Saturday 13 December 2014

Scotland is no longer a country nor Perthshire a county for old ballad singer, Sheila Stewart, last speaker of its Cant, who has closed her winklers for the last time

Sheila, who has died at the age of 79 and in life sang for a President, a Queen and a Pope and became the blood sister of a Comanche Chief, never lost sight of who she was no where she came from and said "No one will ever change me because I was born a traveller and I will die a traveller and I'm a traveller to the end of time."

In 2006 when she was 71, took part, with her great granddaughter, Amy, in Dylan Drummond and Blair Scott's short film : 'Bridging the Gap : Lies I Last in the Line', a valediction for the old way of life in which she recorded that : "We ran wild when I was a child and the freedom was unbelievable. We knew we were different, we took pride in it. I would never have changed it for anything. I never ever thought, growing up all my life that my culture would die out."  :

What you possibly didn't know about Sheila, that she :

* born in the summer of 1935, in a stable which belonged to an hotel in Blairgowrie where "My Mother put up big curtains to shield herself and then gave birth to me while my Father waited outside" and grew up in a family of tinkers who "earned their living from hawking, besom making and seasonal farm-work. They still went up the glens and had a horse and cart and went hawking, but then they would go away and stay at farms, pulling the flax and cutting the corn."

* had as a Mother, Belle, a singer and songwriter and Father, Alec, a piper and storyteller, but learnt, songs from her Uncle Donald MacGregor, her mother's elder brother, who 'chose' her to carry on the families songs and stories and at regular family ceilidhs sang after song with the encouragement of ten-shilling note and recalled : "Ballads were always a part of my family's heritage - singing round the camp fires, just for their own pleasure."

* from the age of five, in 1940, started school at Rattray Primary, where she was bullied as a traveller and later reflected : "My parents, grandparents and forbearers were all travelling people. My people and my family have been victims of lies all their life. We have been persecuted, ridiculed and I got beat up everyday." Yet conceded, on another occasion, that : "I am glad for Blairgowrie for turning their backs on us. We wouldn't have kept our culture alive if it hadn't been for that."

* with her siblings, as well as helping to pull flax, picked berries and lifted potatoes and in her first fifteen years, through the Second World War and secondary school at  Blairgowrie High in 1946 though to 1950, commuted between home and her Uncle's house in nearby Rattray, where he had a lasting influence on her : "To me, the first love in my life is ballads. My Uncle Donald is on a pedestal as far as I'm concerned, because he taught me everything about how to sing the ballads."

* from Uncle Donald, learnt the importance of 'conyach' because he "was a brilliant man for making up things from the heart which suited the object or the subject better than the word itself. He couldnae say, ‘I'm putting the feeling intae it.’ He had to come up wi' a word that meant the same as the feeling of coming from the heart. Because you can have a feeling coming from your head and he thought that the word 'Conyach' was such a severe, heavy word that said everything of what he meant when he was singing a ballad. He made it up. It's not a cant word."

*  first met Hamish Henderson, the co-founder of the University of Edinburgh’s 'School of Scottish Studies', when she was 18 in 1953, when he visited the Stewart family and recorded her singing  'The Bonnie Woods o' Hatton', she having learned the lyrics from her brother-in-law and put them to an old tune in a song in which ploughman Sandy, laments his misfortune in love, having courted Molly for a year and been rejected :

* with the family under Hamish's stewardship, made her first public performance with the 'Stewarts of Blair' in an old church in Edinburgh when she was 19 in 1954 and was recorded by him at berry-picking time and as he later commented: "Collecting on the berry fields was like holding a tin can under the Niagara Falls. However….. it was clear that the really fabulous contribution had been made not so much by the nomadic travellers among whom we had camped as by the Stewart family."

* in 1956 at the age of 21, married Ian MacGregor and found that, although her husband was not a Traveller, he was accepted by the family and became a willing convert to the way of life, but prone to jealousy and with a fondness for drink, could on occasion, be violent, and she later reflected that he : 'was not husband material. Although he adored his kids, he wasn’t very family-oriented. But I loved him and I was his wife. I had made my bed and I would have to lie in it.‘

 * was not allowed to choose any of her children’s names and was expected to do her share of the work – even during potato lifting and worked with Ian, dividing the field up between them and keeping a fire at one end to boil kettles for tea and to cook and keep warm when it was cold and had one child walking about the field, one in a basket and another in a pram.

* spent time 'down south', where, on occasion, Ian worked on the Victoria Line and she had a spell in Sheffield as a 'traveller liaison worker' and relished most memories from the early 1960s, when she was in her late twenties, the family was working in Hatfield and she and her husband and sister Cathie's family bought trailers and camped on the big green at Colney Heath, where the police turned a blind eye, other Hertfordshire travellers joined them, followed by the Irish and : "We had wonderful ceilidhs roond the fire."

* in 1964, witnessed Ewan MacColl make the Stewart family home in Blairgowrie his Scottish base and the inspiration for his radio ballad : 'The Travelling People' : .

 * found that her child-bearing days were over when, acting without her consent, her mother and husband gave permission for her to be sterilised and recalled : ‘I had no say in the matter of my own body. I was used to my life’s decisions being made for me and so I just accepted it’ and though wanting to breast feed her newborn daughter, found, when she came home from hospital, the baby was already being bottle fed and was "so sad about that." 

* in 1974 had her best known performance of the tragic ballad ‘The Twa Brothers’, involving a wrestling match in which William gives John a fatal wound with his knife and uses his white Holland shirt to bind the wound : issued on the Tangent label's classic two-disc set : ‘The Muckle Sangs.'

 * with the family, performed extensively in Europe and the USA, where as heroes of the folk revival, they were given the red carpet treatment.

*in 1976, at the age of 41, chosen to represent Scotland, to sing in full highland dress in the White House for President Gerald Ford in Bicentennial Celebrations and met the Queen and Duke of Edinburgh.

* later recalled : "I met the Queen and she asks me : "Where do you come from?" And I says: Blairgowrie".  "Blairgowrie ?" says the Queen : "I know it well. I pass through it on my way to Balmoral." So I says: "And I know Balmoral well, we used to visit often." "Well," says the Queen, "the next time you're passing you must pop in for a cup of tea." And so I says to the Queen : "And, Your Majesty, the next time you're going through Blairgowrie, you must do the same." "

* while in the States, gave lectures on the oral culture of Tavellers' at the Universities of Princeton and Harvard and performed with the family at the Smithsonian Institute, where dining next the Chief of the Comanche Tribe she "started to explain that we were an ethnic group of people who belong to Scotland. We have our own culture of ballads, stories, and our secret language” and after he told her that Comanche also had a secret language was party to a blade cutting of their fingertips and she becoming his 'blood-sister'.

* recalled a conversation with her Father who said : "You were in America, met royalty, and were made the blood-sister of a Comanche Chief. Then you come home and go raking a midden, and give your blood to an auld traveller woman to glue her clay cutty [pipe] tegither. How do you feel about that?" To which she replied : "Daddy, I was born a traveller and I will die one, I prefer travellers any day, they are my folk. I will never change."

* saw travellers' lives change in the 1970s, when proscriptive new laws forced many into houses and children to school and witnessed the decline in the Cant language as travellers became more integrated into mainstream society and later lamented : "I brought my children up to speak the Cant and know the ballads. None of them speak it anymore. They just think it's too auld-fashioned, they've taught none of my grandchildren. I am the only one left still speaking it."

* found that despite obligations to her husband, Ian, led to conflict about her performing at home and abroad, his  reluctance to let her travel was usually overcome by the prospect of the money she would earn until 1977, when she became a widow at the age of 42, when he, with whom she a peculiar kind of love…very deep.  We couldn’t agree, yet we couldn’t stay away from each other’ died of a heart attack whilst angling.

* maintained her links with her family and three years later later, at the age of 45, sang 'Mill o'Tifty's Annie' in family house :

* in 1982, was chosen to represent the Travelling People on Pope John Paul's visit to Scotland and sang Ewan MacColl's 'Moving On' to acclaim from the Bellahouston Park crowd of 300,000.

* in 2000 appeared at the Barbican in London and the Glasgow 'Open Roads 2000' Festival and in 2003 at the age of 68, collaborated with 31 year-old composer and musician, Martyn Bennett, who incorporated snatches of Ewan MacColl and Peggy Segger's 'Moving On' :'The big twelve-wheeler shook my bed. The farmer said, The work's all done' into his 'Grit', as seen a third of the way into the clip and the 'Banks of the Lee' in the last third : two years before his death in 2005 and with the following result :

* for four years sat on the Secretary of State's 'Advisory Committee on Travellers' and later said that she : "got a lot of the designated sites for travelling people in Scotland. I had to go to the councils and fight them to give me a piece of land to put the travellers on legally. I involved the travellers – usually they build sites without consulting them about what they want. The land is owned by the council so travellers pay something like 50 per week to live there. They provide their own caravans, but pay for electricity and pay council tax."

* in 2006 received MBE for achievements in Scotland and in the same year had published 'Queen Among the Heather : The Life of Belle Stewart', was inducted into the 'Traditional Music Hall of Fame' in Scotland in 2007 and published in 2011, her autobiography, ' A Travellers Life.'

* in 2010 recorded the importance of the soul the 'conyach' : and in the same year published 'Pilgrims of the Mist. The Stories of Scotland's Travelling People.'

* has over a hundred of her songs archived for posterity with 'Tobar an Dualchais' :

* in 2011 was finally recognised by Blairgowrie with its 'Citizen of the Year Award' and said : “This means more to me than receiving the MBE. My mother would be so proud of me because this is recognition by Blairgowrie for the contribution my people have made to the town. I am accepting the award on behalf of my family and the travelling community. This is the icing on the cake to a wonderful career.” 



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