Swansong at Bannockburn
Sheila Stewart chose a momentous day in a momentous place for her final concert. It happened in Bannockburn on 18 September 2014 – the day of the Scottish referendum for independence. When the concert started the polling stations were still open, and the man sitting next to me had skipped off polling duty for a couple of hours to hear Sheila sing one last time.
“Oh, you should have met her mother, Belle,” Terry told me. “She was a character. And her sister Cathie too. They were an extraordinary family, the Stewarts of Blair.” Terry was typical of the small crowd gathered together in Bannockburn Library that evening. Most of the audience were long-time fans of Sheila and her musical family, and they knew every song she sang. It was an exceptionally warm atmosphere, and you had the feeling that everyone was happy to be there to hear Sheila’s last gig before retirement.
Carrying the flame
Sheila comes from a long tradition of Scottish traveller folk singers, and has carried the flame for unaccompanied ballads since she began to sing at the age of two. In 1954, Sheila started singing with her family: her mother, the singer and storyteller, Belle; her father, the piper Willie; and her sister Cathie. In her long career, Sheila has sung for assorted Popes and Presidents, and most recently sang at the pre-opening of the Commonwealth Games this Summer.
Sheila will be 80 next year. “So I deserve a rest now,” she laughed. But although Sheila is the last of the Stewarts of Blair, her family’s legacy echoed around us all evening, as she sang songs that had been passed down through her family for generations.
Ghostly chair collapse
Her first song was ‘Queen amang the Heather’, a ballad closely associated with her mother, Belle. For much of her life, Belle refused to let anyone else sing the song, and Sheila thinks her mother may even have registered ghostly disapproval from beyond the grave. “I was singing at a festival in Shropshire,” she explained, “and was just about to sing Queen amang the Heather. But as I opened my mouth to sing, my chair broke and I rolled right off the stage. It was an omen. But I sing it now and she doesn’t bother me.”
The point about the chair is pertinent. In the traveller tradition, people sing sitting down, as they would have when they were sitting around a campfire. It’s less of a performance and more of a conversation, with other people chipping in and singing along as the mood takes them.
Piglets, tenements and winter camping
The evening was organised by Off the Page, the Stirling Book Festival, and for this event Sheila was accompanied by Jess Smith, a fellow Scottish traveller chosen by Sheila to carry on the ballad tradition. Between them, Sheila and Jess delivered a highly entertaining evening of songs, poems and travellers’ stories, including tales of a baby born with a piglet’s head, trading rugs door to door in the tenements of Glasgow, winter camping in Bannockburn, and Sheila’s piper grandfather Jock Stewart gallantly taking the blame for a grand lady’s fart.
This was the cue for a rousing rendition of “My name is Jock Stewart”, written for Sheila’s grandfather. The whole audience joined in for the chorus, “I’m a man you don’t meet every day.”
Help for professional musicians
I’d travelled to Bannockburn Library on referendum night because I’d interviewed Sheila for Help Musicians UK in July. (Read the article here.) Help Musicians UK is the leading charity for professional musicians, and provides support both for young talent and for musicians in crisis. The charity helped Sheila after she’d had health problems and was in financial difficulties, and it continues to give her regular payments. During our conversation, Sheila mentioned she’d be singing her final concert in September. “I’d love to come,” I said. “Come!” said Sheila. “I’ll sing a song for you.” True to her word, Sheila dedicated her opening song to me.
As a writer, I loved the resonant, inventive language we heard that evening. Jess talked about a teacher “sprouting on about Darwin”, we learned that “stortin bits” are the pieces of an animal a butcher can’t sell, and Sheila talked about her grandfather “burling” a lady at a dance – twirling her around until she was dizzy. When Sheila was growing up, the travellers’ language, Cant, was a secret, but now she wants to share something of this important element of her culture. She sang us a version of “You shall get a fishy in a little dishy” in Cant and in her parting words she encouraged us to use this phrase to bring us luck: “a wammalin cookavie” – a boiling kettle. It seems a fitting end for a traveller singer’s final concert. With the sound of a boiling kettle, we’re back around the campfire, sharing songs and stories that are centuries old, keeping the culture alive.
Find out more
Read Sheila Stewart’s autobiography, A Traveller’s Life
Discover Jess Smith’s books and music
Hear Jess remembering Belle Stewart at the Scottish Storytelling Centre in Edinburgh on 29 November at 7.30pm (£8/£6), with Sheila Stewart as a special guest