a local common. Those are the gypsies I see in the story. Pembrokeshire beaches have always been in my life. They’re where I imagine the feathers and bones that make the cloak and the harp.  So I feel obliged to tell the story as if it was set here. In my telling, I don’t pretend that the cloak of Nechdan and the harp of Wrad are Welsh.  Nor do I set the story anywhere specific. 

Yet as I tell it, it’s happening in Pembrokeshire in my mind, including right at the beginning when the young woman, homeless, is looking for somewhere to stay and lays her baby on the path by the sea while she climbs down to drink some water from the tiny stream bubbling out of the cliffs below her. When she stumbles, falls and is knocked unconscious, it’s by a Pembrokeshire fisherman of the sort I recognise that she’s rescued. And when she’s taken to his home and looked after,  it’s in a harbour village I know well that I see this happening. And when she wakes up and calls for her baby, it’s kindly people of the sort I’m familiar with that go out and search for the child. And when they can’t find him, it’s to those gypsy people I’d heard about from my friend that she’s taken and it’s one of those same gypsies, Gypsy Rose Lee, who tells the young woman that it was two of the fairy folk that picked the baby up from the path where she’d placed him to be safe while she climbed down to the stream for some water.  Besides, at the end of the story, it’s to the fisherman’s village that the young woman returns to find a great welcome for her to stay there.


So in my mind and in my telling, that lovely Scottish story from Thistle and Thyme has become completely relocated. Is this ethical? I personally can’t see anything wrong about it. I don’t say that the story was Scottish. I don’t claim that it is Welsh. I just tell it. And I so enjoyed telling it the other day that I’m now itching for a chance to tell it again.

PS: My photos this week are, of course, of rubbish on beaches. The first and third beaches are in Pembrokeshire, the second is by the Thames.


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2 Responses to “Storytelling Starters ~ Another question of truth”

  1. Meg Says:

    Hello Mary.
    A friend of mine tells that story too ( and it loses nothing being told with her Australian accent). I think stories, good ones especially, have always been travellers. For me its the human qualities that show thru that remain a constant. A story about a minister that I was told years ago I read yesterday as a story about a Buddhist monk!
    To carry the tale, the landscape of a story is a backdrop that I need to be familiar with, as I tell. That, and the particular customs … and some history of the area. It’s not s simple translation. My efforts at a Korean tale that I tried out friday night were not that convincing for me.Was I clear in my intentions? Listeners said they thought it was a good story. Don’t know that I’ll tell it again. There are more issues than setting to be resolved before I’d do justice to the tale.
    Fascinating things, stories … like cloaks made of feathers. Regards Meg

  2. Jean Says:

    Love the story – thank you Mary, and i have a confession – ashamed to say i’ve had ‘thistle and thyme ‘ for years and had never read that story properly , but i have now – lovely images of making the cloak and the harp. i told it to my granddaughter yesterday who immediately wanted to make gifts out of recycled stuff. Some stories travel well – one or two of my favourites have moved around the country with me adapting to their new surroundings and becoming part of each place as they are told. x

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