Storyteller’s tale of life

chrisella ross 2

Chrisella Ross has gone from barmaid to BBC Alba writer

BY KATE HOOPER

A flair for storytelling, a passion for people and a love of the great outdoors is the simple combination that underpins life for Chrisella Ross. While the combination may be simple, the plotline of her life’s journey has been colourful and the resulting story an inspirational one.

Chrisella is a Gaelic storyteller from Bayble in Point, Lewis. You may recognise her name already, you may even have seen it on your TV screens. Chrisella is the creator and writer of ‘Bannan’, the first Gaelic drama to be produced in over 20 years, which has aired on BBC Alba with much success.

It has only been in recent years, however, that Chrisella has turned her attention to writing for television having completed an MA in TV Fiction Writing at Glasgow Caledonian University in 2012. When she describes her journey to becoming creator of the soap, a sense of surprise can still be heard echoing through her words.

“We were learning how to write for programmes like ‘River City’ and ‘Waterloo Road’. I realised after a while that I didn’t know these communities. When we were given the chance to work up our own piece I went back to my own village and made up characters based on things that I knew.

“I wrote a one-hour piece based in our village around two brothers who were in the oil industry. It was a contemporary story.  Then when Chris Young from Young Films started looking for Gaelic writers, I sent this piece in. Chris came and interviewed me. He liked the feel of the piece, the contemporary nature of it, as well as the fact it was based in a local community. And that was where ‘Bannan’ came from!”

‘Bannan’ has been dubbed a major Scottish success story. The production has employed and developed talent in the area while generating significant audience figures for BBC Alba. But while the ‘Bannan’ plotline has seen viewers hooked, what is the tale of the woman behind the concept of the Gaelic TV phenomenon?

 

WELL, Chrisella’s story starts on her daddy’s knee:

“My dad loved songs and stories,” she says. “I spent a lot of time on his lap by the fireside listening to him singing, talking about music and hearing stories. He was a great teller of tales, as so many of his generation were.”

Her upbringing in the vibrant island community she remembers has had a distinct influence on the value Chrisella places on storytelling.

“Being raised in Point, there were so many people who were all so different,” she says. “So many who had been all over the world in the wars, and people doing all kinds of different jobs. As you grow up you begin to realise that you are the same as other rural communities across the globe. A grounding in story and the sense of identity that comes from that makes you realise how valuable that can be to others around the world.

“Story has a lot of functions. It goes deep into the human psyche. We are always looking for stories that explain to us who we are, that give us a sense of belonging, of other people and even of our mistakes. Storytelling is so important — it’s the link between human beings.”

As I speak with Chrisella, it becomes clear that she places a great deal of value on people, and of gaining an understanding of people. Their background or status is irrelevant. Chrisella is interested in the person, which is another quality that she attributes to her upbringing in an island community. This is probably why she has turned her hand successfully to so many different roles, throughout her exceptionally-varied working life.

“In terms of my CV, I have done loads of jobs!”, she laughs. “I’ve been a barmaid. I had a stint in Inverness College as a secretary, which I knew by day three was never going to happen! In Edinburgh, I was the caretaker of a DSS property, I stripped furniture and I drove a library van. I studied Business Studies at Sabhal Mòr Ostaig when it first opened, and then I worked in the museum in Lewis.”

 

IT WAS through her work in the museum that Chrisella found she had a passion for stories of island history.

“It was 1986 and the centenary of the crofting act. We recreated the story of a crofting family in the Town Hall in Stornoway. That was when I really started to learn about our hard history. I read through the Napier Commission reports, and the stories of the hardship families experienced has stayed with me vividly.

“When that post ended I had to find a job so I left the island and went to Edinburgh, where I really saw the poorer side of the city. I had a lot of different jobs until I got a role in the military museum in Edinburgh Castle.”

Chrisella explains that it was during this role that her eyes were further opened to stories from Scotland’s history. It was then that she met Professor Hugh Cheape, whom she credits as a “fabulous mentor” in her life.

“I got involved with creating a CD Rom for schools about the history of Gaelic Scotland from 300AD to 1951 based on the collections of the National Museum and the School of Scottish Studies at the University of Edinburgh. I researched that pretty much on my own for four years, but Hugh helped me significantly along the way.”

While her interest in Scotland’s history and people laid a strong foundation for her future writing roles, Chrisella’s career in professional storytelling appears to have happened almost by accident.

“It was really just by pure chance,” she explains. “I came home to Lewis having spent 10 years in Edinburgh. I came home because I felt that I couldn’t give my children the freedom in Edinburgh that I could in Lewis. A job came up with Pròiseact nan Eilean, the Gaelic arts agency. They were looking for a manager for a storytelling project. I applied and got the job.

“The project was very much about getting storytelling going again in communities, and giving it value. We knew there was a love of storytelling, of stories passing between people in the streets and at the fanks. We knew that most of the very old tales were going, but the ability to listen to and tell stories still existed. The project was about giving value to people being together, telling stories and enjoying each other’s company. There is a lot of value to that, particularly when we bring different generations together.”

Chrisella led the project for seven years during which time she had many adventures. She recalls fondly a trip to Washington, where she took people from the islands to tell stories of Hebridean life on the National Mall for the Smithsonian folklife festival. She remembers with humour serving up ceann cropic to passers-by.

 

CLOSER TO HOME, Chrisella highlights a storytelling event where she brought 200 sailors together to tell stories in Gaelic about their lives.

“I have memories of people folding over backwards with laughter,” she recalls. “The ability some of these guys had to tell stories was just fantastic.”

Chrisella credits Malcolm Maclean, the former director of Pròiseact nan Eilean, as someone who taught her so much. It becomes clear that Chrisella sees the role of other characters as significant in her own story.

Shortly after the Pròiseact post ended Chrisella met Amanda Millen, who runs Xpo North’s Screen and Broadcast network: “I went to a one-day workshop on storytelling for visual media and that was me,” she recalls. “I was hooked.”

Inspired by the experience, it wasn’t long until Chrisella found herself on the Masters degree that helped to launch her TV career.

While Chrisella has found great inspiration in people and events along the way, the great outdoors has been a source of lifelong inspiration. It becomes clear that her love of the meaningful experiences of the everyday has fuelled her talent to create the compelling stories that so many people connect with.

“I spent a lot of time walking by the shores and the cliffs as a child, sometimes to avoid doing the jobs in the house, of course!” she says.

“I still love being out in the wind and the rain, with the weather lashing my bare head! I love sticking my nose in Highland roses. I love these moments and experiences. It’s when I feel most alive.”

As we wind down the interview, and Chrisella heads out for a spot of fishing on Loch Leven, I can’t help nodding in agreement as I’m reminded through this talented storyteller’s own tale that life’s simple stories really are the best ones.