The general public knew little about Belle Stewart until 2006, when her daughter, Sheila Stewart, wrote the biography Queen Amang the Heather: the Life of Belle Stewart. Sheila Stewart corrects the frequently cited birthdate 17 July to the 18th.
Belle McGregor was born on the banks of the River Tay at Caputh, near Blairgowrie, into a family of Highland Scottish Travellers, who lived in bow-tents (similar to dome tents). As a result of their life-style, the whole family received much insult and abuse. Belle's father died when she was only 9 months old. Afraid that social workers might take her children from her, her mother stopped travelling and settled in Perthshire. The McGregor family tried to teach Belle how to read palms (fortune telling), but she didn't take to this. The family frequently went to Northern Ireland to do pearl-fishing. In the evenings they would gather at ceilidhs to exchange folk songs.
Belle's version of "If I Was a Blackbird" inspired Alex Stewart, a bagpiper, to propose to her. They married in secret on 17 August 1925 at Ballymoney in Northern Ireland. As married second cousins, they for a time had fears that this would affect the health of their children, but such fears proved unfounded.
Belle married into a rich heritage. Alex's father Jock Stewart (1869–1954) had become a champion piper, supposedly the subject of the popular Scots and Irish drinking-song "Jock Stewart, A Man You Don't Meet Every Day" recorded by The Dubliners and The Pogues among others. Jock's father, "Big Jimmy" Stewart, also a champion piper, allegedly died when beaten to death by a group of Irishmen he met on his way home from busking in the Pitlochry area — because he refused to play a tune they requested. Alex's mother, Nancy Campbell, reputedly had both a grandfather (Andy Campbell) and a grandmother sentenced to death by hanging in the 18th century for the crime of travelling.
For a few months Belle suffered from Bell's palsy. Alex left her and returned to Ireland. After treatment she made a complete recovery, and Alex returned to her. On 7 July 1935 Bell gave birth to Sheila. Belle also had another daughter, Cathie, and two sons, Andy and John. The family made their living by selling scrap metal and by pearl fishing.
During the Second World War the authorities conscripted Alex Stewart into the military. His Captain, a "Naken" or Non-Traveller, also came from Blairgowrie. The Captain was wounded in action and Alex carried him to the Red Cross camp. When the Captain learned who had saved his life, he said that he would have preferred to die rather than to owe his life to a "Tink". Alex and his wife wrote letters in the Traveller cant known as Beurla-reagaird. The British Army postal censors could not understand it, and ordered them to stop.
In 1952 Alex and Belle paid a builder to build them a house.
The Scottish Travellers referred to palm-reading as "drookerin" in cant, and labelled a non-traveller as a "naken".
When the Stewarts of Blairgowrie went to the Sidmouth Festival (founded in 1955) in Devon they encountered "New Age travellers" for the first time, selling jewellery. Belle Stewart noticed how dirty the New Agers were. They labelled themselves as travellers but Belle replied "No, you're not. We are." The New Age Travellers said "But you're dressed too fine to be travellers." The photographs in Sheila Stewart's book show how much care the Stewarts took with personal appearance. At festivals the whole family would wear tartan kilts and the pipers among them wore full regalia.
Belle's repertoire of folk tales frequently refer to the supernatural, including changelings. A collection of her stories appeared in print as "The King o' the Black Art" in 1987. When Alex Stewart died, the Church of Scotland minister at Blairgowrie refused to allow a funeral service in his church, because Alex had been a Traveller. A Dundee minister phoned them and offered them a service in his church.
While John Stewart worked on a building site in Hatfield, a friend of Ewan MacColl visited. The following week Ewan MacColl visited the Stewart family. Soon the younger members of the family made recordings of ballads in London. A few months later the whole family received invitations to perform at MacColl's "Singers' Club" in London. In March 1954 Hamish Henderson invited the Traveller family to do a concert in Edinburgh alongside "Auld Galoot" (Davie Stewart), Jeannie Robertson and Jimmy MacBeath. Later in 1954 Douglas Kennedy and Peter Kennedy visited them and made recordings. So began their career performing in folk clubs: there the people treated them with respect, unlike the rest of urban society.
In 1966 Peter Shepherd and Jimmy Hutchinson started the Blair Folk Festival. Sheila Stewart won the singing competition with "The Twa Brothers". After 1969 the annual festival relocated to Kinross. Later in the 1960s Alex Stewart made his living in the summer months by playing bagpipes to tourists in Glen Coe and Oban. Belle knew all the songs and decided which of the other members of the family could sing which songs. Ian Stewart became a bagpiper like his father. Belle Stewart became a recipient of the British Empire Medal in 1981. (Her daughter Sheila later received an MBE.) "The Overgate", a folksong with some similarities to "Seventeen Come Sunday" has particular associations with the Robertson/ Higgins/ Stewart family of Travellers. Belle recorded it in 1976. In 1965 the family recorded an album called "The Stewarts of Blair", which the Scottish folk scene took to its heart.
In 1975 another Scottish Traveller, Jeannie Robertson, released an album called The Queen Among the Heather, a compilation of tracks from 1953 onwards. In 1976 Belle Stewart released an album with an almost identical title "Queen Among the Heather". A certain rivalry existed between the two. Alan Lomax preferred Robertson's singing, and Sheila, semi-apologetically, agrees with him in her biography.
In about 1970 the family spent a month performing in America. They made several appearances at the Edinburgh Folk Festival and in folk clubs around the UK. Ewan MacColl featured them in a Radio Ballad. Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger also compiled a collection of the folklore of Belle and other members of her family, called 'Till Doomsday in the Afternoon. After the death of Alex they continued to tour, and appeared at a folk festival in Bologna in 1980 and at Lake Como in 1980, with Ian taking the place of chief piper.
Belle Stewart died aged 91 in 1997, and hundreds of people attended her funeral. Six RAF jets flew in formation overhead during the funeral. This happened by coincidence, not as a tribute, but some[who?] found it very appropriate.
- "The Stewarts of Blair" (1965) Topic 12T138
- "The Travelling Stewarts" (1968) Topic 12T179
- "Queen Among the Heather" (1977) Topic 12TS307
- "The Stewarts of Blair" (1986) Lismor LFLP 7010
- "Back o' Benachie - Songs and Ballads from the Lowland East of Scotland" (1967) Topic 12T180
- "Festival at Blairgowrie" (recorded 1967) Topic 12T181
- "The Voice of the People Volume 20 - There is a Man Upon the Farm" (two songs - "The Overgate" and "The Berry Fields o' Blair")
- Stewart, Sheila (2006). Queen amang the heather: the life of Belle Stewart. Edinburgh: Birlinn. ISBN 978-1-84158-528-4.
- Stewart, Sheila (September 2008). Pilgrims of the Mist. Edinburgh, Scotland: Birlinn. ISBN 978-1-84158-752-3.
- MacColl, Ewan; Seeger, Peggy (1986). Till doomsday in the afternoon : the folklore of a family of Scots Travellers, the Stewarts of Blairgowrie. Manchester: Manchester University Press. ISBN 0-7190-1813-7.
- Fairbairn, Peter. "(review of:) Belle Stewart — Queen Among the Heather ...". The Living Tradition. The Living Tradition. Retrieved 2009-07-16. - review of the CD Queen Among the Heather
- Book review
- Foot Stompin' Review
- Words of "The Berry Fields o' Blair"