Meeting Hamish Henderson: Jess Smith Recollects

‘I believe that if Hamish had not recorded our songs and stories, a massive chunk of history would have gone to the grave with the keepers.’ (Jess Smith)

A field of interest and activity for Henderson during the 50s was with the Travellers who gathered from all over Scotland each summer for the berry-picking at Blairgowrie, with Henderson remarking that collecting the berries was like sitting under Niagara Falls with a tin can. While he was trying to track down the composer of a song called ´The Berryfields o’ Blair´, he enlisted the help of local journalist, Maurice Fleming, who introduced him to Belle Stewart, and the rest is history!

Ahead of entertaining us at The Ceilidh House: Come All Ye, storyteller, singer and author Jess Smith recalls the first time she met Hamish, aged 14, with a story of the encounter and thoughts on the man himself.

‘It was Maurice Fleming from Blairgowrie who introduced Hamish to the Stewarts of Blair. At berry time it was common to see him mingle with Travellers both at work and play.

‘I remember my first encounter with him. It was a dusky Saturday evening; our campfire was wholesome with well fired logs. A large kettle was suspended from a chain connected to a three-legged fire iron (chitties). He arrived with Belle Stewart and her husband, Alex. We are related to the Stewarts on my father’s side, so it was common for our families to mix. The tall stranger was welcome.

‘Belle stood while Alex sat on a chair. Hamish went on his knees, sat a large box on the ground, jiggled the round reels in place and began writing with a small pencil on a notebook hanging from a string around his neck, stopping every so often to clear the stick reek from his eyes.

‘I watched in silence as did my maternal granny who smoked on a clay pipe, unmoved by the stranger at our fire.“Lassie,” said Belle, “give the gentleman your stool.”

‘I was horrified, this was my pride and joy, my three-legged seat which my father made for me after I broke my leg in three places when aged six.

‘Although 14yrs old then, and the stool far too small for me, I refused to allow the scaldie gadji to sit on it. He would break it!

‘But as he fingered thick hair out of his eyes, he looked at me through dark rimmed glasses and said, “It’s for my recorder lass,” pointing at the big box.

‘He borrowed my stool and spent hours recording a lot of Traveller entertainers who wandered to our fire under the orders of Belle to sing an old sang.

‘I didn’t meet Hamish again for many years, but I had heard plenty about him and how his big box was filling up with Traveller songs and anything else we culturally allowed him to take. My only regret – and I think it was his too – was that funding ran out. He recognised the importance of how ancient and connected Travellers were to Scotland and he knew his recordings were especially crucial to the historical platform of the country.

‘Oral traditions which told of the history in song and story of the country were handed down through the generations to remain as fresh and special as the day they were seeded by the olden time balladeers. Hamish recognised that the Travellers were those balladeers and story keepers, therefore strove to get as much as he could to hand on for future generations to enjoy.

‘If he had the means, I am certain he would have visited many other Travellers with his big box, notebook and pencil. And I believe that if Hamish had not recorded our songs and stories, a massive chunk of history would have gone to the grave with the keepers.

‘A special man who came among us, found the voice and gave it wings.

‘I am looking forward to sharing tales and tunes from my culture, which mean a lot to me, to pass them on to all those who join us at The Ceilidh House.’

Wed 31 July | 7.30pm – 9.30pm | £10 (£8)
Book Tickets

The Ceilidh House: Come All Ye is part of the Hamish Henderson Summer School – .


Fiona Hunter singing the song in question at TradFest 2016

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