Sheila Stewart obituary

Singer and storyteller who was proud of her Scottish Traveller roots and did much to champion her community’s causes

The singer and storyteller Sheila Stewart, who has died aged 79, inherited the rich oral culture of Scottish Travellers through her own family, who performed as the Stewarts of Blair. In her early life, Sheila encountered discrimination and prejudice, but she and her family found nothing but respect from folk music enthusiasts for their classic songs and ballads, passed down through generations.

In 1982, Sheila was chosen to represent underprivileged communities in Scotland and sing for Pope John Paul II in front of more than 350,000 people in Bellahouston Park, Glasgow. Her performance of Ewan MacColl’s song about Travellers, The Moving-On Song, was a triumph. She sang to a much smaller audience in Washington DC during the US bicentennial celebrations in 1976: there Sheila met the Queen, and the Duke of Edinburgh expressed disappointment at not hearing her sing. Several hours later, she was whisked off to the White House where President Gerald Ford, the Queen and Prince Philip enjoyed a private concert of Scottish ballads.

Her mother, Belle, was the source of many of Sheila’s songs, although until Belle’s death in 1997 Sheila was not always allowed to sing them. The family repertoire was large, however, and ballads such as Twa Brothers and The Mill o’ Tifty’s Annie were performed superbly by Sheila. It was Belle’s brother, Donald MacGregor, who taught Sheila, when she was still a girl, many of the family ballads learned from his father. It was not simply a matter of learning the words and tune. Donald instilled in Sheila the “conyach” – his word for the emotional expression in the song that comes from the heart not the head. He taught her all the ballads orally – Donald could not read or write.

Sheila was born in a stable in Blairgowrie, Perthshire, and went to school in the town. Though settled, the family still travelled in the summer, camping for short periods and meeting up with other Travellers for a ceilidh of songs and stories around the fire. Her father, Alex, worked as a scrap-metal dealer and casual farm labourer, especially during the Blairgowrie raspberry-picking season, which attracted Travellers from all over Scotland.

Sheila Stewart singing The Mill o’Tifty’s Annie in 1980

It was hearing about Belle’s song The Berry Fields o’ Blair that led the folk-song collector Hamish Henderson to visit in 1954 to collect the family’s songs, ballads and stories for the school of Scottish studies, Edinburgh University: he said it was like holding a tin can under Niagara Falls. Henderson recorded Belle as well as Sheila and her elder sister Cathie, plus Alex, a noted bagpiper and storyteller.

The impact of Henderson’s recordings led to many invitations for the family to perform at concerts and festivals. Later, there were also visits to France, Italy and the US, where Sheila lectured and sang at Princeton and Harvard universities. Recordings of Sheila were issued on a family album, The Stewarts of Blair (1965), on Topic Records, and her solo CD, From the Heart of the Tradition, came out in 2000. The Stewart family were the subject of Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger’s book Till Doomsday in the Afternoon (1986).

In the early 1980s, Sheila worked as a Travellers’ liaison officer in West Yorkshire, and she sat on the secretary of state for Scotland’s advisory committee on Travellers. She was a self-assured, dignified woman whose unaccompanied singing was passionate and powerful, and her storytelling eloquent.

Sheila wrote a biography of her mother, Queen Amang the Heather (2006), followed by a collection of Travellers’ stories, Pilgrims of the Mist (2008), and her own autobiography, A Traveller’s Life (2011). She was appointed MBE in 2006, and inducted into the Scottish Traditional Music Hall of Fame in 2007.

Sheila’s husband, Ian MacGregor, died in 1977. She is survived by their four children, Ian, Hamish, Heather and Gregor.

Sheila Stewart, folk singer and storyteller, born 7 July 1935; died 9 December 2014


Derek Schofield

The GuardianTramp

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