The theme of our time in Edinburgh seems to be stories. On our group tour to the Trossachs and my solo bus tour to Loch Ness, the tour guides told us stories from Scotland’s rich history, like that of William Wallace, Rob Roy, and Mary, Queen of Scots. We heard the story of Mary King’s Close performed by a tour
guide in costume and character. The buildings themselves tell stories through posted historical information and anecdotes, like in Edinburgh Castle, or through their architecture, as the differences between New Town and Old Town express. When we visited Gladstone’s Land and the Georgian House today, the volunteer attendants told us stories about the families that lived in those houses, and the activities that passed beneath those roofs for decades.
Our experience at the Scottish Storytelling Centre seemed a fitting part of our journey, even if it wasn’t quite what we expected.
We had tickets for a performance of “Ladies of Pleasure” and we were all very interested in the “historic guide to the intimate pleasures available to Gentlemen in Eighteenth Century Edinburgh,” as the description on the Centre’s website reads. I think we were all expecting to hear a comedic (and likely a bit raunchy) but historic narrative; however, it wasn’t quite like that…
Noreen and John Hamilton, storytellers from Heritage Stories wrote and acted out a scene based on the pamphlet Ranger’s Impartial List of the Ladies of Pleasure in Edinburgh, written as a sort of advertisement for the various prostitutes a gentlemen could employ from brothels along the 18th-century Royal Mile. It was a partially scripted, partially improvised conversation between the manager of a brothel and a gentlemen searching for the “company” of his ideal prostitute. It included florid, euphemistic readings from the pamphlet about the girls’ “special talents,” Madame’s witty yet realistic interpretations, and bawdy recitations of a little Robert Burns. However, the storytelling was indirect; instead of a “this happened and then this happened and then this happened” story, the scene was a sort of subdued love story woven into a
snapshot of the life of a prostitute. The audience had to read between the lines and piece the story together on their own a bit. Without spoon-feeding listeners, the Hamiltons told us a story about the work 18th-century prostitutes performed, the women who pursued that particular career, and the way men perceived and objectified them. It raised several points to ponder; for example, why did Madame want her daughter to be educated and stay away from prostitution despite her own apparent success? After all, she defended the honor of the work at the beginning of the act and bragged a bit about her financial situation. How would a woman climb the ladder in the world of brothels? Through her “special talents,” through the number of men she entertained?
At first I didn’t fully appreciate the storytelling experience. I thought some introductory information on the source material and the improvisation would have been helpful. It definitely had its funny moments and it was interesting to hear the readings from the Impartial List. However, wasn’t until several of my classmates, at this morning’s class discussion, pointed out the subtleties I mentioned that I began to better realize the value in this unusual, theatrical type of storytelling.