FOR AN event calling itself The Carrying Stream Festival, the presence of traditional singer, pianist and storyteller Elizabeth Stewart is nothing short of totemic.
The week-long festival, run by Edinburgh Folk Club, is an annual celebration of the life and legacy of the poet and folklorist Hamish Henderson, who likened the ongoing flow of folk tradition to that eponymous stream, and Stewart hails from a redoubtable family of North-east Travellers, the Stewarts of Fetterangus, who collectively have been a conduit of music, song and story going back generations.
The vibrancy of that family tradition, not infrequently in the face of adversity and prejudice, and particularly as maintained by doughty women – Elizabeth herself, her mother Jean, her aunt Lucy and grandmother “Auld Betty” – has been documented in a vivid and vital new book, Up Yon Wide and Lonely Glen, published by the University Press of Mississippi in association with Aberdeen University’s Elphinstone Institute. Elizabeth Stewart’s account of her family, in her own words, with a wealth of transcribed and notated songs, tales and riddles, has been edited by singer and musicologist Alison McMorland, who recalls being “enthralled and inspired” as an emerging traditional singer, by recordings of Lucy Stewart she heard at Edinburgh University’s School of Scottish Studies.
And on 8 November at Summerhall in Edinburgh, as part of the Carrying Stream Festival, McMorland and her husband and singing partner, Geordie McIntyre, will be joined – health permitting – by Elizabeth, as well as by Edinburgh-based Caithness singer-songwriter Nancy Nicholson and Highland storyteller Essie Stewart.
It’s a long way from Duke Street – “The Dukker” as it was known, in Fetterangus, Aberdeenshire – where Elizabeth was born in 1939, one of four children in a “settled” traveller family. Her mother, Jean Stewart, was a household name in the North-east as an accordionist and dance band leader who broadcast for the BBC – recalled fondly by veteran journalist Jack Webster as lingering in the memory “like a distant song”. Her aunt, Lucy, who died in 1982, was a mistress of the muckle sangs, McMorland recalling “a voice at times sweet, at others haunting and stark”; then there was a male lineage of pipers – old photographs depicting them as formidably hirsute figures, resplendent with competition medals, some of whose music was abruptly silenced in the trenches of the First World War.
There was also the redoubtable figure of her grandmother, “Auld Betty” Stewart, whose picture appears on the book cover, and who brought up a family of 14, rag-gathering and hawking to pay for piano lessons for her musical brood. As Elizabeth writes, “It’s important for me tae tell aboot my family because I’m descended fae a lang line o extraordinary pipers, musicians, composers, singers an storytellers. I ken this not only because o the medals, certificates an diplomas that were left behind in my aunt Lucy’s care, but also because o the heritage o music an song that lives on in me and many ither folk who hiv come into contact wi oor family through the generations.”
Such a heritage, however, didn’t necessarily alleviate the prejudice with which Travellers were frequently confronted, as she recounts. However, the cultural riches of which they were custodians were first revealed to the wider world when Henderson beat a path to the house in Duke St in 1954 and recorded Lucy. Other collectors would follow, including American folklorists Kenny Goldstein and Charles Joyner. Quite simply, music, as Elizabeth tells me, has been and remains “top priority”.
For the Fetterangus Stewarts, music, life and lore were inextricable. Thus the book not only includes a version of the great old ballad The Battle of Harlaw, but Elizabeth tells a ghost story about how her grandparents, camping at the traditional site of the battle, were terrified by the apparition of a headless knight.
Not that her musical input was purely traditional. She may have become adept at piano arrangements of pipe marches, but in her early days she also indulged an appetite for Winifred Atwell style boogie-woogie and Jerry Lee Lewis numbers.
In the book’s introduction, McMorland highlights Elizabeth’s “immense responsibility to honour her ancestral and close family”, although, she adds, there was also a need to recognise her own story and talent, which has tended to be bypassed by folk scene chroniclers, compared to some other more celebrated Traveller singers. “She is a considerable artist in her own right,” McMorland tells me. “She gives of herself in her singing and you can hear the artistry and musicality of her mother in it. The impact on me as a listener is that I am fully pulled into her world.”
A less inspiring element to emerge from the book is that both Elizabeth and her mother Jean, who died in 1962, aged just 50, suffered from abusive marriages, Elizabeth’s long behind her. One might argue that, to fully interpret the great, elemental ballads, some insight into the darker corners of the human condition is required.
“Young singers of today haven’t lived, suggests McMorland, “so how can they really sing something like The Cruel Mither? And Elizabeth has suffered. Yet the respect and the dignity she holds for her family is the very life blood in her.”
Elizabeth, now 73, has been suffering from ill health, but has every hope of joining McMorland and company at the Carrying Stream Concert. Apart from that event, other festival guests include the Kerry fiddler Niamh Ní Charra, English singer-songwriter Allan Taylor in concert with The Shee, the Danish band Himmerland appearing with Scots fiddler Gavin Pennycook’s Nyckelharpa Project, singers Margaret Bennett and Heather Heywood with fiddle-guitar duo Fiona Cuthill and Stevie Lawrence, and a leading American traditionalist, Jeff Warner. The annual Hamish Henderson lecture, meanwhile, will be given by Steve Byrne, chairman of the Hamish Henderson Archive Trust.
The festival also launches another book, At Hame Wi’ Freedom: Essays on Hamish Henderson and the Scottish Folk Revival (Grace Note Publications), the third in a “loose trilogy” of essays on or inspired by Henderson, edited by festival organiser Eberhard Bort. Among contributors such as Ewan MacVicar, Maurice Fleming and Hayden Murphy, McMorland writes about her work with Elizabeth Stewart, for whom she also produced a double CD of songs and tunes.
That album was titled Binnorrie, after one of Stewart’s ballads, a version of The Cruel Sister, in which the mill race of Binnorrie runs deep and dark and fatal. The happier currents of tradition that flow through the Stewarts of Fetterangus have indeed proved a life-affirming carrying stream.
• For details and to order Up Yon Wide and Lonely Glen, see www.abdn.ac.uk/elphinstone/publications
• The Carrying Stream Festival runs from 7-14 November. See www.carryingstreamfestival.co.uk