Belle Stewart was one of the greatest tradition-bearers of Scots ballads and folktales and became known as ‘Queen Amang the Heather’ after one of the songs with which she was closely associated. She made a large number of recordings for the School of Scottish Studies Archives and some of these recordings will be made available on the Tobar an Dualchais website. Please click below to hear Belle’s rendition of ‘Queen Amang the Heather’, recorded in 1971 (School of Scottish Studies ref. no: SA1971.191.3).
Belle Stewart (nee McGregor) was born in a bow tent on the banks of the Tay at Caputh, near Blairgowrie. She came from a family of travelling people who had a rich oral tradition which they passed down through the generations. Her father, Dan McGregor, was a tinsmith and pearl-fisher and was reputed to be the best ballad singer among the Perthshire travellers. Her mother Martha’s maiden name was Stewart and she belonged to a travelling family of pipers, singers and storytellers.
Belle’s father died when she was just 9 months old and her mother decided to settle in Blairgowrie with Belle and her two brothers. Belle grew up surrounded by stories and songs that had been passed down over the centuries and she learnt her first song ‘The Twa Brothers’ when she was six years old. Please click below to listen to Belle singing this song in 1955 (School of Scottish Studies ref no: SA1955.036.A3).
When Belle was 17 she travelled to Ireland with her two brothers and uncle, who were invited there by her mother’s relatives for the pearl-fishing. It was there that she met Alex Stewart, a second cousin, whom she hadn’t seen since she was a young child. A romance developed between them and they were married in Ballymony in 1925.
Belle returned to Blairgowrie for the birth of her first son, John and travelled back and forth between Scotland and Ireland as her family increased. Cathie was born in 1927, Andy was born in 1929 and Sheila was born in 1935. Belle and Alex later adopted a baby girl, Rena. They eventually settled in Blairgowrie, but still travelled in the summer to do pearl-fishing and agricultural work. Alex also rented berry fields in the area and other travellers from all over Scotland came to pick them and it was this annual gathering of travelling people which inspired Belle to write the song ‘The Berry Fields o’ Blair’ in 1947, one of her most famous compositions. Please click below to listen to Bella singing this song in 1955 (School of Scottish Studies ref. no: SA1955.062.A5).
Hamish Henderson, the co-founder of the University of Edinburgh’s School of Scottish Studies, first visited the Stewart family in 1954 to record Belle’s father-in-law Jock Stewart, who had been a national piping champion in his time. Although he was no longer able to play the pipes by this time, he was able to talk about various pipers and also told stories. Hamish discovered that Belle had a wealth of ballads and songs and that she had also inherited an intensity of melody in her singing style, known as ‘the coniach’. Hamish started to invite Belle, Alex, Cathie and Sheila to perform at concerts and would also record them and other travellers at berry-picking time. As Hamish later commented: ‘Collecting on the berry fields was like holding a tin can under the Niagara Falls. However….. it was clear that the really fabulous contribution had been made not so much by the nomadic travellers among whom we had camped as by the Stewart family…’
Belle and her family became popular on the folk scene, where they were known as the ‘Stewarts o Blair’, and performed extensively in Europe and America. As word of Belle’s amazing ability to recall songs spread, she was frequently visited by folksong collectors, musicians and musicologists. Hamish Henderson also recorded a large collection of songs by Belle, her husband and daughters Cathie and Sheila at the School of Scottish Studies studio. She received the British Empire Medal for services to traditional music in 1981.
Although Bella was famous as a folksinger she was also a gifted storyteller and could go from telling a traditional fairy story to a comic bawdy tale, giving each one equal dignity in the telling. Please click below to listen to one of the stories Belle told about a tramp and his wager with a gentleman (School of Scottish ref no SA1969.196).
Being part of a travelling family led to discrimination throughout Belle’s life but she was always proud of her heritage and the travellers’ secret language, known as Cant. Please click below to listen to Belle talking about Cant (School of Scottish Studies ref. no: SA1973.158).
Belle’s memory started to fade in her latter years and she no longer sang but that didn’t stop her enjoying a large celebration organised by her daughter Sheila to mark her 90th birthday, which was attended by folk singers from all over the world. She died in her 92nd year.
In her daughter Sheila’s book ‘Queen Amang the Heather: The Life of Belle Stewart’ Gus Langlands makes a fitting tribute to Belle with these words: ’Sadly we shall never see her like again, but it is the duty of us all who care about music, the songs, the fellowship and the tradition, to ensure that Belle’s legacy and her charismatic humanity remain alive in the future, as befits her unique place in Scotland’s cultural heritage’.
Many thanks to Sheila Stewart for permission to write this article and for her contributions to it. We would also like to thank the School of Scottish Studies Archives (University of Edinburgh) for permission to reproduce the photographs. We also gratefully acknowledge the following source:-
Sheila Stewart MBE, Queen Amang the Heather: The Life of Belle Stewart (2006)