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It's been a good Millennium for Sheila Stewart; two CDs, one of stories, one of ballads; prestigious appearances at the Barbican in London and the Glasgow Open Roads 2000 Festival, and the first in a series of autobiographical chapbooks - Sheila Stewart's Treasure Trove of Tradition - well on the way. In her own words, "The Millennium is my launch." At first thought it seems astonishing that such a powerful and celebrated performer should never before have had a whole recording devoted to her work. When Mairi MacArthur and I visited her in her house in Rattray in March this year, we wondered how this could have come about…

"To tell you the God's honest truth, when me, my mother and Cathie was out singing - when my father was on the go, and even after he died - me and Cathie werenae our own persons in wor own right. We couldnae speak. We had to go forward, sing the song, and then step back. My mother was the head of the family, she was the mouth-piece, because she was the ‘Queen among the Heather’ and it was expected of her and we knew our place." Her mother was of course, Belle, matriarch of The Stewarts of Blair Family which, as a performing unit, included Sheila's father, Alec and her older sister Cathie. Alec, piper and storyteller, died in 1980 and Belle more recently in 1997.

‘Queen Amang the Heather’ was Belle's song, emblematic of her status. The narrator may be a toff who falls for a simple country girl, only to be rejected because he is neither a ploughboy nor a shepherd's son (though the final verse leaves the two canoodling, while the girl's sheep run astray) but in the performances by Belle and, latterly, Sheila, the pride of the bare-legged shepherdess is the pride of the traveller woman who knows she is as good as, if not better than, the next. Sheila began to sing the song when her mother was still alive, and she presents this as something of a gentle dynastic coup. "I wasnae allowed to sing ‘Queen Amang the Heather’, because of my mother. It was classed as her song - she was the ‘Queen Amang the Heather’ - and I was never allowed to sing it in public; until I knew my mother was failing a wee bit, and one day I sung it on stage and she whispered, ‘It's my song’. I says, ‘So?’ ... ‘Oh carry on then darlin'!’"

In her account of her life, Sheila's Uncle Donald MacGregor, her mother's elder brother, was an enormous influence, both on her singing repertoire and on her philosophy of performance. He and his wife lived nearby in Rattray, in a house called Cromdale. Sheila spent her first fifteen years commuting between Cromdale and her parents' house. "My greatest memory was my Uncle Donald. He comes top of the list every time wi' me because he was the one that I practically lived wi' - brought up wi' - and because he taught me the ballads. 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."

"My mother gave me a lot of ballads, but she didnae go into the Conyach of the ballads. My Uncle Donald couldn't read or write. He never had any family - there was just him and his wife, and he'd send her along to ... ‘Tell Sheila I want her, I've remembered another one.’ And I would go up to him, ‘Come sit on my lap,’ he says ‘and then I'll tell you this.’ I'll never ever forget the time he taught me ‘Queen Amang the Heather’. I knew the words, because I'd heard my mother sing it often enough, but I wasnae allowed to sing it, until I was vetted by my Uncle Donald; and the vetting, I found out and discovered later on was... the Conyach."

"If I sang a verse of a song like ‘The Twa Brothers’, and I didnae sing it the way he wanted, he'd say, clapping his hands, ‘Shut up! You're not ready for it. We'll try you with that in a few months time.’ You had tae cut your head off altogether as far as he was concerned, and just go fae the heart tae the mouth. You had to do it as if you were drunk - inhibitions go out the window - you've got to do it singing fae the heart. Forget about your head, and just go, ‘Oh you bastard, that's good!’ You have got to give the ballads distinction, as far as he was concerned. But he said if you 'were sitting there, and you were singin' it to yoursel', and you couldn't give a damn’... that's puttin' the Conyach in."

I'd wondered about that word (pron. Cone-yach) since first seeing leaflets for Sheila's Conyach workshops some years ago. So where did it come from? "My Uncle Donald 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 [she pronounces it with rasping Cs] 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."

The Stewarts were 'discovered' in 1954 by Maurice Fleming, a journalist from Blairgowrie, after a tip-off from Hamish Henderson that berrypicking time at Blair at would be the place to collect old songs. Hamish, at that time a research student at the School of Scottish Studies in Edinburgh, went to record in the berryfields the following year when the fame of the Stewarts was beginning to grow outside their own area. Along with friends, the family was already performing as a concert party, booking their own halls and travelling all over the north-east, as far north as Banff. The concert party was the idea of Sheila's father, one of his many schemes to raise cash the hard-earned way. "My father, being an old traveller man, I think tried everything. If you put my father in the desert, he could sell sand to the Egyptians. My father made money out of things that the public would throw away. He was the only travelling man in the whole of Scotland to get a licence from the Wool Marketing Board to go round the farms away up Glenshee and get fleece wool and sell it. My father was a dour, greedy man and he wanted to better himself. He gathered scrap, he gathered rags, he gathered all different materials and sold them. He used to get on a bike and go way up Glenshee and gather rabbit skins fae the farmers to sell for sixpence each to get a living."

"Later on, him and Big Willie MacPhee (piper, storyteller and Sheila's cousin) went up to Loch Lochy, piping. They had this 'magic layby' they called it, where they could go and play to the tourists all summer - just anything to try and earn a shilling. And you had to, because they wouldnae give us any jobs - nobody would employ a traveller in Blairgowrie. Mother went with father and when he did the piping, she sold white heather. By the time he was gathering the wool, he had an old lorry and she went up the glens wi' him to collect the wool. When he was gathering rabbit skins, he just jumped on his bike and went on his own and my mother put the kids to school, but my sister Cathie really was the home-maker. She had to put us to school, put us to bed, cook the food. My mother was a wild cook - she was a good cook, she made good soup and great stews, but it was Cathie that really had to keep the house together."

Sheila Stewart was born in 1935, in a stable at the Angus Hotel in Blairgowrie where the family were quartering for the winter. When she was still young her father gradually moved the family from an itinerant to a more settled situation. "When father got the berries we went fae a trailer tae a bus tap, you know, just converted a bus. We called it the tap o' a bus. We went fae that into a wooden shed with three rooms in it, a living room and two bedrooms and then fae that to a bigger hut. We went fae that to the bungalow that my father built... it didnae mean tae say we stayed there all the time, the house was our base, but we used to leave and go away a' summer - maybe just to Alyth - and if we got work there, we camped there. We didnae go back and forward. We also went away all summer pearl fishing, took the camp and lived there. The home was just for winter quarters, because we travelled a' summer anyway, either doing the pearl fishing, or doing the agricultural work. We didnae need to travel, there was plenty of work nearby, but my father like meeting other travellers and he liked the crack. When we got the berries, the travellers came to us."

Aside from their great talents, the Stewarts' semi-settled state would have played a big part in their increasing renown, for it would make them relatively easy to visit and contact. But I was confused by what I'd read, as to how well off they were. Some sources give the impression that they owned berryfields. Sheila says no. "They rented the fields. They didnae buy the fields, they rented them and put berries in. You could get three or four acres of land for practically nothing and you got your berries off it in July/beginning of August, then you'd pay your next year's rent off the berries. My uncle Donald, my mother's brother, he was pretty well off - my mother's side was pretty well off. My brother Andy was pretty well off, he bought a farm but my father was never well off. "

It's hard to assess now how the Stewarts, as travellers, were regarded in the community. While Sheila insists that nobody would employ a traveller in Blairgowrie, her father was well-respected by the farmers up the glens, and the concert parties were hugely successful (though often the audiences consisted mainly of travellers). Before the mechanisation of agriculture, before the burgeoning of personal and public transport, the Scottish travellers, in remote rural areas at least, had a much higher status than today. They were bringers of necessities, horse breeders and dealers, workers in the fields, even, on occasion, taking unwanted children and lovingly adopting them as their own. "My Granny sold her wares around the houses and around the glens; she had a big basket wi' pins and needles and necessities that women used. Now, away up in these hills where all the wee cotter hooses was, they hardly got down to the town, and they called my Granny ‘The Newspaper’ - she told them all the gossip. She was well known. Every morning, before she put her basket on her arm and opened the door to go out, my granny said as she stood on the step: ‘May God be foremost.’ She meant, ‘may God be before me today to protect me 'til I get back home’.’ We had wor own religious beliefs." Sheila does feel alienated from organised religion. Because the family weren't members, the local church would neither bury her father nor christen her grandchildren. Then there was the time her sister Cathie wanted to get a council house…

"Now the Head Convener in Blairgowrie in they days, many years ago, was a priest - I'll no' say his name - and my sister went up to try and get him on her side: ’Look, I've got kids, I’ve been brought up in Blairgowrie, never had a council house, and I'd like to put my name down.’ And he said, ‘You're one of the Travelling people aren't you? Well,’ he says, ‘if I had been at Belsen, I would have burned all you bloody lot. ‘You'll get no houses in Blairgowrie.’ ...and that was a priest. And that's been said more than once to us in my lifetime. Our church is the open air. There’s another saying of my granny's: ‘Oh you'd better nae do that, you know, God's no sleeping.’ We always called on God tae help us, though it wasnae meant in our way to be a prayer, it was just a natural function of the way we spoke yet we knew there was a higher power than ours."

One of Sheila's best known performances is of the ballad ‘The Twa Brothers’. Recorded in 1974, and originally issued on the Tangent label's classic two-disc set ‘The Muckle Sangs’, it's a characteristically passionate performance, brimming over with the Conyach. Perhaps the conviction with which she sings it comes partly from its reflections of her own life - It has an intense awareness of family, and family relationships. The scenario revolves around a fatal accident - Dan MacGregor, her mother's father, who could "sing the birds off the trees", choked on his own vomit; Sheila’s husband Ian, was drowned when he was fishing in 1977. In between the good times, Sheila has known some bad luck.

Back in the 1960s I heard a tale about an Austrian Jew, John Brune, a friend of travellers who liked to sing their songs. When he was performing in Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger's Singers' Club in London and was in full traveller flow, Ewan had interrupted him demanding that, in future, he sing Austrian Jewish songs - it being the club's policy at the time that people sing only songs from the land or ideally the region of their birth. John, the story went, recorded himself singing a traveller song falsetto and sent it to Ewan, who then went out on a wild goose chase to look for this remarkable unknown traveller woman. I never knew the truth of the story, and was completely taken aback when Sheila began to explain why her voice never appeared on the Radio Ballad, ‘The Travelling People’.

"Ewan MacColl had got a bee in his bonnet that there was one particular song that I had to learn, because he wanted me to open the programme and finish the programme. So he sent this wee Austrian man John Brune to teach me a song that had seemingly been collected from a Maggie Johnson down in England, but I had to sing it in an Irish style. And I said, ‘Well I'm sorry John, but I cannae waste time, I'm at berrypicking, I need the money, I've got kids to raise.’ ‘That's quite all right.’ he says, so he came out to the berryfields with me and he walked up and down the berryfields with me, teaching me this song, how to sing it. Then John went back, and two days before the programme was due to go out, he phoned Ewan MacColl and said, ‘Ha ha, there never was a Maggie Johnson, it was me that made the song.’ So Ewan panicked. The whole programme was made by this time so he had to miss me out and put in Joe Heaney (singing another song)!"

So, while the voices of her mother and sister Cathie helped make ‘The Travelling People’ the most memorable and successful of the Radio Ballads, Sheila would be denied her part in what she reckons was… "the most perfect thing Ewan ever did. Down to a T it was - the truth, because my father went round with Ewan to interview the travellers and he knew that the things Ewan collected was the truth. If you go yourself to collect from travelling people, they will give you what they think you want to hear. But if there's a traveller with you when you're collecting, they darenae tell lies."

There is no such praise for ‘Doomsday in the Afternoon’, the "big book" about the Stewarts that Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger brought out in 1986, after 25 years in the compiling. "This horrible book! They got a lot of things wrong. They never let us go through it, we never knew that it was to be out and it caused a hell of a stink among travelling people, because he put in things that we never even said to them. We wouldnae go against wor own folk, because our life was secret, but my mother got the blame of it from the travellers."

Why, I wondered, did the family give details of this "secret life" so freely? "I'll sum it all up in one sentence: we were Travelling People who were persecuted, ridiculed by society and the thought that academics, collectors and folklorists, were interested in the things that we had - to give us recognition as no' just animals that leaves a dirty layby, we are people - was a great, great thing for us. It was a great advancement within my culture. So if anybody wanted anything from us, my mother said, ‘Oh aye, we'll give it to you’. Ewan was only one of many - he was a drop in the ocean, and to give it to him was nothing new to us. I loved Ewan to bits and he was a real good pal of ours.

We never knew him as Ewan MacColl, we knew him as Jimmy Miller (the name he was born with), because when the doors was closed at night, Ewan became Jimmy Miller."

A final anecdote about Ewan MacColl is an indication of how influential he was in the early years of the folk revival, and what personal sway he could command. This comes when I ask Sheila if she has ever considered singing with an accompaniment? Martin Taylor wants her to make a CD with him, she says, and she has sung with the goose and the smallpipes. Once, a long time ago, at the end of a festival, she was cajoled on to the stage to sing Hank Williams' Jambalaya. "I got the first verse and the first chorus out; everybody was a' jiving and dancing, then the door flew open and this man come up. ‘STOP!’ he said. And of course everybody stopped. ‘I am gonnae get in touch with Ewan MacColl,’ he says, ‘to tell Ewan l that the Stewarts of Blair have gone pop!’ My face was like a beetroot. I put the mike down and come off stage. Three days later, I got a tape through the post fae Ewan. ‘I think you need taking down a little bit Sheila. I've just had a letter and a 'phone call from this man, saying that you've gone pop.’ And he sent me two songs, must have been forty, fifty verses each, ‘don't ever, ever let me hear that you've been singing other than your ballads.’ He played hell with me for doin' it, so I've never ever done it again - never ever tried to sing with music again."

The growing revival of interest in storytelling makes Sheila, along with other Scottish travellers, a direct link with a culture where the art flourished within living memory. "My father was always the main storyteller within our family, because (his father), old Jock Stewart - him that the song was made for - was a wonderful storyteller. But a better storyteller was my father's mother, Agnes - Nancy we called her. I was frightened of my Granny until I was about 15, because she had the long black clothes, and when she told a story she put her faces the same as the characters'." There's a remark attributed to a Scottish storyteller that, ‘There are no storytellers in England, only out-of-work actors.’ "I approve o' actors coming in telling stories, but … leave the stage behind. Though having said that, my granny wouldn't act the story, she would take on the characters of a story. She would always tell ghosty stories, or stories with fear in them, and she'd just screw up her face - put her face in that way - but her voice would never change into a different voice, like an actor's voice would. She didnae stand up and do the gestures like an actor would do. To me this is like the real thing and a plastic thing. Like the Travellers making tin long ago, but the tin's no longer there - it's plastic. Well it's the same as the true storytelling, coming from the heart, and then it goes from that to plastic. Actors would make wonderful storytellers if they would leave their head behind, and tell fae their heart as a natural function."

Being aware of the pressures (often unconscious) on contemporary storytellers to sanitise their stories for polite audiences, Sheila is keen to keep the grittiness in. "It's a raw culture," she says, "and I am changing for nobody. It's the way my forebearers handed it down to me Why should I go up on that stage and be polite about it and change it to the year 2000. I'm telling it the way my folk gave it to me. Suppose I've to raise my hand and say, ‘He battered the shite oot o' 'im’ - I couldn't care less. If the audience disnae want that - tough. My Mother used to say to me, ‘Oh but Sheila, ye cannae say that. That's embarrassing going on the stage and speakin' aboot shite an' a' that cairry on.’ I says ‘Mother, that's the way my father told his stories’. ‘Ah, but no' in front o' the country hantle’, as we would say. ’Ye cannae do that.’ I says, ‘If they don't want it, they can leave me alone’."

She emphasises that, in her family at least, the distinction between song and story was blurred. "The ballads were stories. When we wanted to teach the kids, we would tell the story o' the ballad. A wee kid 'll no sit there while you sing a 30 verse ballad - 'Oh I'm bored, I'm bored!' So, if you start off by saying that the ballad is a story - you tell them two, maybe three verses of that story - then you slip back to the first verse and you say, ‘Now that story's got a tune tae it’ and you sing the tune o' the three verses. Then you go on to the next three verses and come back and you sing it. At the end of the time, the kids used to come up to me and say, ‘Sing me a story song!’ Like the Twa Brithers, that was my kids's favourite because... he chugged the knife intae him and BLOOD was here and BLOOD was there. Kids love goriness, and you have to start them off with goriness."

Early in the interview, I asked Sheila what her three best memories were. The first was of her Uncle Donald, teaching her the ballads and the Conyach. The second was... "being out there in a tent, meeting other travellers, and having the ceilidhs. There was nothing like it. Unbelievably brilliant, though it has died now and is a lump of the life you can never take back - a piece that is gone. To stay with people that's on your wavelength, you dinnae have to put on airs with - that is another great, great memory in my life."

Of the times she spent down south, including the time her husband (a joiner) worked on the Victoria Line, and a spell in Sheffield as a traveller liaison worker, Sheila seems to relish the early 1960s most, when the family was working in Hatfield. She and her husband, and sister Cathie's family bought trailers and camped on the big green at Coney Heath. The police turned a blind eye, and soon other Hertfordshire travellers joined them, followed by the Irish. "We had wonderful ceilidhs roond the fire. They didnae want the ceildhs to stop, and they used to go and take the spare tyres fae their lorries to keep the fire burning, to keep us singing. There's a wee pub at Coney Heath, No Travellers Allowed, of course, but we started going in and they didnae know we were Travellers to begin wi'. Then when the Irish Travellers came and joined us on the Heath the landlord would stand wi' his hand up, ‘No! You're no' allowed,’ and we would say that they were wi' us, ‘Oh well, just come in then!’

We had ceilidhs and singing in the pub, and then we would come home at night, and we'd have ceilidhs round the fire.... it was a wonderful time of my life. There was great friction there between the English and the Irish travellers and If we hadnae been there they would have started fighting. The police would have thrown them off the Heath, but because of us between them, they saw a side of the travelling people's life that they had lost long, long ago which was a togetherness in the music. That stopped all the friction."

Sheila's third greatest memory is the number of jobs the family had to do to make a living. "We were never bored, because every morn my father rose, he would have some other idea o' how to make money. If we got fed up he’d say, ‘Och, just leave that, we'll dae something else.’ Every morning it was a different job, and it was wonderful. Not sitting in an office eight hours a day - sitting typing. It was outside work; it was wonderful work; we didnae like too much hard work, and the work we did was what you call now, in a polite way, is recycling. But we have done it fae the beginning of time, and it was exciting, and wonderful!"

You could say that that's what Sheila's doing now - finally free from the constraints of the past - with the CDs, the solo performances, the autobiography and a planned biography of her mother; recycling - not diluting - her own "raw" culture and making it available in a particularly vibrant and personal way. "If I present it to you the way my father would present it to us, as a travelling group of people, having a ceilidh around the camp fire, thirty or forty mile away fae any country folk - that's the way it should be preserved, because that's the way my father gave it to me."

And the last word. "This is my rebirth. The Millennium rebirth of an auld bugger that's been on the go for ever!"

Bob Pegg

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