The Life of Belle Stewart
by Sheila Stewart
Birlinn. ISBN10: 1 84158 528 9. ISBN13: 978 1 84158 528 4
Bob Copper wrote his own autobiography very effectively over four books1 and Jeannie Robertson had her life recorded by two American academics2, now we have the biography of a third of the cornerstones of British traditional song in the second half of the twentieth century, this time written by her daughter. Sheila’s book will also need to be considered against a previously published detailed study of her family.3 Other books that should stand comparison with this one are those written by other prominent Scots travellers who, like Sheila, have made strong marks as singers and storytellers; Stanley Robertson,4 Betsy Whyte5 and Duncan Williamson6, but for now we need to take an illustrated look at the content of the book itself.
Right from the start, we can see that Sheila has a plain straightforward storyteller’s approach to her writing. In the early part of the book she is relating stories about her family told of the time before she was born. Here is an incident from Belle’s infancy. The family had drawn tired and weary into a camping place and the other travellers see that it is Belle’s father, Donald MacGregor that has arrived:
A man, Duncan Stewart was his name, came over with a few other men and asked my grandfather to give them a song. 'I will,' he said, 'but I will have my tea first.'The sense of outrage surrounding this seems to stem from the fact the robbery was committed by other travellers. Mistreatment by the gadgies is taken as part and parcel of life but such treatment from other travellers! However, even this can be forgiven; Belle’s mother is out hawking:
'Tae hell wi the tea,' said Duncan. 'A song first.' Dan knew he wasn't going to get out of this, so he started singing, but when they had heard one they wanted more. 'No,' he said, 'I am havin my tea.'
So they set about him and knocked him unconscious. He was out for about twenty minutes. When he came round and sat up, they were all gone, cleared out. Only my granny was still there, with the boys, her brother Jimmy Jack who lived with them and the baby - my mother. The men had wrecked everything belonging to the family and had torn up their tent and robbed them of all their money. They had nothing left.
So they put their bundles on their back, and my grandfather said, 'Come on Martha, we're headin to Blair.' They slept in hedges and among the heather for two days until they reached Blairgowrie.
When they arrived there, my granny went to see her cousin Agnes and told them all that had happened to them. Agnes said, 'I can give you a bite to eat, but you cannae stay wi me.' She gave them an old cover to make a tent and they pitched it down the Wellton Road about quarter of a mile out of town. She also gave them half a crown to buy food until they could get back on their feet - it was a godsend. They bought groceries with some of the money that day, but the next day my grandfather walked up to Blair. Now, he liked a wee dram, and he met some travellers and went to the pub with them. He went on a drinking spree for a few days, and my granny was left with the bairns and no food. She did the best she could. Eventually he came home to the tent with one shilling in his pocket, and that fed them that night. Next morning, my granny asked him where he had been for two days. 'Oh,' he said, 'I was drinkin with the boys.' She later found out they were the same boys that had robbed them up in the glen.
You can imagine the row he got from her. He stayed off the drink for a few weeks after that to keep the peace.
'Get you away from my door, or I will set the dog on you. And don't come back.'In spite of this Martha is able to prepare an effective herbal cure for the impetigo covered faces of the woman’s children.
So they moved on to the next farm, which McKenzie owned. My granny told Mr McKenzie what had happened, 'What?' he said. 'Did you no ken they are travellers themselves? Stewarts, they are.' My granny was stunned to hear this news, and she said she would go back in on her way down the glen. They arrived there an hour later, and knocked on the door.
'Well,' said my granny when the woman opened the door, 'What are you up to?'
The woman replied, 'I married a non-traveller and I don't want the folk of the glen knowing this.'
We get few stories about Belle as a child before she is seventeen and had her first boyfriends. It is clear that she was a beauty and “wasn’t short of admirers.” She does with her two brothers and that is where she meets Alex for the first time. It would be easy for all of us who saw Belle & Alex in their years associated with the folk revival to think of Belle and Alex as the happily teasing Derby and Joan couple they created in their public personae. Sheila makes it very clear that this was not always the case. She even suggests that in spite of their four children and one more adopted, that Alex was not the real love of Belle’s life. There were long separations with Alex away in Ireland and rows with both mother-in-laws didn’t help the situation; in the opinion of Alex, Martha was a “wicked old woman”. Even their courtship was not all sweetness and light.
That Hogmanay, they had a fantastic time. A lot of travellers came first-footing them and so there was a great ceilidh. One of the young men there kept looking and looking at my mother and he seemed very interested in her. She got so embarrassed with him that she went through to the kitchen and shouted for him to follow. He was delighted that she had taken notice of him, so he swaggered through to the kitchen with a glint in his eye.Poor old Alex! By the time Sheila arrives on the scene, it becomes clear that the reminiscences are now being told by an observer rather than recollections of family stories and there is that mixture of almost child-like hilarity mixed with raw hardship that characterises so much of travellers’ stories about themselves and the style of writing changes and we feel more of a sense of involvement with Sheila’s first-hand accounts with the final section with Sheila relating her mother’s increasing dependency with increasing age and her descent into dementia proving to be the most poignant section of the book.
She didn't want a repeat of the last time Donald had caught her with a boy. Donald and Andy were too busy drinking and singing to notice the young traveller eyeing her, so she decided to take the matter into her own hands and sort it out before there was a rumble. 'What do you think you're doing?' she asked. 'You haven't taken your eyes off me all night. What are you playing at?'
She took him to the back door and pushed him out and warned him not to come back, or she would tell her brothers about him pestering her. So off he went like a mad March hare and never returned. When he next saw her in town, he turned his head away. 'Thank God,' she said to herself, 'he has got the message.'
The realisation by the outside world that here a family with a rich oral culture came in 1954 and it was not long after that Hamish Henderson found his way to their door. Initially attracted by the reputation of Jock Stewart, the father of Alex, as a great piper, he soon found that the rest of the family had a great deal to offer and the long, somewhat ambivalent relationship between Hamish and the family began. Here is a passage that reflects the ambivalence.
In March 1954, Hamish Henderson invited us to do a concert in Edinburgh. There was my mother, my father, Cathie and myself, Jeannie Robertson, Jimmy MacBeath and the Auld Galoot, Davie Stewart. The concert was held in an old church and we had to perform from the pulpit one at a time. At the end of the concert we all went back to Hamish's flat. There was also a folk group there and the boys had no money for petrol to get back home to Glasgow so they came back to Hamish's flat to be paid, as we all did. Hamish was a wee bit worse for wear from drink and he said he had no cheques left to pay us. One of the men in the folk group was a solicitor and he said to Hamish, 'You don't need cheques.' He went through to the toilet and he brought back one piece of toilet paper for every artist. He made Hamish sit at his desk and write a cheque out on each piece of toilet paper.For all their extensive contact with the folk scene and the academic world, I never got the impression that the Stewarts actually made much money overall, from their many concerts, appearances and recordings. Sharing what they had seemed to be the most important thing for Belle. I remember a conversation with Belle on this subject when she merrily produced an uncashed cheque for recording royalties from a drawer. It was for £0 13s 4d.7
'Now,' he said, much to Hamish's annoyance, 'the bank will take that.' And sure enough, the bank took it as a cheque. It wasn't a lot in those days: we got five pounds each for our concert, twenty pounds in all, and my father got two pounds for his petrol. That was the first public concert we ever did as the Stewarts of Blair.
In conversations with Scottish travellers and in their stories, the supernatural is never very far away; guidance from the spirit world, encounters with ghosts and uncanny creatures and beings are part and parcel of their thinking and it is not just in their folk tales that these meetings take place; the books of Stanley Robertson, Duncan Williamson and Betsy Whyte are evidence of this. For all their observance of superstitions, dream lore and omens, the Stewarts seemed to be more firmly in this world than most. Ewan and Peggy quote Belle as saying, “As for ghosts, I dinnae believe in them for I hae never seen them and I’ve never seen ony o’ the wee people and I’ve been in Ireland where’s there’s supposed to be a lot of them.8 Overall Sheila’s book seems to endorse this opinion though she does give one hair-raising account of a hotel in Newcastle during one of their singing tours.
So up the stairs we went, opened the door slowly and went in. We got into our beds and Cathie put the light out. No sooner was it off when she put it back on again. 'I am not comfortable in this room,' she said. 'Come on in beside me, I'm frightened.'Here’s one last quoted section from the days towards the end of Belle’s life that conveys a totally different feeling that has a very sad, “end of an era” mood to it.
So I crawled in beside her and put the light out, and we heard something at the wall beside our bed. Then the scraping started at the window - scrape, scrape, scrape. Well, you can imagine how terrified we felt! We tried to go to sleep, but we couldn't.
We came downstairs at eight o'clock after having drifted off for an hour because daylight had finally come in and the scraping had stopped. We met my mother and father in the dining room having their breakfast. We couldn't speak when we first came in but the waitress overheard our explanation to my parents. She came and looked at us. 'Were you two in the room at the top?
'Yes,' we said.
'Oh my goodness, no one has been in there since the accident.'
'What accident?' my mother asked.
'There was a young woman in that room when it caught on fire, and she couldn't get out. She was burned to death, and was found the next day lying at the window with blood on her nails. The window was all scraped - she was trying to get out.' 'That', said my father, 'was why the Bible was in the room.' 'That's the first time there has been anyone in that room since it happened, and they have painted it a few times, but they can't get the smell of burning to go away,' the girl explained.
Well, you can believe me or not. We never saw anything but, by God, we heard it. My father still thought we were kidding on, but my mother finally persuaded him that we weren't. We went many times to Newcastle after that night, but from then on we stayed with the folk who ran the club.
The berry time had come again. One day my mother said to me Sheila, what do you say we have a while at the berries the morn?A lifetime of memories and a lifetime of rich oral culture to go with it; all now seemingly disappearing along with the environment where it thrived. The book captures a tiny fragment of it by interspersing some of the tunes, songs - some written by Belle - and the stories that are part of the family’s rich heritage. It includes:
I knew she wasn't able, but I said, 'Alright, we will go' In the morning we got ready, made up a flask of tea and sandwiches and went down to the field in Blair. I will never forget my mother's face when they gave us baskets and told us we had to select the berries off the bush.
'What do you mean, select them?" my mother asked Well,' said the man, 'you don't put over-ripe berries in the basket and you don't put under-ripe: berries in the basket They have to be selected off the bush. Oh, and no drinking tea in the field and no coming down to the end for a smoke. And you don t use the field for the toilet.'
Well, the look on my mother's face was a picture; she was completely shocked, and I felt the same as she did.
'I have never heard such ridiculous rules in my life' said my mother.
'Yes,' said the man, 'it has changed from the old days, and rightly so. We can choose who picks for us today, and we prefer the foreign students. They do what they are told, abide by the rules and don't grumble.'
'Yes,' said my mother. 'It's well changed from the time I made "The Berry Fields o Blair". Are you coming Sheila? I am no stayin to appear at this circus.' So we went away that day and never attempted to pick berries again. Those days were over now and this saddened my mother so much - no more singing in the fields, no more chatting and having a cup of tea with friends at the end rig. But my mother, being my mother, didn't dwell on it. When we got home she said, 'We got the best oot o the berries anyway, enough for a lifetime o memories.'
Queen Amang The Heather
Owre Yon Hill
The Berryfields o’ Blair
Frank & Ruby
Banks o’Red Roses
Cod Liver Oil
Song For Donald & Andy
Blair Festival 1969
The Stewart Family
Green Grows The Laurels
Dukes And Earls
Late Last Night
Johnny My Man
The Whinny Knowes
The Auld Miller
The Whitterick & The Crow
The Three-Fitted Pot
Johnny In The Cradle
The Black Dog of the Stewarts
The Silver Sixpence
Aippley and Orangey
The Headless Man
The Stewarts Of Blair
The Belles of Loch Lochy
There is also a collection of eleven photographs from the family’s archive. Mostly, these are family group snaps; one thing that we learn from them if we didn’t already know is that both Belle and Sheila were stunning beauties as young women. The one that really brings a smile to the lips is really old one of a posed group showing Alex standing holding a horse whilst on the steps of a vardo Alex’s sister Jeanie is standing facing Belle who is sitting on the steps. The caption tells us that Jeanie ‘is teaching Belle drookerin'. Anyone who ever heard Belle’s regular rants on the worthlessness of that form of fortune telling might realise that Jeanie’s lesson was falling on deaf ears. I tried scanning the photographs from the book to go with this review, but the quality is such that they do not scan well, so instead I have contributed some photos that I have taken of the Stewarts over the years, as they have not been seen anywhere else.
The last forty or so pages of the book are given over to some eighteen different tributes to Belle from a wide range of people, from members of her family to folklorists and various friends from the folk scene. These leave the reader with mixed feelings. Some, particularly those from Belle’s grandchildren, really add to our understanding of the woman, whereas the ‘What Belle Stewart meant to me’ statements by some of the folkies don’t add a lot. Whilst it is clear that Belle has been an inspiration to very many at the traditional end of the folk scene, I think that most people will already know that and I would have preferred to see that space devoted to more information from Sheila herself. She is the person in a unique position to divulge it. Perhaps Sheila is too close to the situation to be able an assessment of Belle’s importance and, anyway, she is writing in an essentially narrative style and the appreciations of Belle on the part of Hamish Henderson and Mike Yates do go some way in addressing this omission.
I have endeavoured in this review to give as much space as I can to giving to Sheila’s own voice, taking it as self-evident that people reading this site will realise the vital importance of this book, and minimising comment and personal interjections. But to finish with, I would like to mention an incident that still makes me cringe with embarrassment when I think about it almost forty years afterwards.
It came round to the Blair festival again. That year we met Kenny Goldstein, who was a collector from America. He and his wife were gems of folk. We didn't know he was a high-up professor in the States, and we just treated him like anyone else. The last night of the festival, when it was all over, everyone came back to my mothers house, 'Lyndhurst', in Yeaman Street. My mother had named the house after an old pipe tune. There were three rooms full of people having ceilidhs. The police heard all the noise with the singing and pipes, so they chapped on the door and my mother went to the door.I was in their house when this happened and I remember a very anxious Belle coming to me and said something like, “Oh Vic, Vic, the polis are at the door. Go and talk tae Ian.” - this was Ian MacGregor, Sheila’s husband - “Get his attention; I dinna want him tae ken that the polis are here. He’ll go mad.” I had met Ian on a number of occasions and though we had nodded recognition at one another, we had never spoken, but clearly, I had to do what Belle had asked me so I went into the kitchen, cornered him and stood in front of Ian and went into complete motor-mouth mode and just burbled on and on at him whilst he avoided eye contact with me and looked awkward. I don’t know how long the poor man had to put up with this but it seemed interminable to me; a one sided conversation with only a few grunts as replies. Eventually, Belle came back into the kitchen and by now she was back at being the charming hostess. She looked at us, assessed the situation and then said quietly, “It’s all right now, they’ve gone.” I was able to release Ian from his torture and before he moved away, he gave me a look which informed me that he had spent far too long in the company of a crushing bore.
Vic Smith - 22.2.07