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SHEILA STEWART - A Traveller’s Life – An Autobiography Of Sheila Stewart

SHEILA STEWART - A Traveller’s Life – An Autobiography Of Sheila Stewart
Birlinn Ltd
ISBN 978 184158 979 4

Birlinn is a publisher based in Edinburgh which has been doing a commendable job in recent years of documenting the memories, stories and songs of the travelling communities which have now all but disappeared from these islands. In 2006, Sheila told the story of her mother, Belle Stewart, in Queen Amang The Heather, and this wonderful book follows the timeline on from Sheila’s birth in 1935 up to the present.

If there is one theme running through both works it must be that of continuity. This is ably demonstrated by the fact that Sheila chooses to begin her story two days before she was born and, towards the end, says “…I am not dead yet, and there may be more to come.” Let’s hope so, for this continued telling of the stories of the lives and living of the traveller families in plain, unadorned language spiced with occasional examples of cant (traveller language) is as important as it is enjoyable.

In these days when celebrities produce an autobiography (invariably ghostwritten) at the age of fifteen with little of worth to tell, a book like this is the real deal. Having had the pleasure of meeting Sheila a couple of years ago, I can tell you that you can hear her voice in the reading. No ghostwriters here, I think. She tells the story of her life in the context of the tales and songs that accompanied her on her journey. This is a woman who has met a pope, a queen and an Indian Chief!  How could there not be stories to tell?

Sheila finishes the book with a poem called It’s a Hard Life Being A Traveller, written in 1954 when she was 16, to celebrate a courtroom battle won over berry picking, which finishes with this verse.

But we’re always hit below the belt,
No matter what we do,
But when it comes to judgement day,
We’ll be the same as you.

Sheila is a traveller in every sense of the word. Please read this book because a life like this is worth knowing about.

Phil Thomas

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This album was reviewed in Issue 90 of The Living Tradition magazine.