Obituary: Sheila Stewart MBE

Sheila Stewart MBE: Ballad singer, storyteller, traveller and berry-picker who once played at the White House. Picture: Jane BarlowSheila Stewart MBE: Ballad singer, storyteller, traveller and berry-picker who once played at the White House. Picture: Jane Barlow
Sheila Stewart MBE: Ballad singer, storyteller, traveller and berry-picker who once played at the White House. Picture: Jane Barlow
Born: 7 July, 1935, in Blairgowrie, Perthshire. Died: 9 December, 2014, in Dundee, aged 79

SHEILA Stewart was a traditional singer and storyteller of power and presence, a proud torchbearer for the rich culture of her travelling folk. Last of “the Stewarts of Blair”, a renowned Perthshire traveller family of tradition bearers, she took her songs and tales from the Perthshire berry fields to the White House, to Bellahouston Park for the papal visit of 1982, and to the lecture theatres of Princeton and Harvard.

She was an imposing, raven-haired presence with a sharp wit, whose magisterial renditions of such “muckle sangs” as The Twa Brothers or The Bonnie Hoose o Airlie were imbued with what she and her fellow-travellers called the “coynach”, which the poet and folklorist Hamish Henderson, who befriended and collected from the Stewarts, compared to the duende of Andalucian flamenco song.

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Sheila Stewart was born in a stable in Blairgowrie in 1935 – though not at Christmas. It was July, and her parents were temporarily out of accommodation after a family disagreement. Both parents came from highly musical traveller families – people said of her maternal grandfather, old Dan McGregor, that he could charm the birds from the trees with his singing – and the stately Belle herself would go on to become renowned as “the Queen Amang the Heather”. Sheila’s father, Alex Stewart, came from a family of formidable pipers, singers and story-tellers.

Drawn to Perthshire by the seasonal employment of berry picking, Alex and Belle eventually settled in Blairgowrie, where they rented berry fields, and where their children, Sheila, John, Andy, Cathie – who also became a well-known singer, and an adopted daughter, Rena, grew up.

Although steeped in traveller lore and balladry from all sides of her family, and learning songs from her mother, it was nevertheless her uncle, Donald Stewart, who most directly schooled her in the ballads. Donald could neither read nor write, but was an exacting teacher when it came to songs. “If I sang a verse of a song like The Twa Brothers,” Stewart told one interviewer, “and I didnae sing it the way he wanted, he’d say, clapping his hands, ‘Shut up! You’re not ready for it. We’ll try you with that in a few months’ time.’”

Her early education, at Rattray Primary school, proved a more fraught affair as she suffered from the inevitable prejudice and bullying to which “tinker” children were subjected. The bullying stopped – more or less – when she moved on to Blairgowrie High School. Prejudice towards travellers, however, was ingrained in society. One local government functionary assured a family member, “If I had anything to do wi’ youse people, I’d burn ye aff the face of the earth.”

Sheila worked with her family at the seasonal traveller tasks of berry picking, tattie howkin’, neep-shawin’ and flax harvesting, and also went fresh-water pearl fishing.

In 1956 she married her husband, Ian MacGregor, who died of a heart attack while angling in 1977. After her marriage she spent time in Dundee, and also in a caravan in Sheffield, where she worked as a travellers liaison officer. Returning to her heartland, however, she settled in Rattray.

It was in the early 1950s that local journalist Maurice Fleming tipped off folklorist Hamish Henderson of Edinburgh University’s newly formed School of Scottish Studies, as to the Stewarts’ rich heritage of music and stories. Henderson would famously describe his collecting forays among the travellers of Blair as “like holding a tin can under the Niagara Falls,” such was the wealth of traditional song and lore they carried. Hamish remained a staunch friend, while other collectors started beating a path to the Stewarts’ door, including the influential duo of Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger.

As fame spread, the family found itself invited to folk clubs and festivals increasingly far afield and eventually across the Atlantic, with Alex, Belle, Sheila and Cathie performing for President Ford (along with the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh) at the White House during the Bicentennial celebrations in 1976. In 1982, Sheila faced her largest audience ever – some 300,000 – when she sang Ewen MacColl’s Moving On Song for Pope Paul II at Bellahouston Park. Belle, who died in 1997, was awarded a British Empire Medal for services to traditional music, and Sheila would also be honoured, in 2006, with an MBE. The following year she was inducted into the Scots Traditional Music Hall of Fame.

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Sheila also sat on the Secretary of State for Scotland’s advisory committee on travellers. When I interviewed her in 2000 on the release of her album From the Heart of the Tradition, she hadn’t long returned from a lecture tour in the States. A bit different from those fabled berry fields of Blair, I suggested. “Nae half,” she replied. “And yet there’s mair fun in picking berries.”

Very much a traditional singer, she was nevertheless open to new ideas and enthusiastic at her vocal presence on her young friend Martyn Bennett’s album GRIT, which spectacularly spliced field-recorded traditional singers with electronica.

In 2011, having written her mother’s life story, Queen Amang the Heather, some years before, she published her own autobiography, A Traveller’s Life. The book carried a foreword by fellow-traveller storyteller, Jess Smith, who described Stewart as “the voice of Blairgowrie and the vibrant heart of Scotland’s travelling folk”. Of her late-in-life venture into print, Smith commented: “She was a woman who wrote as she thought and spoke. She loved the fact that she had rounded off her career with writing.”

Stewart had recently been troubled by back pain, suffered kidney failure and died on Tuesday in Ninewells Hospital, Dundee. She is survived by her children, Ian, Hamish, Heather and Gregor, as well as 13 grandchildren.

Pete Shepheard, singer and traditional music activist, described her passing as the end of an era: “Where would the ballad singing tradition in Scotland be today without the unbroken continuity of the tradition passed on to us by Sheila and other members of her extended family?

“I well remember how she won the traditional singing cup at the very first TMSA competitions held in Blairgowrie in August 1969 – so setting the standard for other singers to follow – with her magnificent family version of the ancient ballad The Twa Brothers.”

Sheila herself wrote, in her autobiography, that she’d often been asked what would she like to have been if not a traveller. “My answer is, I wouldn’t like to be anything else. Every morning I wake up, and every night I go to sleep, I thank God for making me what I am … The travelling life is now slowly dying, but I am happy to have been part of the old ways.”