“Day-to-Day Existence”: Scottish Storyteller Jess Smith on Human Flourishing

Interview and article by Binks Hub student intern Brigid McCormack as part of our series on human flourishing, following our human flourishing symposium in June 2023.

To widen our thinking about flourishing, I spoke with Jess Smith, Scottish storyteller and preserver of Traveller heritage, to explore human flourishing found in stories rooted in the rugged Highlands.

Writing for the world

When asked how she became a storyteller, Jess leans forward in her chair and tells me,  “Because I had a story to tell and the story was my own.” With her father’s death, and his own unfulfilled wish of publishing his account of life as a Scottish Traveller, Jess vowed to tell stories that capture Scotland’s Celtic history and Traveller culture. “I had the love of the pen . . . who better?” 

In her book The Way of the Wanderers, Jess shared her father’s story with the world. Through five further books and practising the ancient tradition of oral storytelling, she has shared her Scottish stories of trickery, truth, joy, and sorrow in Scotland and beyond. 

Growing up in a bus, Jess and her family rolled across the Highland Munros and glens, always moving from town to town. “My entire childhood was in this bus”, she says when fondly recalling her life amongst the flora and fauna of remote Scotland. With no permanent address, Jess’ childhood was constantly filled with new changes and challenges. “Negativity is something that’s thrown upon us through circumstance.”

Living according to shifting seasons and available work and resources, Jess’ life “was a day-to-day existence”. She recalls the uncertain tempo of her and her family’s life. Moving from school to school, she learned of the prejudice against Travellers: “I knew I was different.” Being bullied and called “tinker”, Jess understood her own peripheral existence as a Traveller in Scotland. 

“Travellers are survivalists,” she says. “To get out of a tight corner, they had to tell a crackin’ tale”.  Jess’s storytelling ability, then, is founded in her Traveller roots. 

Writing became an outlet for Jess to share her stories. When she told her mother she would write her father’s story, her mother exclaimed, “I thought you would, lassie!” 

And when she began writing, her mother gave Jess a piece of advice: “You’re not writing for you, you’re writing for the world.” This would become a valuable reminder and raison d’être that is woven into all of Jess’ work.

Stories and human flourishing

Story  is the thread that ties humans together.  Jess beckons the listeners and readers of her stories to understand the binding power in a story: “It’s up to us all to nourish each other”. 

This mutual nourishment, found in listening and telling, promotes human flourishing. “Humanity is in the story and the story lives through humanity”, she tells me. 

Writing stories of Traveller history, Jess reckoned with the oppression, poverty, and inequality that her father and generations before felt. In the face of this sorrow, Jess’ joy was still able to flourish by sharing stories with listeners and readers. 

Jess speaks of her father again: “It was almost like he wasn’t important in humanity. He was an afterthought.” 

Sharing her father’s story gave Jess the power to make his importance and value known to others. Story, connecting tellers and listeners together through shared values and collective understanding, pushes us all towards human flourishing.

Stories, the teller, and the listener

Not only does Jess write stories, she tells them – often at workplaces, schools, and prisons, sharing her Traveller heritage and skilfully telling the tales of Scotland. 

Jess’ spoken stories, fact or fiction (or more often a blend of both), bring whimsy and magic into ordinary circumstances. When recounting the Tale of the Cruel Miller, a story about a kind Traveller, cruel miller, and cunning mother, I was drawn in by Jess’s passionate storytelling. 

But while Jess is a skilled storyteller, she maintains her stories would mean nothing without the listener. “The story is a living element between the storyteller and the listener. If the teller has be¬en good at sharing that story, the listener will share it and [the story] doesn’t die.” 

The Tale of the Cruel Miller encourages the listener to embrace differences and be kind. If a story such as this dies, the lessons within it might be lost. Stories, as vessels of kindness, respect, and understanding, are an important part of human flourishing. 

Without both the teller and listener, human flourishing cannot be sustained.


The Binks Hub will work with communities to co-produce a programme of research and knowledge exchange that promotes social justice, relational research methods and human flourishing.

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