Celebrating Beltane with Stories

We launched our book on Earth Day (April 22nd) over two events at the Scottish Storytelling Centre. I volunteered to do another event, reprising my role as Talking Tree at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh for Wild Reekie (a Meetup group of more than 1000 members who all share a passion for nature and being outdoors WEB). It was a busy weekend and we’re only just catching up.

We’ve got a number of events lined up, so please do check out the events page. Meantime, it’s Beltane, May Day, the First of May, a time to celebrate the burgeoning of Spring and we’ve got some story suggestions for you.

One of the appendices we included in our book, Dancing with Trees, is a guide to telling local eco-tales with the seasons (I’ve put the guide up here WEB). You’ll see that the three suggested for Beltane are:

  • Stolen by Fairies (England)
  • The Elf and the Slop Bucket (England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales)
  • One Tree Hill (England)

‘Stolen by Fairies’ and ‘One Tree Hill’ both include references to primroses, the wild ones, not the brightly-coloured primulas you’d find in your local nursery. Primroses are associated with this time of year and we were believed in some places to be the favoured flowers of the fairies (the subject of Stolen by Fairies). With fairies being the local earth spirits, it’s not surprising to find a May Day ritual involving primroses at the heart of the abundance of the farm in One Tree Hill. (Kindly remember that wild primroses in natural areas should not be picked.) The Elf and the Slop Bucket celebrates this time of year as one of renewal, through the invention of compost.
There are many versions of these three stories out there.

Of course, we love the versions we’ve told in our book, but if our book has not yet made it onto your shelf, here are other sources for versions of these tales:

Stolen by Fairies

Original Source: Katharine M. Briggs, ‘The Stanhope Fairies’, in: A Dictionary of British Folktales, Part B Folk Legends. (Routledge, London and New York, 1970) p.357
Also Appears in: Sybil Marshall, English Folktales – ‘The Weardale Fairies’ (Phoenix Giant, 1981,1996) pp. 42-48.


The Elf and the Slop Bucket

Original Source: Variant, Sir Godfrey McCulloch, in Sir George Douglas, Scottish Fairy and Folk Tales, 1898. (1977 Edition from EP Publishing limited, East Ardsley, Wakefied, West Yorkshire) pp.112-113.
Also Appears in: Variant, ‘Sir Godfrey McCulloch’, in Katharine M. Briggs, A Dictionary of British Folktales, Part B Folk Legends, (Routledge, London and New York, 1970) pp.354-355.
Elizabeth Shepperd-Jones, Welsh Legendary Tales, (Thomas Nelson, Edinburgh, 1959) pp.156-158.
Amabel Williams-Ellis, Fairy Tales from the British Isles, (Frederick Warne, New York, 1960) pp.76-81.
Margaret Read MacDonald, Peace Tales, World Folk Tales to Talk About, (Linnet Books, 1992)pp.63-68.
Ruth Ratcliff, Scottish Folktales, (Frederick Muller Limited, London, 1976)

One Tree Hill

Original Source: Ruth Tongue, Forgotten Tales of the English Counties, (Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1970.)
Also Appears in: Katharine M. Briggs, A Dictionary of British Folktales, Part A Folk Narratives, (Routledge, London and New York, 1970) pp.439-441
Margaret Read Macdonald, ‘Three Green Ladies’, Earth Care: World Folktales to Talk About, (Linnet Books, North Haven Connecticut, 1999) pp. 1-7.
Eric Maddern, ‘The Green Ladies of One Tree Hill’, in editors Helen East, Eric Maddern and Alan Marks’ Spirit of the Forest: Tree Tales from Around the World. (Frances Lincoln Children’s Books, London, 2002) pp. 22-25.

(excerpted from Dancing with Trees: Eco-tales from the British Isles, Source Notes.  History Press, 2017)

On Not Hesitating to be Inspired

Lee Durrell was honored by the RZSS as one of their Tribal Elders last night, giving me the opportunity to see one of my childhood heroes speak up close and in person. I grew up on Gerald Durrell’s books and the tv shows he and Lee produced. Their stories inspired me to care about the natural world.

Lee emphasised the importance of conservationists becoming good communicators. She talked about being clear and concise. She talked about the beauty of Gerald’s writing and the impact of his books. She didn’t specifically mention storytelling, but her entire presentation powerfully wove together Lee’s life story with the story of our wounded world.

One of the most basic definitions of a story is that it is told in the present by drawing on past events with some desired future in mind. Despite the dire statistics she shared, Lee’s story was told towards a hopeful future. The Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust’s mission is “saving species from extinction”, and they are very good at what they do. They take on cases that everyone else has given up on, bringing species back from the brink of extinction. Lee Durrell knows first hand that species can be saved.

The stories Lee told last night have inspired me to be hopeful too. In Lee’s words, we should “never hesitate to be inspired”.

From Penguins to Tigers: Storytelling at the Zoo in 2016


2016 has gotten off to a very organised start for this RZSS Storytelling Resident.  I’ve finally edited and posted the story I crafted for the Penguin Festival (Animal Stories tab) and I’ve posted my upcoming performances (Events 2016 tab).

Being part of the Penguin Festival was a thrill, as a few penguin friends stopped by the window of the Penguin Hut to listen in on the stories.  I brought my good friend Allison Galbraith along to share in the telling and we had some wild fun chasing imaginary penguins and gingerbread men around the interpretation board.

Each time I’m asked to do an event, I learn something new about the world of animal stories.  This time, I struck out completely on my quest to find a traditional tale about penguins.  Up until more recent times, human contact with these antarctic birds has been minimal.  In the distant past, people would have encountered them in remote areas along the coasts of South Africa, South America, Southern Australia, Tasmania and New Zealand.  There are a few ancient artefacts depicting penguins and penguins make a few supporting-role appearances in Australian Aborigine Dreamtime Tales.  However, I couldn’t find anything substantial enough to tell for the Penguin Festival.

Contrast this historical lack of penguin tales to the masses of contemporary penguin stories.  I don’t think there’s a children’s library anywhere on the planet with fewer than three penguin picture books.  I myself, loved Mr Popper’s Penguins growing up.

There are also a number of true life penguin stories out there to draw on.  Which is what I did, crafting a story based on the real life use of guard dogs in penguin conservation in Australia.  I’m not the first to have done this, the Australians have made a movie about this same colony of penguins.  In fact, I’ve named the dog in my story in honour of the dog actor in that movie.

It’s an excellent story for conservation education as it provides openings to talk about the problems of introduced species (in this case foxes), connects with animals children may be more familiar with (the family pet dog) and contains role models of people passionate about protecting animals.  Of course it also provides opportunities to talk about the geography, biology and vulnerabilities of penguins.