How to write your own Folktale!

If you are a storyteller, your tales will be the ones that you originally heard told by other storytellers. You will also tell stories that you have found in books. None of these will be your stories. You may interpret them in your own individual style but the tales will not be original with you. There is nothing wrong with that, it is what we all do. But why not write a folktale of your own? It is not as difficult as you may think, and when it is done, you will have a story that is performed by no one else!

If you are an experienced storyteller, you will already understand how most stories are structured, i.e. an attention grabbing or intriguing beginning; an exciting dramatic trail of events, followed by the suspense that precedes a satisfying conclusion. And because your story is for oral delivery, you will not require a university degree in literature to write it! We are dealing with the spoken word, so literary precision is not imperative.

The plot itself does not have to be original. I read somewhere that there are only seven different plot subjects and all stories are derived from one or the other, or combinations of several (do not ask me what the seven are - I can't remember!). Often the plot will already be in your head, lying dormant and waiting for a spark of inspiration to trigger it off! And the more improbable your imagined situation, the more easily will your creative faculties be stimulated.

Here is an exercise that I sometimes use when looking for creative inspiration: Look at a normal, everyday situation and then consider the question, "What if.....?"

For example:

You are taking your children or grandchildren for a walk in the park - what if the squirrel that you are feeding suddenly begins talking to you? What would it say? How would the children respond? And suppose the trees were to join in the conversation? What stories could they tell and what might you learn from them? The answers to these questions will create the basis of your story. But you should remember, it is a folktale - there ought to be a moral or a truth pointed out at the end.


When I was a small boy, my older relatives used to tell me of a statue beside a fountain in the local park. They said that if the statue noticed, after the park had closed, that the fountain was still flowing, it would get down from its pedestal and switch the fountain off! I did not believe them, but they insisted that they were speaking the truth! It was years before I realised that statues cannot see and are therefore unable to 'notice' anything! But many times since then I have wondered to myself, "What if....?" One day I might write it all down and tell that story!

Perhaps you were teased with an unlikely tale when you were young. Well why not give, "What if...?" a try?

Another plot source might be based around a local legend. There are many myths that have little substance in the story and could be improved with some imaginative 'fleshing out'. Write down the basic tale, add in some extra action and build it up. The story below is just such an example.

It is a good idea to carry a notebook and pencil around with you at all times. Ideas will frequently 'pop' into your head. Initially, the ideas may only be vague thoughts. That does not matter. Just jot down a few words at the time the notion occurs and work on it later. Use the "What if?" strategy. Once you start writing, you will be surprised how quickly your thoughts will begin to flow and develop into a story. And the more you write, the easier it becomes.

Well?.........what are you waiting for?


Here is a tale to which I applied the "What if...? principle.This legend is based upon the quotation below and it has inspired other, more illustrious writers than me to work a story around it. The quotation comes from John Stoddart’s, historical work, ‘Remarks on Scotland’. Published in 1801:-

"An old writer mentions a curious tradition which may be worth quoting. “By east of the Isle of May”, says he, “twelve miles from all land in the German Seas, lyes a great hidden rock, called Inchcape, very dangerous for navigators, because it is overflowed everie tide. It is reported in old times, upon the saide rock there was a bell, fixed upon a tree or timber, which rang continually, being moved by the sea, giving notice to the saylers of the danger. This bell or clocke was put there and maintained by the Abbot of Aberbrothock, and being taken down by a sea pirate, a yeare thereafter he perished upon the same rocke, with ship and goodes, in the righteous judgement of God"


This is a story of two brothers. One of them took to religion, the other took to the sea. One became a monk, then a prior and ultimately an abbot. The other, a sailor, a sea captain and eventually a notorious pirate! For he was as wicked as his brother was good.

Although each was aware of the other’s occupation, they had little personal contact. The Abbot prayed often for the sea robber.Who, in turn despised his brother’s chosen calling and took every opportunity to ridicule and embarrass him.

The Abbot was incumbent at the Abbey of Aberbrothock, some twenty miles to the north east of Dundee. Now just a ruin, theAbbey is located in the centre of the small coastal town that bears its more modern name of Arbroath.

Because of the abbey's proximity to the North Sea, the Abbot had become increasingly concerned about the number of ships that were being wrecked upon a small rocky sandstone island just beyond the Firth of Tay. Inchcape; for that is the island’s name, was particularly dangerous owing to its rising, even at low tide, no more than a few metres above the surface of the sea. And at high tide and in storms was virtually submerged and invisible. “What could be done”, wondered the Abbot, “to protect shipping and the lives of the sailors who were constantly at risk when leaving and entering the firth?”

He called for a meeting between ship owners and leading citizens of Perth and Dundee, many of whom were directly affected by the loss of shipping and valuable cargo. After some lengthy discussion, it was decided that a large bell should be fixed onto the rock. The ringing of the bell in the wind would alert the crewmen aboard the vessels of the dangers lying ahead.

Collections were made and in three months they had sufficient funds with which to purchase a great bronze bell from a bell foundry in Amsterdam. Workers were sent out to the rock to build a strong gantry on to which the bell would be hung.

At last all was ready and on a particularly bright and sunny day, a flotilla of small boats set out to attach the bell to its housing.The provosts of both Dundee and Perth were in attendance, as was the Abbot and other leading clergymen as the floating procession made its way towards the rock.

In a short time the bell was in place; hymns were sung, prayers were said and the bell was blessed. The boats returned to Aberbrothock where a banquet had been prepared to celebrate the success of the mission. It was not long before the deep ringing tones of the bell in the distance told those on land that it was indeed doing its job. The Abbot gave thanks for God’s guidance. Many disasters would be averted and more importantly, lives would be saved. Inchcape was soon to become known to mariners, far and wide as ‘The Bell Rock’.

Meanwhile, far away in the warm climate of the Mediterranean, the younger brother was robbing and pillaging ships and towns along the Barbary Coast of North Africa. The news of his brother’s praiseworthy work he greeted with scorn and disdain. He laughingly claimed that he put the fear of God into more people in a month than the worthy Abbot would in his lifetime! Nevertheless, he was irritated that the humble priest was receiving more recognition than was his own notoriety. He planned to do something about it.

Six weeks later, the pirate ship, loaded with booty headed for Scotland, where there were rich and unscrupulous merchants who would pay handsomely for the gold, silver and jewels plundered from the Barbary Coast.

As the ship approached the firth, the bell could be clearly heard. Even though the sea was calm, the gentle breeze was enough to cause the clapper to strike the inside of the bronze casing. The captain gave orders for a boat to be lowered and with six of his crew, he rowed to the rock. Once there, it took less than ten minutes to unhook the bell and roll it into the sea! It sank silently, disappearing below the waves.

The captain gazed at the spot and said almost to himself, “The next visitors to Inchcape won’t be blessing the Abbot!” His crewmen looked uneasily at one another, each aware of the dreadful act to which they had been party. They returned to the ship and sailed on to Dundee where the captain completed his unlawful business dealings.

Two days later, he was ready to set sail again, back to the Barbary Coast. This time the sea had a heavier swell, as they sailed out of the firth, heading for the North Sea. The wind became a gale and it began to rain. The crew was nervous and mostly silent. Although they were rough and ready buccaneers, as mariners, they were also superstitious. They each felt acutely aware that a dreadful price would have to be paid for the wickedness of their captain’s earlier actions. They were right to be afraid.

As the storm grew in strength, visibility was reduced to nil and control of the vessel became impossible. Suddenly, with a grinding crunch, the ship came to a shuddering stop and immediately lurched onto its side. They had hit the rock! There had been no warning bell; for had it not been rolled into the sea two days earlier? Water poured over the ship as it began to break up. The crewmen screamed in terror as they fell into the waves. In a short time, there was nothing left of the ship or its crew, save one lone survivor.

He had a strange tale to tell. He said that he saw the captain disappear into the sea and at that very moment he swore that he had heard the ringing of a bell; as though the Devil himself was bidding the captain, “Welcome!”

The bell was never replaced and it was not until more modern times that a lighthouse was built on the rock. The Inchcape Lighthouse, or as it is more famously known, ‘The Bell Rock Lighthouse’ has protected shipping ever since.

But even today, sailors will tell you that when the sea in the Firth of Tay is rough, there are times that they can hear the ringing of a deep-toned bell. And when they look into the sky, they see a ghostly sailing ship with one solitary figure pacing the deck!

Copyright Leslie Melville – 2000.

I first became aware of The Legend of the Bell Rock in 1998 when I heard a recording of the Scottish actor, Robert Trotter, reading a story with that title written by Captain Frederick Marryat. I was intrigued by Marryat’s tale and on further investigation, discovered the more familiar Robert Southey ballad entitled, ‘The Inchcape Rock’.

Southey refers to the Abbot and the pirate, 'Sir Ralph the Rover’, although in the ballad, they are not related. Having researched some of the historical detail – very sketchy and inconclusive – I found that the consensus opinion is that the pirate (if he ever existed), unhooked the bell and sank it because he wanted ships to founder on the rock so that he could plunder the wreckage. Given the stormy nature of the sea around Inchcape, this seems to me to be a very risky enterprise and most unlikely.

And so I thought, "What if the Abbot and pirate were brothers?" I considered this to be a much more attractive scenario! Sibling rivalry has always been a good subject for a story. For the pirate to be so consumed with hatred for his brother that he becomes motivated to perform such a terrible act of wickedness also appealed to me and morally justifies the manner of his demise!

Those of you who are familiar with both the Marryat version of the legend, (a completely different story) and Southey’s ballad will see that in my tale, I have drawn inspiration from them both. I hope that you find my interpretation no less entertaining for that!

The above story can be heard on my C.D.: "The Legend of The Bell Rock - and Other Tales of the Sea" Click Here for more information