On Tuesday 9th December 2014 Sheila Stewart MBE; singer, storyteller and author, passed away. Born into a traditional Scottish travelling family; Sheila grew up with the songs and stories of her forebears, brought those traditions to a world audience and was a tireless, irrepressible ambassador for the welfare and rights of indigenous travellers.
Sheila was born in a Blairgowrie stable in July 1935. Her parents followed a traditional travelling lifestyle; moving between Perthshire, Argyll and the Highlands throughout the year; finding work at farms, making and selling goods, renting fields to grow and pick berries. Central to their lives were the oral and musical traditions they grew up with. Sheila’s mother, Belle was a great singer and story teller and her father Alec, a piper. Although her mother’s influence as family matriarch was immeasurable, it was from Sheila’s Uncle Donald MacGregor (Belle’s brother) that she learned not only the wealth of traditional material she shared, but also her unmistakeable passion and pride in the songs and stories.
As Sheila and her sister Cathie were growing up the family became known for their concert parties, another way to earn a few bob. In 1954 they drew the attention of folklorists Hamish Henderson and Maurice Fleming, and for the following two decades The Stewarts of Blair were an integral part of the folk revival, performing at festivals and providing a major contribution to Ewan MacColl’s Radio Ballads.
Unfortunately, Sheila herself never appeared on the Radio Ballads, but in 1974 Hamish Henderson made the now famous recording of her ballad The Twa Brothers. Released on a double album The Muckle Sangs, the song is typical of Sheila’s spirit and conviction.
The Tobar an Dualchais (Kist O Riches) web site hosts Hamish Henderson’s original recording and can be heard here: click link to open in new window
Part of that passion, described as the Conyach by her uncle Donald, must have come from the hardship and oppression travellers were subjected to, especially in the 20th Century. Typical of this prejudice was the refusal of the minister at Blairgowrie to allow her father, Alex, a funeral in his church because he was a traveller.
After Belle Stewart died in 1997, Sheila continued to promote her cultural traditions and became a highly respected performer. In addition to her work as a performing artist, Sheila lectured on travellers’ culture at Princeton and Harvard universities and for many years sat on the Scottish Secretary’s advisory committee on travellers.
‘As far as culture is concerned, travelling people are the roots and the heart of the Scottish tree. There are many branches that need putting in their place in Scotland.’
Not content with bringing her culture to live audiences and the recording studio, Sheila also turned her hand to writing. Her first book was Belle’s biography, Queen Amang the Heather, which was followed by Pilgrims of the Mist, a collection of travellers’ tales. Her own autobiography, A Traveller’s Life, was published in 2011.
Despite her devotion to the art of unaccompanied ballad singing, Sheila wasn’t adverse to her music being taken to a new audience. In 2003 she delighted in Martyn Bennett’s use of her Moving On Song on his final album, Grit…
‘You have achieved what I hoped you were going to achieve, which was to bring the old to the new, and you have bloody done it.’
Among many awards, Sheila received an MBE in 2006 and one year later was inducted into the Scots Traditional Music Hall of Fame.
Included below is a short film from 2006, directed by Dylan Drummond and Blair Scott. In Last In The Line (part of the Scottish Documentary Institute‘s Lies series) Sheila talks openly about her life, and the culture she spent her life sharing. Folk Radio UK is grateful to Dylan, Blair and the SDI for allowing us to use this film.
As the last of the travelling Stewarts of Blair, Sheila’s passing is the end of a line stretching back hundreds of years. We’ve been privileged to be part of Sheila Stewart’s world. As a direct result of her dedication, there’s a wider understanding of the problems faced by traditional travelling families; and through her own family’s efforts there’s a far wider knowledge and awareness of a significant part of Scotland’s oral tradition.
By: Neil McFadyen