City's new storytelling centre ready for a happy beginning

THE Scottish Storytelling Centre, Edinburgh's newest visitor attraction, is set to open its doors tomorrow.

The 3.5 million complex on the Royal Mile includes a modern replacement for the old Netherbow Arts Centre, featuring a new 99-seater theatre, arts cafe, gallery and exhibition space, and education rooms.

The world's first storytelling centre includes the already-revamped John Knox House, which dates back to the 15th century and was the final home of Scotland's most controversial religious figure.

Tomorrow's unveiling comes ahead of its official opening by Culture Minister Patricia Ferguson on June 1.

The project has been jointly masterminded by the Scottish Storytelling Forum and the Church of Scotland.

The new building, created at the point where one of Edinburgh's medieval gateways once stood, has been designed by award-winning Edinburgh architect Malcolm Fraser, who was responsible for the striking Dance Base building in the Grassmarket.

Along with storytelling, the centre will see poetry, music, visual arts and theatre events staged all year round.

Highlights of the new centre include a contemporary tower housing the old City Bell of Edinburgh, which was cast in 1621, a specially-commissioned mural celebrating the Royal Mile's culture and people, a storytelling garden and a huge storytelling library.

A storytelling wall in the new complex celebrates famous stories such as Tam O'Shanter, Greyfriars Bobby, Sherlock Holmes, Inspector Rebus, Maisie from Morningside and The Gruffalo, and there is also a special display is dedicated to the city's best-known storyteller, Robert Louis Stevenson.

The main auditorium can either be blacked out, or filled with daylight from the "secret" storytelling garden, which is hidden away behind the centre.

Donald Smith, director of the centre and a founding member of the Scottish Storytelling Forum, said: "The purpose of the centre is to celebrate and continue Scotland's rich traditions of oral and popular storytelling.

"The emergence of the centre and the storytelling renaissance that inspired it are signs of a new confidence in Scottish culture and its international importance.

"The centre will reach out into a national network of storytellers and local projects, as well as engage with all age groups and with the diverse cultures of modern Scotland." The old Netherbow was closed in October 2003 to make way for building work on the new centre, funding for which was provided by the city council, Scottish Enterprise and the Scottish Arts Council.

Planning for the project began in 2000 amid fears over the future of the Netherbow Arts Centre, which had opened in 1972, because of its cramped theatre and function space.

It is hoped the centre will become a major new venue on the Royal Mile, attracting 100,000 visitors in its first year, as well as helping to raise awareness of Scottish storytelling.

Bosses believe it will help establish the Royal Mile as the Capital's literary quarter, which already boasts the Scottish Poetry Library, the Writer's Museum, Canongate Kirkyard - the burial place of Adam Smith and Robert Fergusson - and the offices of the Saltire Society.

Councillor Ricky Henderson, the council's culture and leisure leader, said: "As a World City of Literature, Edinburgh is truly the city of stories.

"The centre will provide a window into our nation's rich history of storytelling traditions. I look forward to hearing the Netherbow bell ring out again and to seeing the centre in action for residents and visitors alike."

Ian Munro, head of lottery at the Scottish Arts Council, added: "The Scottish Storytelling Centre is a unique international centre which will provide a valuable national resource and focal point for storytelling and other artforms."