Born on July 7, 1937 in a stable that belonged to an hotel in Blairgowrie, Sheila grew up in a family of travelling people whose roots in Scotland have been traced back to the eleventh century and whose music and song gained world-wide renown during the folk music revival.
Her mother, Belle, was a great singer and tradition bearer as well as a songwriter, and her father, Alec, was a piper and storyteller. It was Sheila’s Uncle Donald, however, who chose her to carry on the family’s songs and stories.
While other children were out playing, Sheila would be sat on her uncle’s knee learning another song. This paid off handsomely when, at regular family ceilidhs, Uncle Donald would ask Sheila to sing song after song in return for a ten-shilling note – quite a sum in the 1940s.
Sheila later sang with the family concert party, playing village halls all over Scotland and when, in 1954, first journalist Maurice Fleming and then folklorist Hamish Henderson arrived in Blairgowrie looking for singers of traditional songs, the Stewarts of Blair became a folk club, festival and concert attraction on both sides of the Atlantic. Henderson described trying to record the Stewarts’ repertoire as ‘like holding a can under Niagara Falls’ and Ewan MacColl, similarly impressed, made the Stewarts’ house in Blairgowrie the Scottish base for his radio ballad The Travelling People in the 1960s.
In America the Stewarts of Blair – Belle, Alec, Sheila and her sister Cathie
– were given the red carpet treatment and Sheila went on to sing in the White House for then-President Gerald Ford during America’s bicentennial celebrations in 1976.
Six years later, on June 1 1982, Sheila appeared before her biggest audience ever, some 300,000, when she was chosen to represent the travelling people during Pope John Paul ll’s visit to Scotland. From her specially built stage Sheila sang Ewan MacColl’s Moving On Song to huge acclaim from the Bellahouston Park crowd.
Sheila was just as proud, in 2003, to hear her singing of the same song being turned into brave new music when maverick composer and musician Martyn Bennett incorporated it into the track Move on his final masterpiece, Grit.
Following her mother’s death in 1997 and her sister Cathie’s retirement, Sheila continued to share her family’s songs and stories with audiences at home and abroad. She has lectured on travellers’ culture at Princeton and Harvard universities and for many years sat on the Secretary of State for Scotland’s advisory committee on travellers.
A spellbinding presence on any stage, she remains, as her 2000 CD for Topic Records aptly put it, a singer From the Heart of the Tradition.