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Sheila Stewart


From the Heart of the Travelling Tradition

There's an archive in Blairgowrie. Full of songs, stories and history, unlike a library, it has no standard opening times. Its contents are not even down in black and white. It's all kept in Sheila Stewart's head.

Sheila is the last of the Stewarts of Blair, custodian of the Perthshire family's folklore. A family of travellers, the Stewarts can trace their roots in Scotland back to the eleventh century.

It's a family that includes the private piper to the seventh Duke of Atholl, Sheila's late grandfather, and jazz guitarist Martin Taylor, Sheila's cousin. There are other musical Stewarts, relatives, but the stigma of being a traveller has forced them to distance themselves. Even Sheila's own children have turned their backs on the old times.

"In my young day," she explains, "society didn't accept travellers because we were different. There are people here in Blairgowrie who still won't speak to me. But today society generally accepts everybody, to the extent that my kids have blended in so well that they don't want to know about our songs. They have them inside them but they won't sing them, at least not in the way they were taught, unaccompanied, if they sing them at all. They may come back to that style later but I don't think I'll ever hear it."

By the time Sheila "came on the scene", her father and mother had settled after years of travelling through Ireland and Scotland, although the family would still travel all summer, working on farms. Father Alec was a piper and storyteller; mother Belle, the great singer and writer of songs such as the Berry Fields o' Blair, whose older brother passed Sheila's maternal grandfather's songs on to the young Sheila.

"I never wanted to play with the other kids," she says. "My uncle would say, I've got another ballad for you, and I'd jump up on his knee and learn it. And you weren't allowed to sing a ballad until you could sing it right, sing it from the heart, what we call the conyach. I went through some pretty stringent exams before I was allowed to sing."

Championed by Hamish Henderson, who was collecting folklore for the School of Scottish Studies, in the early 1950s the Stewarts of Blair, Alec, Belle, Sheila and her older sister who has now retired, became heroes of the folk revival, most notably in America where they were given red carpet treatment.

Sheila sang in the White House for then-President Gerald Ford during America's Bicentennial celebrations in 1976 and has gone on to lecture on travellers' culture at Princeton and Harvard universities. Americans go mad for her storytelling and although not a piper, she has even lectured on canntaireachd, the oral way of passing on pipe tunes, at piping seminars.

"When my parents were alive," she says, "I wasn't allowed to tell my father's stories or sing my mother's songs. I had my own stuff that I did and that was that. But after mum and dad died, because I was the only one carrying on the tradition, it all came to me."

She can't say how many songs she has stored away "upstairs" but when Topic Records came up to Blairgowrie to record her ballad singing for her From the Heart of the Tradition CD which was released in 2000, she sang off thirty-eight without having to rack her brains.

"There's a tremendous feeling I get when I sing a ballad or tell a story, knowing that I'm the last in line," she says. "My culture has become of more interest to historians, scholars and universities than it is to my own family, and that's terrible for me. But I love it and I'm going to make sure I let as many people hear it as I can before I die."

2001 Rob Adams

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