Sunday 29 December 2013

A Delightful Terror - Would you let this fierce looking thing into your house?

“...the most frightening among them was the so called ‘Hobby Horse.’ The actors wore the wooden and canvas replica of a horse’s head over their own heads and shoulders, and fastened under the arm-pits. By means of a string they could make the horse’s jaws open and shut, an action that struck delightful terror into the captivated youngsters who trailed behind them.” 
- “Michael Harrington Describes An Old Time Christmas In Newfoundland.” The Daily News, Wednesday, 5 Jan, 1955. Page 2.

I'm working on my next book, a collection of stories, memories and photos about mummering and related Christmas traditions in Newfoundland and Labrador. And right now, I'm working on a chapter about the hobby horse.

When most people today think of a hobby horse, they think of the child's toy - a horse's head on a stick. But in Newfoundland, the hobby horse was, and is, part of the holiday season house-visiting tradition. Indeed, hobby horses (along with their colourful cousins hobby cows, hobby goats, hobby sheep, and hobby bulls) have been here on the island of Newfoundland for a long time.

The Dictionary of Newfoundland English has this great little description of a hobby horse, from circa 1971:
The jannies make what they call a 'hobby horse.' They have the head of a horse, cow, or moose with a piece of canvas attached to it. About six men get under the canvas. They put nails or something like that in the mouth to make a clacking noise. They put sticks or something in the head so that they can turn it and open and close the mouth. Then this fierce looking thing goes around to the different houses.
If you have a memory of a hobby horse or hobby bull, email me at Or if you have a photo of one you've made, send it along!

Friday 27 December 2013

Looking through family Christmas photo albums? Keep an eye open!

I posted earlier how I'm working on a book about Newfoundland and Labrador mummering traditions, and how I'm looking for people with memories and stories.  One thing I'm also looking for is photographs from old time Christmases in the province, like this gem above, from the Winterton museum.

I know holidays are one time when people dig out their old family photographs and reminisce. If you do happen to be looking at old photograph albums, keep your eyes peeled for me. I'd love to find some old family photographs of mummers, janneys, or other Christmastime or New Years traditions, like shooting off guns on New Years, or nalayuk night in Labrador. If you find something, let me know; I'd love to see it!

You can email me at

Merry Christmas!

Sunday 1 December 2013

Newfoundland folklorist collecting mummer memories and photos

As Christmas time rolls around in Newfoundland and Labrador, your chances of seeing someone dressed in a very strange costume increase dramatically. These are padded figures, with humps on their backs, protruding bellies, shoes on the wrong feet, their auntie’s bra on the outside of their clothes, with faces hidden behind masks or bits of old lace.

These figures might be called different names in different parts of the province: mummers, janneys, darbies, or fools. It is an old tradition, which has faded in many communities, but at the same time, it is one which many people are reluctant to abandon completely.

Folklorist and storyteller Dale Jarvis is one of those people. The author of several books on local ghost stories, legends and folklore, he is now turning his attention to the province’s most beloved Christmas tradition. This holiday season, he is doing research on mummering, with the aim of producing a book on the subject in time for next Christmas.

“One thing I hear all the time from older people is, ‘oh, no one is interested in that old stuff,’ but I really think people are interested,” says Jarvis. “Newfoundlanders and Labradorians are very passionate about their heritage and their culture, and there is a great revival of interest in mummering happening right now.”

Jarvis has been digging through archives and old newspapers, and interviewing people with memories about the different aspects of mummering.

“Mummering traditions are a lot more varied than people might think,” says Jarvis. “How a janney might have rigged out in one outport might be completely different from how they dressed in another. And there are regional traditions that are very different, like the Old Christmas Day tradition of Nalajuit in Labrador, or the Wren Boy traditions in Colliers and St. Mary’s.”

Jarvis is interested in all these different types of Christmas traditions, and is turning to the public for help.

“The public can help in two ways,” says Jarvis. “First, I’m interested in hearing people’s memories of mummers and janneys. Second, I’m looking for old photographs of people in disguise. Christmas is a time when families look through old photo albums, and I’d love people to keep their eyes open for vintage photos of mummers and janneys.”

If you have a memory to share, you can contact Jarvis by phone at 709-685-3444 or by email at Or, if you have an old photo you want the world to see, you can post it in the Vintage Newfoundland Christmas group on Facebook.

Saturday 16 November 2013

Republic of Doyle's Krystin Pellerin and Steve O'Connell on stage this December

Sweetline Theatre Company is delighted to present David Mamet’s Oleanna from December 4th to the 7th at the Barbara Barrett Theatre at the Arts and Culture Centre. This production is the inaugural offering from newly formed Sweetline Theatre spearheaded by Danielle Irvine. Oleanna will feature Republic of Doyle’s Krysten Pellerin and Steve O’Connell as student and professor in this controversial two hander.

O’Connell portrays John, a university professor on the verge of attaining tenure. Carol (Pellerin) is a student that is having a hard time grasping the material as presented in his course. Their office meeting to discuss the problematic material eventually leads them in directions they never could have imagined and combine to create a powerful piece of theatre that will have you on the edge of your seat and challenge you to remain neutral.

Award winning director, Danielle Irvine, is excited about bringing Oleanna to St. John’s audiences. She has directed theatrical productions of all sizes and types, both in St. John’s and across Canada. Danielle is looking forward to this official launch of Sweetline Theatre.

Krystin Pellerin was born and raised in St. John's Newfoundland. She is a graduate of the prestigious National Theatre School of Canada in Montreal. CBC's "Republic of Doyle" has brought her home to St. John's to play the role of Sgt. Leslie Bennett where she often appears with her sometimes nemesis Sgt. Hood, played by fellow Oleanna actor, Steve O’Connell.

Steve O’Connell is a local actor, director and writer. Oleanna is the latest in a long line of productions that Danielle and Steve have worked on together over the years. Previous collaborations include: Henry V, The Taming of the Shrew, Wit, The Laramie Project, and The Drawer Boy

Oleanna runs in The Barbara Barrett Theatre of the St. John’s Arts & Culture Centre at 8 PM from December 4th to 7th, 2013, with a Pay-What-You-Can matinee 2 PM on December 7th. Admission is $27; $22 for students and seniors; and can be booked at 729-3900 or online at

For further information, or to arrange for rehearsal attendance, interviews or photography please contact Maggie Keiley at 709-726-1269, or

Thursday 7 November 2013

Stamppot, Stories, Fire and Clay. Hello Amsterdam!

I took the train from Brussels to Amsterdam today, and made my way to the boat hotel on the harbour where I'll be staying for the last few days of my European storytelling adventure. I arrived in time to catch a water taxi and take in the very end of the Storytelling Festival Amsterdam's expert meeting on the power of storytelling. The meeting was in Dutch, but it ended with words in English from Canadian storyteller Joe Osawabine, with the Debajehmujig Theatre Group from Manitoulin Island.

There was a dinner for storytellers after, with a surprise for me, a meet-up with my long-distance storytelling friend Melanie Plag. Melanie and I met online years ago, and we seem to have emerged as the online volunteers for World Storytelling Day. We met in person in Zwolle a few years ago, but hadn't seen each other since, so it was great to share a meal and share stories.

And a great meal it was, a traditional Dutch stamppot (what my friend Veva in Flanders would call stoemp) - a traditional Dutch dish made from a combination of potatoes mashed with one or several other vegetables. For us, they had four kinds of stamppot, including one with sauerkraut, along with meatballs, sausage, and fish. So we sat and laughed and talked about all kinds of storytelling-related things: the work of the Federation for European Storytelling (FEST), story trails, kamishibai, the use of costume in storytelling, St. George, and local legends and miracles - the kind of conversation storytellers absolutely love to have.

After dinner, a remarkable treat. The festival organizers had tickets for us to see the more-than-sold-out performance of "Iran vs Israel - Kingdom of Fire and Clay"- simply one of the best storytelling shows I've seen in ages.

Here is the description from the festival program:
Two young artists meet in Amsterdam. One's an Israeli, the other an Iranian. Sworn enemies, or possible best friends? After performing two separate but highly successful shows at the International Storytelling Festival Amsterdam, they decide to combine forces and make a show that dives into their pasts, their cultures and the source of their countries' enmity.
The Kingdom of Fire and Clay combined classical Jewish and Iranian tales (with a much appreciated guest appearance by my old friend the Golem of Prague) as well as the personal stories of Raphael Rodan (Israel) and Sahand Sahebdivani (Netherlands/Iran), along with backgammon, traditional and contemporary music on piano, double bass, and a range of other folk and classical instruments, humour, passion, friction, movement and tales obviously told straight from the heart. As far as performances go, it was certainly one of the highlights of my trip, and the type of show I would like to see more of in Canada.

Then, I took the water taxi back across the harbour to my snug berth on The Botel. Tomorrow, more stories, and exploring Amsterdam.  Tot ziens!

Tuesday 5 November 2013

Heritage, storytelling, and more food than you can shake a stick at

Today was my final day in the province of Antwerp, and it went out with a bang! I spent part of the morning exploring the city of Lier (the fabulous toothy fish above is part of a public water fountain close to the centre of the town), and then headed to the Urban Academy for Music, Word and Dance, to teach a workshop for a storytelling class taught by Veva Gerard.

Veva's class is part of an impressive program, where storytellers have the option of studying together for six years, allowing for very deep exploration of the art of storytelling. It was fantastic to be a room of people who are so enthusiastic about local stories, dialect, oral tradition and the contemporary art of performance storytelling.

The afternoon was divided into two halves. First, I presented a slideshow on the work that is happening in Newfoundland and Labrador around all kinds of oral traditions, ranging from the work we've been doing documenting oral history and traditions with the Intangible Cultural Heritage program, to the St. John's Storytelling Festival, to the [Here]Say story map, to my own work with the St. John's Haunted Hike, books, iPhone apps, and storytelling programs with children, seniors, new Canadians and everyday people who have stories to share.

After the break, I talked about the work I do training storytellers and museum professionals in historical storytelling. Then we talked about how stories and places are linked, and I had everyone draw memory maps of the places where they grew up, and then got them walking people through their maps and sharing memories, and eventually, telling stories they had learned from their classmates through the experience. It was great fun, and I heard some wonderful local stories.

At the end of the class, they had all prepared a rather amazing gift for me. Veva knows me well enough to know that I love local foods, and exploring a place through it culinary traditions. So each student had brought some kind of traditional or local item, much of it food related. They each got up, gave me a gift, and told me a story about what it meant, the associated legend, or where the tradition came from.

So I left to catch the train to Brussels with a suitcase bulging with troll beer, print-outs of Flemish stories to learn, Maneblussers chocolates from Mechelen, vegetable crackers, Natuurboterwafels, Amandelbrood, hand-shaped biscuits from Antwerpen commemorating the cutting off of a giant's hand, Belgian milk chocolate truffles, Leuvense Fonskes, Advokaat, a hand-made witch, Snaps Antwerpse Jenever, kweeperenbier (quince beer!), Wycam's Echte Oude Borstebollen, Belle-Vue Kriek beer from Brussels, handmade patatjes (marzipan balls),  and a jar of Limburgs lekker peren-appelstroop (pear jam). It is probably the most astonishing gift I've ever been given as a storyteller.

One of the participants was the very funny Mia Verbeelen, a Flemish storyteller I met several years ago at the storytelling festival in Alden Biesen. She recently had an operation on her foot (you can guess which one she is in the photo above).  Mia made for me a slightly disfigured foot, a reasonable facsimile of her own, all out of marzipan, in honour of her hobbling her way to the workshop.  I will let you know how it tastes.

Monday 4 November 2013

Zus & Zo, and the Ghosts of Brabant

I've been relaxing this week at the home of Fleming storyteller Veva Gerard and her family, but last night she put me to work. Veva and her accordion-playing sister Nele, along with double bassist Pieter Lenaerts, are the trio Zus and Zo, and the four of us put on a show of ghostly and ghoulish tales and music in Brabant, here in Belgium.

It was great fun getting to rehearse with everyone. I've done a few music and storytelling shows with German-Canadian musician Delf Hohmann, and I adore the combination of tales and tunes. Pieter and Nele were experts, and with minimal rehearsal soon decided on the right bits of music and sound for the stories I told.

I told in English, Veva in Dutch, and the audience kept up with it all. I had some great feedback from audience members after the show, and we were tweeted about the next morning.

Thanks, Benny! And thanks to Veva, her family, Nele, Pieter, the owners of the great atelier where we performed, and the sold-out audience!

Tomorrow, I'm teaching a workshop in Lier, then I say farewell to Veva, and head off to Brussels for an intangible cultural heritage symposium. Stay tuned!

Saturday 2 November 2013

Ghent: candy, breasts, and other fine things to nibble on.

Today's adventures took me to the fabulous city of Ghent. I'd been here once before, but today I experienced it in a slightly different way. I've been staying with storyteller Veva Gerard, and from somewhere she got the idea that I'm interested in food. So she tracked down a tour through the old city that focussed on the history of the place told through food and food stories. Sounds terrible, right?

Off we went with Veva's son Jasper, braving clouds and rain, and we met up with our tour group near the castle Gravensteen. Everyone on the tour was Dutch or Flemish, except me, so the guide told half the stories in English, half in Dutch, with Veva doing yeoman's service translating on the fly.

Every story on the stop had some kind of food connection: a riot over the price of beer, a conceptual artist who wrapped the columns of a local building in ham, the location of the oldest corn storage houses in Ghent, and visits along the way to sample five kinds of candy, chocolate, three kinds of cheese, and three kinds of ham.

One of the best stories of the day was about the little chewy two-coloured candies on the right hand side of the photo above. They are known as Mammelokker (meaning something roughly like "to lure to the breast").

The legend of the Mammelokker is depicted in relief on the building of the same name which connects the Belfry of Ghent and the Ghent Cloth Hall.

A man sentenced to death by starvation was allowed one visit ever day, provided that the visitor brought no food into prison. While other men died around him, that one man lived, even without food. Mystified, the guards watched the daily visitor, a younger girl, and saw that she offered her breast through the bars of the cell, feeding the man and keeping him alive. The girl was the man's daughter, and the court was so moved that they granted a pardon to the father. And now, you can relive that saga with a candy of the same name. 

They are delicious.

After the tour, we met up with Ghent-based storyteller Veerle Ernalsteen, who I met a few years ago at the Alden Biesen festival. Veerle tempted us further, into amazing tapas, and then a long conversation about stories, riddles and the Flemish storytelling scene in the very atmospheric Hot Club de Gand.

And now, some sleep, and then a sold-out storytelling performance tomorrow with Zus and Zo in Brabant!

Thursday 31 October 2013

The Family of Love, and Mary on a Stick - Welcome to Antwerp

I'm in Belgium, a country I've grown to love. This is my fourth visit in the past three years, and every time I come, I learn more, and find more very cool places to explore.

I'm staying with my friend Veva Gerard, a Flemish storyteller, and her family, and yesterday Veva, her husband, and their son Jasper, and I, went off to Antwerp for a tour. Our tour guide for the day was the fantastically-knowledgeable Key Minnebo, who has been leading what she calls "esoteric tours" of the ancient city of Antwerp for 30 years.

We started in the courtyard garden of the Museum Plantin-Moretus, and Key asked me what I was interested in.  I suggested local legends, stories of the supernatural, hidden and secret places.

"We will start inside," she suggested.

Inside she introduced us to Christophe Plantin, and a series of 400 year old printing presses. I could sense my father drooling, all the way from Canada.

Then things got interesting. Key gave a running commentary as we moved through the museum, giving us details on a mystic religious sect known as the Family of Love, or Familists, then drawing in secret societies, the Rosicrucians, Cathars, Freemasons, secret printings of heretical books, and (no-one was expecting them) The Spanish Inquisition.

It was just the start of our tour. From there, we left the museum to explore more of Antwerp, where Key guided us through hidden alleyways, fertility cults, sacred geometry, miracles, and a statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary rumoured to get up and walk around Antwerp on Her own:

The, after that, debates over which of two holy relics of the foreskins of Christ were authentic (surprise! both of them!), paintings by Rubens, the entrance to heaven, the reason why Japanese tourists have been flocking to Antwerp Cathedral for years to find a dog that never existed, a breast-milk-stealing shapeshifter, more fertility cults, a possible statue of the ancient god Priapus (who had his legendary phallus removed twice from the image, ouch) , ancient wells, Roman heroes, dragons with the skulls of horses, giants getting their hands cut off, more Freemasons, and a possible job opportunity should the whole folklore/storytelling thing not work out for me, the delightfully named Keutelraper (Keutelraapster for ladies so inclined) - the person who went around and scooped up after the animals who once roamed the Cathedral.

The Cathedral boasts some fabulous legends of its own, including many stories (some contradictory) about the founding of the church. The one I liked concerned a statue of Mary which floated away from its original location, and was later found in a low piece of swamp. Locals were convinced she wanted to be there, and placed her on a stump in that location.  Eventually the cathedral grew up on the spot Mary on a Stick had claimed for her own. If you look closely at the stained glass window in the top picture here, you'll see Mary, and her Stick.

"Legends turn events into part of our collective memory," Key told us. For me, my introduction to Antwerp was certainly legendary, and I will always remember it as a place with a truly esoteric history.

All that, and we finished off in a fabulous local restaurant, where I had amazing Flemish rabbit, and tomato soup with lots of meatballs, which Veva tells me is something you would always get if you visited your Flemish grandmother.

So, to end, in honour of my trip to Antwerp, and that meatball soup, a little Flemish riddle from Veva:

Ork, Ork Ork, you eat soup with a...?

Wednesday 30 October 2013

Two traditional Shetland riddles from Lawrence Tulloch

One of the great pleasures I had at the storytelling festival in Orkney was meeting Lawrence Tulloch from Shetland. Lawrence is a great storyteller, and a font of knowledge on local traditions, folklore and oral history of the Shetland Islands.

One night, the topic of conversation turned to traditional riddles. Lawrence offered up these two, and assured us all that though they might sound bawdy, the answers are very innocent. So keep your mind out of the gutter, dear friends, and guess away:

Riddle #1:

Hairy without,
Hairy within.
Lift your leg,
And shoot it in.

Riddle # 2:

She took it in her long white hand,
Rubbed the tip to make it stand,
He hit the hole and didn't miss,
"Oh man," he said, "I'm pleased with this."

Tuesday 29 October 2013

My Orcadian Adventure

Yesterday, I flew back to Edinburgh and had a fabulous Nepalese meal with fellow Canadian storyteller Kathy Jessup. We were both here for the Scottish International Storytelling Festival, but while Kathy had been telling stories here in mainland Scotland, I had just returned from an amazing time on the Orkney Islands.

Kathy and I were talking about my trip, and then, and now, a day later, it is still hard to put into words.

While I was in Orkney, Orcadian storyteller Tom Muir told a traditional story about two men who had been walking home when they had spotted a open door in one of the neolithic tombs that dot the islands, light streaming out of the entrance. Hearing music, they looked in, and saw the trows (the local equivalent of our fairies) dancing. One of the men was so enthused he started to dance as well. His friend tried to pull him away, but the friend wouldn't leave. In the end, the friend left, leaving the dancing man behind. He didn't return home that night, nor the night after. Indeed, he didn't return at all.

A year passed, and on the same date, the friend was walking past the same tomb. Once more the door was open, light pouring out, with the strains of music on the air. He peeked in, and saw the man, still dancing. He tried to get him to leave once more, but he said he still wanted to keep dancing.

"You've been dancing for a year," his friend told him.

"No! It's only been five minutes!" the man exclaimed.

His friend hauled him out of the mound, and looking down, the dancing man saw that the soles of his shoes had been worn away from all that dancing.

That is sort of how I feel about my time in Orkney. When I was there, it was like I was there for closer to five months than the five days I was actually there, but now, looking back, it seems like it all passed by in five minutes.

I had the chance to meet and share stories with some amazing storytellers, including Bob Pegg, and Shetland's treasure, Lawrence Tulloch (more on Lawrence in another post).  I told in a town hall, a craft hub, a hotel, a pub, and other great locations, and along they way was shown incredible hospitality, ate a veritable mountain of cake, and visited some amazing archaeological sites ranging from the Neolithic to World War II. It is hard for me to describe what a fantastic time I had.

Thanks to everyone, Tom for being an amazing host, Bob and Lawrence, Erin for surviving living with us all, to Fran and Andy for being fantastic tour guides, all the other local tellers, volunteers, committee members, our Shetland storytelling groupies, the owners of the B&B where we told ghost stories, and everyone else who made me feel right at home.

I'll be back.

(Photo taken inside the neolithic tomb at Cuween Hill, Orkney)

Tuesday 22 October 2013

Farewell to Edinburgh!

The weather today for my final day at the Scottish International Storytelling Festival was perfect, and my walk back to my hotel up along the historic Royal Mile was a great way to end a wonderful and very full week of stories and storytelling.

The final storytelling session I attended tonight was hosted by the talented and incredibly charming Margaret Bennett, who hugged me at least half a dozen times, and called out from the stage halfway through the second half that I should come up and tell a story from Newfoundland. Margaret is no stranger to Newfoundland, and is the author of The Last Stronghold: The Scottish Gaelic Traditions of Newfoundland. Margaret had planned to be back in Newfoundland for Festival 500 this past summer, but ended up in a cast instead! It was great to talk to her, hear her fabulous voice, and see her up and around.

The other great treat for me tonight was that I finally got to have a chat with my Icelandic kindred spirit, Sigurbjörg (Sibba) Karlsdóttir, who was in town for the festival, and who I met at the very first Federation for European Storytelling (FEST) conference in Oslo in 2008. Sibba runs the Hidden World walking tour, pointing out the sites where elves and the huldufólk have been spotted. You can read the article National Geographic did on her right here

I'd like to point out she is cheating in this picture, and standing on staircase. There is no way she is that tall!

It was a great end to my time at the festival, which continues on in very capable and talented hands without me till Sunday.  And so, farewell to Edinburgh. Thanks to the very generous Donald Smith at the Scottish Storytelling Centre, to Annalisa Salis, to Barbora Voráčová, all the Centre staff, volunteers, event hosts, my fellow storytellers and the very appreciative audiences.

Next stop, Orkney!

Sunday 20 October 2013

Through the gap in the hedge - Newfoundland stories in Edinburgh

Today was a full day of storytelling for me here in Edinburgh. I performed at three very different events, starting with the Natural Journeys event at the Royal Botanic Garden.

The official programme invited visitors to the Garden to "journey between key locations in the beautiful Botanic Gardens and gather where stories will be shared in harmony with the elements." We as storytellers were given a start time and location, and then were encouraged to wander through the Garden, telling stories. Fellow storyteller Kathy Jessup and I got to the start location a bit early, and wandered around, looking for a good spot for stories.

When we started our search for storytelling locations, one of the festival worker encouraged us to look around, with the best set of directions I've heard in ages: "go through the gap in the hedge, and look for the Queen Mother's Garden."

Off we went. The hedge was easy to spot, a massive beech hedge, and sure enough, a gap.

Through the gap, and there, at the end of the garden, was a wee stone pavilion, with the interior walls covered in seashells and pinecones, located in the Queen Mother's Memorial Garden. I collected my audience, mostly kids and young couples, and we packed into the pavilion and I shared stories. It was definitely one of the cutest spots I've ever told in.

Later, it was back to the Scottish Storytelling Centre where I did an afternoon set of Newfoundland folktales, then a shared concert where I told Newfoundland stories with the charming Jess Smith as host, Botswana's Kelone Khudu-Petersen who shared two fabulous stories, and Claire McNicol who sang lovely ballads.

After that, and no surprise to anyone reading my blog, more food: a fantastic Nepalese meal with storytellers from Botswana, Italy, Canada, India and the UK. It's been an adventure, and there is much yet to come. Stay tuned!

Friday 18 October 2013

Lamb, Lapsang, and JK Rowling.

Today, I had lunch with J.K. Rowling.

Well, not really, but I did have lunch at the Pottermore fan famous Elephant House gourmet tea and coffee shop, where Rowling sat writing much of her early novels in the back room, and which bills itself as the birthplace of Harry Potter. I sat with my large pot of lapsang souchong, surrounded by hundreds of elephant prints and brick-a-brack, ate a fabulous lamb and mint pie, and watched the steady stream of curious tourists wander through.

Thanks to the fabulous Terrie Howey (aka storyteller Red Phoenix) for the lunch suggestion.

And for you, O Best Beloved, a little story.

Thursday 17 October 2013

Welcome to Scotland, here is your haggis. #SISF13

I'm here in Edinburgh for the Scottish International Storytelling Festival, and though I've been in Scotland less than 12 hours, I've already eaten my half my weight in haggis.

One of my Canadian storytelling friends, Kathy Jessup, is here for the festival as well, and after I had a short nap (not having slept since Tuesday night) we met up for dinner and sharing stories.

"Are you up for haggis nachos?" I asked her.

If there is one thing I know about Kathy, she is always up for an adventure.

"Oh- absolutely," she said,  "I'm your girl for that one...just to get a story if nothing else!"

Well, off we went to the Arcade Whisky and Haggis House. And while we didn't order the haggis nachos (they ARE on the menu), we did have the haggis, even Kathy, who apparently has a deathly fear of turnips. I think she was clubbed with one as a child - it would explain so much...

I opted for the "Robert Burn’s Famous Haggis" - a three layer concoction with mashed turnip, potatoes, and the vegetarian's nightmare, haggis. With whisky sauce, naturally. Amazing.

Kathy, her highness,  had the Princess Diana Style Haggis with the cream, onion, tomato and Drambuie sauce. And because I have a hollow leg (and having refused to pick up my cholesterol test results before leaving St. John's) I also had the sticky toffee pudding.

And now, to sleep, perchance to dream of the wild haggis, running free. Tomorrow, the storytelling festival starts in earnest. I should have recovered by then.

Sunday 13 October 2013

Historical Storytelling - Storytelling for Historic Site, Museum, and Parks Interpretation

Heritage tourism, experiential tourism, and cultural tourism are a growing business, and there are countless museums, town squares, parks and interpretation centres where the story of past is told and retold. Many times however, this telling is not done by storytellers! I believe that there is a great opportunity for the storytelling community to get more involved, and that we have a unique perspective that can only help create more interest in our shared heritage.

Storytelling on site at a museum or heritage home, however, may be a little different from the sort of storytelling we are accustomed to doing at story swaps, concerts or festivals. When we tell at an historic site, we have a chance to take true historical tales, and present them as a means of imparting a bit of information about the past.

This type of storytelling is a bit more focussed, with a more specific goal. It is, in a sense, applied storytelling. When we do it, we cease to become wholly storytellers, and start to draw on some of the approaches used by historical and parks interpreters. So take off your storytelling hat for a moment, and think about a local museum or historic place.

1. Pick a time period, theme or person that interests you as a teller.
Different storytellers tell different stories. I love telling ghost stories, or Jack tales. Other people tell epic tales, personal reminiscences or literary stories. In general, the teller tells the type of story that they love. Why should storytelling at an historic site or museum be any different? There are thousands of stories out there to be told, but there is nothing worse than listening to a tour guide relate a story which holds no interest to them.

One of the historic sites that I have been involved with is the Newman Wine Vaults in St. John’s, an early nineteenth-century stone and brick vault which was used for aging Newman’s Celebrated Port. I love telling the legend of how a Newman’s ship was attacked by French privateers, blown off course, and found safe harbour in St. John’s. One of the regular interpreters, who has a background in biology, loved to talk about a very specific type of mould that grows on the vault’s cool dark stone walls. I doubt I could get enthusiastic about mould, and perhaps the interpreter cared little for stories of piracy. We each tell the stories that excite us, and I believe that this type of enthusiasm is contagious. Then again, perhaps the mould is as well...

2. Utilize true, real life stories from real people.
History has gotten a bad reputation as being boring, but I think history is one of the most exciting possible things to study! History is full of drama, intrigue, humour, sex, bloodshed, hope, and a thousand other things we love to talk about as storytellers. Find the real stories about real people who lived and worked on your site that bring the place to life.

Think about the little things that written history might not always cover. What did the place smell like? Were the sounds different one hundred years ago? What were the women doing while the men were writing history books? When exactly did Aunt Vera go mad, and how did she end up in New Zealand? The potential stories from historical sources are endless. Find the one true story that speaks to you.

3. Do your homework.
People were much shorter back then. Or, at least, so we’ve been told! Many people have memories of visiting a pioneer village or restored home, and having a guide explain the small beds by saying that people were much shorter in the “olden days.” Is this true? Or is it simply a story that has been repeated over and over without proper research? Do your homework and find out.

When telling a story based on historical truth, it is important to research, research, and research some more. When telling a folktale, a storyteller has great artistic license. We do not have the same luxury with history. There is always room for drama, and sometimes a certain amount of recreation is needed, but historical tales should always be grounded in fact. Archives, museums, public libraries and oral histories all give us grist for the storytelling mill. Tell the truth. And yes, Crazy Aunt Vera really did wind up in New Zealand.

4. Provocation, not instruction.
There is an oft-repeated story associated with the Grand Canyon about the length of time visitors spend there. Like many stories, it has a couple versions. One states that the average visit to the Canyon last seven minutes. Another says the average visit to Grand Canyon is four hours, of which only fifteen minutes are spent in looking at it.

Think about that for a moment. Seven minutes. Fifteen minutes if you are lucky. That is the amount of time that you, as a storyteller working at an historic site, has to relate that site’s entire history. Sound impossible?

It is.

Too many interpreters, however, try to do exactly that. They attempt to compress everything about the site into one presentation, trying to teach all there is to know about the site to an audience that might not really care.

Good interpreters know that the goal of site interpretation is provocation, not instruction. It is impossible to teach a visitor everything about the place in the seven to fifteen minutes they have before they have to get back on their bus, shovel down their lunch, or buy T-shirts for their grandchildren. What you can do in seven minutes is dig a hole for them to fall into.

You won’t need a shovel. What you will need are your natural skills as a storyteller. Your role is to create a story where you trap the visitor, creating a hole they will need to ask a question to get out of later. In a sense, interpretation is much more like flirting than teaching. Give away a little, but always keep back just enough so that they come looking for more. If we give an audience something to think about, they might want to stay for longer than that magic seven minutes to discover an answer for themselves.

5. History versus Heritage Value.
History has many definitions, but I use it here to mean all that stuff that is written down on paper somewhere about things that happened in the past. History is dates, names, battles, treaties, acts of Parliament, laws, census information, et cetera. This, of course, is a very narrow definition of history, but I offer it only to contrast it with the idea of heritage.

Heritage is all those things from history that we value, and we choose to bring forward from the past to share with current and future generations. Heritage is something less tangible than history, because it comes with a sense of value. The heritage value of a place can be found in the importance or significance of that place to past, present, or future generations. It is a living thing, not merely words on an archival document.

The idea of heritage value is linked to the concept of “provocation, not instruction.” Our stories, instead of relaying all the history of the site, should speak to its heritage value. While we should tell the truth, choose which whole truth you will tell. We don’t have to tell all the truths of a place, but instead should focus on telling one complete truth. As well, ask yourself if the story answers the “so what” question.

“The Crow’s Nest Officers Club in St. John’s, Newfoundland was opened in 1942 and was designated as a provincial heritage structure in 1990.” So what?

“The Crow’s Nest Officers Club stands as a tribute to the vitality and humour that was essential to survive the horrors of war on the North Atlantic.” Ah! Now therein lies a story!

6. Use your storytelling experience.
We are storytellers! We are not necessarily tour guides or park wardens. We have our own special skills, and we can bring something to historic sites that other professionals can not. We can tell wonderful stories, and we come with skills from our work as storytellers that serve us well. We know about respecting our audience and choosing our stories wisely. We have a style all our own, and can create vivid word pictures, with pleasing sounds and rhythm. We create believable characters, and understand the importance of dramatic appeal. And we know that we need to practice our material to give it a bit of polish. So find an historic tale that you love to tell, and tell it!

Suggested Reading:
Amato, Joseph A. Rethinking Home: A Case For Writing Local History.Berkeley: U of CA P,
2002. A good reference for historians and researchers who are looking for new ways of looking at the past.

Dupont, Jean-Claude. “The Poker.” in Living in a Material World: Canadian and American Approaches to Material Culture. Ed. Gerald Pocius. St. John’s: ISER, 1991. An example of how one simple artifact can be the doorway to a realm of stories.

Strauss, Susan. The Passionate Fact: Storytelling in Natural History and Cultural Interpretation. Golden, Colorado: Fulcrum Publishing, 1996. An excellent resource for storytellers who wish to develop programs for parks, or for parks interpreters who want to learn about storytelling!

Tilden, Freeman. Interpreting Our Heritage. Chapel Hill: U of NC P, 1977. This is the classic work on heritage interpretation. It is a great little book for anyone doing any sort of interpretation work at a museum, historic site or park.


Need a workshop? Dale Jarvis has taught workshops in Canada, the US and the Netherlands for historic sites, museums, parks and cultural organizations, and for storytellers, showing them how they can use storytelling to bring a site to life. Email him to find out how he can help your organization at

(An earlier version of this article was first printed in 2009, copyright Dale Jarvis, St. John’s, NL. Photo of storytellers Dale Jarvis and Jedediah Baker by Chris Hibbs.)

Saturday 31 August 2013

Once Upon a Journey - Storytelling performances in Scotland, Belgium and Netherlands

“After two days' sail they sighted another shore and landed on an island to the north of the mainland. It was a fine, bright day, and as they looked around, they discovered dew on the grass. It so happened that they picked up some of the dew in their hands and tasted of it, and it seemed to them that they had never tasted anything so sweet.”
- Leif Erickson’s Voyage to Vinland, The Greenlander’s Saga

It’s official. I have my work visa in my hand, tickets booked, and I’m ready to go. This fall, I’m heading off on a storytelling pilgrimage with tales of adventurers and heroes, factual and fictional, travelling to Scotland, Belgium and Netherlands, and spinning yarns from Newfoundland and Canada for European audiences.

The first stop, Scotland, involves performances at two major, and overlapping, Scottish storytelling festivals: The Scottish International Storytelling Festival, and the Orkney Storytelling Festival. The theme for the 2013 Scottish storytelling festival explores the role of wandering storytellers, minstrels, explorers, and pilgrims. I'll be performing at the Royal Botanic Garden, and the Scottish Storytelling Centre in Edinburgh, before heading off to Orkney.

This year, Orkney is celebrating the 200th anniversary of the birth of John Rae, the Scottish doctor who explored Northern Canada, surveyed parts of the Northwest Passage and reported the fate of the Franklin Expedition. So, in the words of one of the festival organizers, “we are all about Canadians in 2013!”

My performances in Scotland and beyond will revolve around this theme, and I’ll be telling historical stories from Newfoundland, including adventure stories of early European visitors to this part of Canada, as well as stories of Newfoundland’s legendary wanderer and explorer, Jack.

From Scotland, I head to Belgium, where I’ll be teaching workshops, and on November 3rd, performing a set of ghost stories alongside Zus & Zo (fabulous Flemish storyteller Veva Gerard, her wonderfully talented, accordion-playing sister, and a double bassist).

Then, from there, off to the Storytelling Festival Amsterdam, where the theme of the festival is "Searching for the New World." I’ll be performing alongside noted Canadian storyteller and author Dan Yashinsky, as well as The Global Savages, the Anishnaabeg Storytellers of Manitoulin Island.

Stay tuned, as I’ll be posting notes from along the storytelling pilgrimage route. Thanks to the Newfoundland and Labrador Arts Council for their travel support!

Friday 30 August 2013

Third season of Ghosts of Signal Hill ends this Friday and Saturday

This has been our third summer for Ghosts of Signal Hill, and this weekend is the finale. It's been a great run, again, and I want to thank everyone at Parks Canada for all their help and support, Chris Hibbs for the photography and for splitting the role of Lieutenant Schuyler, and the staff of the Cabot Tower Heritage Shop for flogging those brochures!

We finish with two shows, one tonight, and our last one Saturday night, both at 8pm. Thanks to everyone who came out this summer and hiked up the hill to listen to our stories. If you haven't seen the show yet, you have two chances left!

Wednesday 24 July 2013

Telling stories with Peter Pan - July 28th at Bowring Park

This Sunday, July 28th, at 2pm, Bowring Park park is hosting “Neverland stories with Peter Pan: Fairytales for Young and Old.” Families are invited to bring a blanket or lawn chair, and join us for an hour of free, family-friendly fairytales, told by the Peter Pan statue.

The idea for the program started back in February when I got an email from Gayna Rowe, who is the Office Administrator for the Bowring Park Foundation. Bowring Park is celebrating its Centennial in 2014 and the Bowring Park Foundation has a committee in place to plan events for this special birthday. One of the suggestions of the committee was to have storytelling sessions in Bowring Park during the summer of 2014, and Gayna asked if I could meet with them to explore this possibility.

I, perhaps unsurprisingly, said yes!

We had a great first meeting, and out of that and other conversations grew this Sunday’s “Neverland Stories” event. The event is a pilot of sorts, to see what the public’s reaction will be. If it works, we will hopefully be back next summer with a regular series of storytelling at the Peter Pan statue, in time for the Park’s 100th anniversary.

Bowring Park's beloved Peter Pan, unveiled in 1925, is one of the park's most prominent and popular attractions. The Peter Pan monument was donated to Bowring Park by Sir Edgar R. Bowring, in memory of his little granddaughter, Betty Munn, who was lost in the S.S. Florizel disaster in February, 1918.

My idea to centre the stories around the Peter Pan statue was based on a project of the late storyteller Diane Wolkstein, who helped solidify a Saturday morning tradition of storytelling at the Hans Christian Andersen statue in New York’s Central Park. Over the last 50 years, generations of children have gathered there to hear stories from all around the world. The Peter Pan statue is our version of that iconic monument, and I’m excited to help start what will hopefully be a new tradition of storytelling in Bowring Park.

Performing alongside me for the first show will be my friend Mary Fearon, a much-loved Newfoundland storyteller who has been performing professionally since 1997. During that time, she has performed and run workshops at a variety of festivals, schools and other events both here in Newfoundland & Labrador and in Australia. Her interest in traditional Newfoundland material inspired her to co-develop the book, "Over The Big Fat Waves; A Collection Of Newfoundland & Labrador Rhymes, Songs and Language Games." Mary and I have told stories together in schools and festivals around the province, and, according to The Independent, she is one of the most interesting people in Newfoundland!

Mary and I will be telling fairytales from Newfoundland and around the globe, full of foolish heroes, magic and adventure. Admission is free, and we hope to see you there!

Thursday 4 July 2013

Ghosts return to Signal Hill

Ghosts of Signal Hill
Opens Friday, July 5, 2013

Daring escapes, murdered pirates, ghost ships, buried treasure, tragic drownings, and headless phantoms: it is all in a night’s work at Signal Hill National Historic Site. From the creator of the award-winning St. John’s Haunted Hike comes an evening of ghost stories, historical tales and strange adventures. Join the dashing Lieutenant Ranslaer Schuyler by lamplight inside the historic Queen’s Battery, and find out what happens on Newfoundland’s most historic hill, after the lights go out.

$15 ($10 for kids 12 and under) – cash sale only
(Price includes admission to Signal Hill National Historic Site Visitor Centre)
Buy your tickets and meet your guide at the Visitor Centre.
Every Friday and Saturday Night in July and August at 8pm

For more info visit

Wednesday 12 June 2013

Sunday June 16th - Sinners & Spirits go Steampunk!

Calling all steampunks, Victorian explorers, mad scientists, Tesla aficionados, and lovers of a bit of Gothic entertainment!

This Sunday, the St. John's Haunted Hike is pairing up with Steampunk Newfoundland for our regular Sinners and Spirits Tour, hosted that night by the ever-debonair Dave Walsh.

Listen in terror to tales of murder, intrigue, duels to the death, false love, prostitution, torture and more! Descend into the dark underbelly of St. John’s and explore its sordid past. This tour highlights the murderous history of the capital city, and its paranormal legacy.

The Tour starts at 9:30 pm and costs a mere $10 per soul ($5 for kids 12 and under), with tickets cash sale only. There is no need to book in advance, just show up and pay as you go. The hike starts from the stone steps at the west entrance of the Anglican Cathedral on Church Hill.

Members of Steampunk Newfoundland are meeting in advance of the tour,  at 9:00pm at the Cathedral, with have enough time for a chat before the event.

If you have any steampunk, Victorian, or Gothic attire, feel free to come in costume, to add to the atmosphere of the event. The tour is open to all, so even if you don't feel like dressing up, come along anyway! It promises to be the best-dressed Haunted Hike in St. John's history.

Check out the Facebook event listing here.

Goggles on, adventurers!

Tuesday 11 June 2013

Charis Cotter and the Ghosts of Baccalieu

Students at Tricon Elementary in Bay de Verde can brag that they live in one of the most haunted places in Newfoundland. While some some might be frightened of dead fishermen seeking revenge, shipwrecked sailors, or mysterious figures appearing on the highway at midnight, for the kids at Tricon, they are old friends.

This is because every student from Kindergarten to Grade 6 at the school have contributed either drawings or ghost stories to a new book called The Ghosts of Baccalieu. The book is part of an ArtsSmarts project led by local children’s author Charis Cotter, which pays tribute to the rich tradition of ghost stories in the province.

Cotter is an award-winning children’s writer, editor and storyteller based in Western Bay. She has a very particular interest in ghosts and makes an annual “Ghost Tour” of Newfoundland schools every fall with her book about international spooks, A World Full of Ghosts. In 2010, she was the celebrity judge for the St. John’s Ghost Story Writing Contest, sponsored by the Newfoundland and Labrador Public Library.

Cotter conceived the project and worked with the students to produce the book with help from the staff at Tricon Elementary. Work began last fall when students were asked to collect ghost stories from their families and friends. The community responded, sharing traditional ghost stories which had been passed down through the generations.

“One of my favourite stories is Ghost on the Gander by Brianna Barrett,” says Cotter. “It's about a young man who goes away to work in a lumber camp near Gander in the 1940s to help support his family. His father is dead and his mother has other children at home. One night he saw his mother standing at the foot of his bunk, just looking at him. The next day he got a telegram that she was sick. By the time he got home she was dead.”

“I like it because it reflects so much about what was hard back then about growing up in Newfoundland,” says Cotter, “and it's also really spooky the way she just appeared to him.”

Students were able to experience the entire process of bookmaking, from storytelling, to writing, editing, proofreading, design and publishing.

“I felt it was important for the students to experience everything that goes into making a real book—the fun, the creativity, the hard work—in order to better understand its value,” says Cotter. “I hope that this process will encourage a love of books and reading, by making it all very personal.”

The book will be presented to the community on Thursday, June 13. Appropriately, a special guest “ghost” will make an appearance from beyond the grave to greet visitors. Student artwork will be on display and selected authors will read excerpts from some of the scariest stories.

“Another favourite is The Longboat by Zander Doyle, about fishermen who heard men rowing a ghostly longboat in the fog in Baccalieu Tickle,” describes Cotter. “They heard them clearly, talking and calling and rowing, but no boat was there.This phenomenon reoccurs often before a big storm. I like it because there is something very creepy about ghosts forever rowing a boat, trying to get to shore and never getting there. And what could be more ghostly than a ghost boat in the fog?”

As a writer, Cotter likes ghost stories because they have an immediate appeal to kids.

“Ghost stories are fun to listen to and fun to write,” she states. “Ghosts blur the boundaries between what is seen and unseen, and children are accustomed to crossing back and forth between those two worlds.”

Copies of the book are available for sale at

Sunday 9 June 2013

Announcing the 2015 World Storytelling Day Theme: Wishes

Every year, storytellers from around the world get together electronically to select themes for World Storytelling Day, a global celebration of the art of oral storytelling. It is celebrated every year on the spring equinox in the northern hemisphere, the first day of autumn equinox in the southern.

For the past little while, we've tried to plan two years in advance. Following conversations on the World Storytelling Day listserv and Facebook page, Dutch storyteller Melanie Plag and I compiled a list of all the suggestions for 2015, and I set up an online poll where people could vote.

And now, the votes are in! The theme for 2015 is "Wishes."

Let the ideas for stories and events begin!

Thursday 6 June 2013

A ghostly knocking at the door

Recently, I had the opportunity to share ghost stories with a visiting group of Grade 7 and 8 students from St Michaels Elementary School, Stephenville Crossing. One of the students had done a heritage fair project on a ghostly legend from St. John’s, the story of the Foran’s Hotel. She asked me if I was familiar with the story, and I said that I was.

It is an interesting tale, and the story of the ghostly knockings of the Foran's Hotel is one of the oldest, and continuously repeated, ghost stories in St. John's.

I use the word legend to describe the story, because while it is often presented as a true story, its origins are a little vague, and there is some historical debate over the exact location of the hotel itself. In 1883 an elaborate four storey hotel named the Atlantic Hotel was established by John Foran on Water Street across from King's Beach. The building was at the time one of the grandest in the community, and it remained that way until the Great Fire of 1892 destroyed most of St. John's and gutted the hotel.

Oral tradition on the other hand firmly places the building known as "Foran's Hotel" at the intersection of Water Street and Queen Street, a good six blocks to the west. Folklorist and writer R.J. Kinsella wrote in 1919 that the Foran's Hotel was "situated where the General Post Office now is", which would place it at the second location.

One night after all the hotel guests were asleep, a violent knocking noise was heard coming from a vacant room at the top of the building. So persistent was the noise that soon everyone in the building was woken, but an investigation of the room revealed nothing to account for the clamour. The noise was not repeated that night, but the next night at the exact same time, the hotel was wracked with the same violent knocking. Nothing was found, and the third night, the knocking was renewed, causing great turmoil amidst the guests and lodgers.

With the reputation of the hotel close to ruin, the guests were persuaded to stay, and a party was organized to stand watch, with a double guard placed at the room door. That night, mysteriously, the knocking ceased, and was not heard again. The room was closed to the public, memory of the incident faded, and life and business returned to normal.

Several months after the disturbance, and unknown stranger arrived in St. John’s, and made his way to the Foran’s Hotel, where he demanded lodging for the evening. At that point the establishment was full, with every room occupied except one. Rather than send the mysterious gentleman to a rival hotel, the staff gave the man the room which had been the centre of the psychic disturbance months before. The stranger retired to the room, and later that night, the entire hotel was aroused by the old knocking, this time in a long and insistent outburst of wrath.

Guests and staff rushed to the bedchamber, and upon breaking in found the new lodger, lying on the bed, fully clothed, and cold in death. As the corpse was removed for burial the next day, a distinct rapping noise could be heard throughout the apartment, which persisted until the very instant the body was removed from the premises. The man was never identified, and his body was buried quietly.

The room was boarded up, and never used again, but the legend survived. Stories were in circulation in the late 1990s that the Canada Post building was haunted. In 1998, it was reported that strange, unexplained knocking noises were heard by postal workers on one of the upper stories.

Ghostly knockings are a theme repeated many times in Newfoundland stories of supernatural belief. Often, knocks at a door are seen as a token, a foreshadowing of someone’s death. One example of this was said to have happened in Buchans in 1949. A miner by the name of John Mullowney perished when an accident occurred underground in the Oriental mine.

Topside, back at the family home, no one yet knew of the disaster that had transpired beneath them. Suddenly, there were three knocks on the door of the family's house. Someone answered the door, but there was no one standing on the step.

Shortly after that, a worker from the mine came to the door, and asked for Mrs. Mullowney. He informed her that her husband had been killed in the mine.

If you have a story of strange knocking noises, let me know by email at

Sunday 19 May 2013

Help pick the World Storytelling Day theme for 2015

World Storytelling Day is a global celebration of the art of oral storytelling. It is celebrated every year on the spring equinox in the northern hemisphere, the first day of autumn equinox in the southern. On World Storytelling Day, as many people as possible tell and listen to stories in as many languages and at as many places as possible, during the same day and night. Participants tell each other about their events in order to share stories and inspiration, to learn from each other and create international contacts.

Each year, many of the individual storytelling events that take place around the globe are linked by a common theme. Each year, the theme is identified by and agreed upon by storytellers from around the world.

Past themes, and the theme for 2014, are listed here:

2004 - Birds
2005 - Bridges
2006 - The Moon
2007 - The Wanderer
2008 - Dreams
2009 - Neighbours
2010 - Light and Shadow
2011 - Water
2012 - Trees
2013 - Fortune and Fate
2014 - Monsters and Dragons

For the past few years, we've tried to select the theme two years in advance, and there have been a lot of suggestions from all around the world for the theme for 2015.  Now is the time to vote!

Follow the link to vote for your favourite 2015 theme. Spread the word to other storytellers!  Voting closes June 1st, 2013.

Vote here: