Belle Stewart, a proud, dignified and a distinguished maintainer of noble traditions, ranks alongside Jeannie Robertson in the roll of the finest Scots ballad-singers.
Belle was born in 1906 in a bow tent on the banks of the River Tay at Caputh, near Blairgowrie. Her family, Highland Scottish Travellers, were tinkers and pearlfishers.
When she was seven months old, Belle’s father died, and the family was no longer able to travel full-time. They settled in Blairgowrie, scraping a living picking fruit and potatoes. Growing up, Belle was surrounded by stories and songs that had been passed down over centuries through the generations of Scottish travellers. She continued learning, singing and writing songs as she travelled around Scotland and Ireland with her piper husband Alex Stewart, who she married in 1925.
Belle first came to the notice of the folk world when song collector Hamish Henderson asked local journalist, Maurice Fleming, to look for the composer of a song called ´The Berryfields o’ Blair´, which he had heard sung by a North East singer. Maurice very quickly found Belle and her family, and recorded them for the School of Scottish Studies sound archive. Belle´s songwriting originated in her family’s tradition of always composing songs or poems for occasions like Hogmanay or family weddings. While many of her songs were comic, she also wrote a very moving lament for her two brothers, Donald and Andy who tragically died within a week of each other, leaving her utterly bereft. Maurice and Hamish soon discovered that she had inherited many of her father´s ballads and songs, and that she had the travellers´ wonderfully emotive Highland way of singing – a quality she called ´the coniach´, a word of Gaelic origin translated by Dr John MacInnes as ´an intensity of melody´. In the sleeve notes to the Topic record of ´The Stewarts of Blair´ made in 1965, Hamish Henderson wrote of this time, “Collecting on the berryfields was like holding a tin can under the Niagrara Falls.”
Belle´s importance as a source singer led to her becoming known, not only in Scotland, through Hamish Henderson and the Traditional Music and Song Association, but also in England, where the family was introduced to the folk scene by the Ewan MacColl, who also involved them in the Radio Ballad on the travellers. Ewan was later to produce a book that dealt with her song repertoire, shared with her daughters, in the context of the family´s history, and also included stories riddles, proverbs and cures. After that, she and her family became popular on the folk scene, invited everywhere, their fame spreading across the sea to Europe and America.
The ‘Stewarts o’ Blair’, as they were known, became stars of the folk scene, performing in concerts all over Europe and the United States. Belle’s performances were compelling. Dazzling audiences with her warmth and elegance, she was awarded a BEM by the queen for her contribution to folk music.
Belle Stewart died in 1997.