Sheila Stewart: A National Treasure (1937 - 2014)

Sheila Stewart: A National Treasure (1937 - 2014)

Sheila Stewart is a national treasure, the last in a long line of a rich oral tradition and a singer of unsurpassed character, passion and power.

Born on July 7, 1937 in a stable that belonged to an hotel in Blairgowrie, Sheila grew up in a family of travelling people whose roots in Scotland have been traced back to the eleventh century and whose music and song gained world-wide renown during the folk music revival.

Her mother, Belle, was a great singer and tradition bearer as well as a songwriter, and her father, Alec, was a piper and storyteller. It was Sheila’s Uncle Donald, however, who chose her to carry on the family’s songs and stories.

While other children were out playing, Sheila would be sat on her uncle’s knee learning another song. This paid off handsomely when, at regular family ceilidhs, Uncle Donald would ask Sheila to sing song after song in return for a ten-shilling note – quite a sum in the 1940s.

Sheila later sang with the family concert party, playing village halls all over Scotland and when, in 1954, first journalist Maurice Fleming and then folklorist Hamish Henderson arrived in Blairgowrie looking for singers of traditional songs, the Stewarts of Blair became a folk club, festival and concert attraction on both sides of the Atlantic. Henderson described trying to record the Stewarts’ repertoire as ‘like holding a can under Niagara Falls’ and Ewan MacColl, similarly impressed, made the Stewarts’ house in Blairgowrie the Scottish base for his radio ballad The Travelling People in the 1960s.

In America the Stewarts of Blair – Belle, Alec, Sheila and her sister Cathie – were given the red carpet treatment and Sheila went on to sing in the White House for then-President Gerald Ford during America’s bicentennial celebrations in 1976.

Six years later, on June 1 1982, Sheila appeared before her biggest audience ever, some 300,000, when she was chosen to represent the travelling people during Pope John Paul ll’s visit to Scotland. From her specially built stage Sheila sang Ewan MacColl’s Moving On Song to huge acclaim from the Bellahouston Park crowd.

Sheila was just as proud, in 2003, to hear her singing of the same song being turned into brave new music when maverick composer and musician Martyn Bennett incorporated it into the track Move on his final masterpiece, GRIT.

Following her mother’s death in 1997 and her sister Cathie’s retirement, Sheila continued to share her family’s songs and stories with audiences at home and abroad. She has lectured on travellers’ culture at Princeton and Harvard universities and for many years sat on the Secretary of State for Scotland’s advisory committee on travellers.

A spellbinding presence on any stage, she remains, as her 2000 CD for Topic Records aptly put it, a singer From the Heart of the Tradition.

Sheila Stewart died on the 9th December 2014.

"I have known Sheila Stewart since I was a youngster. A powerful and passionate singer, she comes from a family of travellers famous for their music and songs. On "Move" she sings of the struggle and persecution of the Roma, who are the oldest race of nomadic people in Europe - they have certainly been in Scotland for well over a thousand years."

Martyn Bennett on Sheila Stewart

Martyn Bennett - Move (Real World Records)

Move - From the 2003 album GRIT on Real World Records features Sheila Stewart on vocals and tells the story of traveller folk facing eviction. The video shows footage of Martyn on a make shift Space Hopper and Kirsten Bennett dancing.

Sheila Stewart

"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." (Sheila Stewart)

Sheila Stewart was due to appear at the 2015 opening event of Celtic Connections as part of the Greg Lawson led "Nae Regrets" tribute to Martyn Bennett.

Sheila Stewart MBE 1937- 2014

Born in stable in Blairgowrie
Blessed wi  lear frae a traiveller’s tent
Sheila Stewart,  a hawker’s dother
Sang for a Pope an a President

Berry pickin an besom makkin
Traivellin the glens in a shelt an cairt
Puin the flax an gaitherin corn
Thirled tae the beat o Nature’s hairt

Last o the Stewart tribe o Blair
In Princeton, Harvard, she spakk wi virr
Sang wi the conyach in her sowl
Frae years o warssle in ootlinned smirr

Bullied an thrashed mangst the scaldie pupils
‘I’d burn ye aff the face o the earth’
A government body telt her faimly
Little they kent o the traivellers’ wirth

Tattie-howkin, hawin the neeps
Fresh-watter pearlin, hairstin braw
Hamish Henderson thocht her heirskip
Wis reamin fu as a watterfaa

Kent an heard bi Royals an commons
(Aa the warld is the traiveller’s stage)
Dother o the Queen o the Heather
Mither, traiveller, singer an sage

She’d hair as blaik as a corbie’s wing
The muckle sangs fand a perfect reist
In her, the bairn o a maister-piper
The jewels o Scotia bedd in her briest

Born in stable in Blairgowrie
Blessed wi lear frae a traiveller’s tent
Sheila Stewart, teller o stories
Talent like thon is born, nae lent

Poem by Sheena Blackhall
Makar for Aberdeen and the North East

Obituaries - "Sheila Stewart" - "Sheila Stewart MBE" - "The singer who succeeded her mother Belle as doyenne of the Scots" - "Singer and author Sheila Stewart"