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July 18th 1906

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Belle's childhood story

Belle Stewart is perhaps the best known ‘traveller’ in Scotland. As a folk singer she has an international reputation, and with her two daughters Sheila and Kathie she has performed in most countries of Europe and America. She has lived for many years in her own house in Rattray but for all that she is a true traveller, proud and knowledgeable of the traditions of her own community. Her story of her early life with her mother and two brothers is both graphic and riveting.

“I was born in a bow-tent at half-past-two on the eighteenth of July 1906. It was at a place ca’d Claypotts Farm, on the banks o’ the river Tay, no’ far frae Dunkeld, and I was registered in the parish o’ Caputh. My faither was pearl fishing at Tay, and he got a braw pearl that day. Mind ye, I was the first lassie born to him so he used aye to say to my mither: ‘Well, well, how could one man be so lucky? I got twa pearls in one day.’

However, that’s a long time ago. That morning there wasnae a bite there and my mither lay in her bed on the Wednesday, and she was up on Thursday dinner-time, but there wasnae a bite in the camp. Well, my faither, God rest him, wouldnae ask onything fae onybody, for though he was a man o’ the Tinker class he couldnae hae gone to the door o’ a hoose and asked for a drink o’ water. Never in his life did he hawk or sell the goods he made himsel’. No he couldnae do it, he was owre shy. He was a great man for workin’ tae the fairmers, my faither, and he was socht far and wide because he was a great worker. But he preferred workin’ in the woods, ye ken, sneddin’ trees, sawin, them doon. There were none o’ they mechanical things in they days, they a’ had to be done by hand.

But to get back to my tale. On the Friday night at aboot half-past-six, my mither was at Braemar. She’d walkit frae Caputh, richt owre the Devil’s Elbow and she was at the back door of the hotel at Braemar. It was a wee bit early for the shooting season, but there were plenty o’ gentry there. My mither was looking for to get some scraps o’ food, ye ken, the left-overs o’ the gentry’s dinners. Well she’d me in her airms and I was only twa days auld, and when the cook cam oot and saw me in my mither’s airms, she said ‘My God! Could I tak that bairn intae the hotel and show it tae some o’ the visitors?’ So my mither says ‘Aye’, and the cook’s awa wi me into the hotel. Well, anither servant lassie comes oot and says, ‘Would ye tak somethin’ tae eat?’ ‘Well, ‘ says my mither ‘if ye hae onything to spare, would ye mind tying it up in a bundle? I’ve anither twa wee laddies oot in the road, and there’s my man as weel’ Well, the lassie goes, and when she comes oot again she’s got a’ this meat tied up in a table-cloth. It was some o’ the lunches the gentry had left when they were oot on the hill shootin’ or picknickin’, ye ken. And when the cook brought me back tae my mither - ye can believe this or not - I had seiven-shillings- and sixpence! At that day owre sixty year ago, seiven-and sixpence was a fortune.

Noo, gaun back to my faither: I cannae say that him and my mither were married, for that wouldnae be true, but they were happy enough during the thirteen years o’ their life thegither. There was nine o’ a family o’ us in the thirteen years.

On the day he died, he’d been oot getting some hay for his horse and some o’ the hay fell owre his face while he was drivin’ alang. A Tinker that kent him gaed up to him and he says. ‘God bless me, there’s something far wrong wi McGregor the day.’ So the man comes doon wi his van and he says tae my mither, ‘Look Martha, ye’ll better come up and hae a look at Dan. There’s somethin’ far wrang wi him he’s an awfy bad colour.’ ‘Och,’ says my mither, ‘he’s aye a bad colour. If he would bide off the drink he wouldnae be sic a bad colour.’ ‘Ah,’ but he says, ‘I’m no jokin’, Martha, ye’ll better come up and hae a look at him.’

Well, ma mither had been oot hawkin’ the toon wi me in her airms and when she gets tae the cairt there’s a puckle folk gaithered roon. It was just opposite the doctor’s hoose so they took my faither oot and carried him owre tae the doctor’s. But the doctor wouldnae hear a word o’ him gettin’ inside his surgery or his hoose there. Oh no my faither was a tinker and had to go to the garage. So they took my faither and stretched him oot on the stane floor o’ the garage and the doctor sent a servant lassie intae the hoose for a drink o’ milk. Noo, it was an awfu cauld day. If he’d been taken intae a warm fire and gien a hot drink he’d mebbe hae revived. But here he was stretched oot on the cauld flair and the doctor says, ‘Och, this man’s deid, I can dae naething for him.’ And my mither’s standing there greeting wi me in her airms, and Donald and Andy was there tae……

Well, they put him tae the mortuary here and they said, ‘Hoo are ye gaun to pay for his coffin and the funeral expenses and a’?’ And my mither, she says, ‘I havenae a penny, I’ve naethin”  Well, they were planting trees at that time at Lintrathen, mebbe six or eight miles frae here. So my mither and my uncle and my twa brithers got a job at half-a-croon a week plantin’ trees. And they had to bide up there and plant these trees till they earned the three pounds to pay for the funeral expenses. And that was the end o’ my faither. He was just Tinker Donald MacGregor and that was the end o’t.

After he died it was gey hard on my mither, but she just had to carry on. She just hawked aboot. My brithers and my uncle Henry MacGregor made baskets and they heather rangers - heather scrubbers ye clean pots and pans wi. And they made heather besoms, brooms and brushes. At night they would mak’ these things and she would hawk them during the day. She aye took my brither Andy wi her when she went hawkin’ up the glens. My ither brither, Donald, took mair after my faither. He was a keen worker but no’ much o’ a hand at hawkin’.

Well, that kind o’ work would go on until the neep-thinnin’ come on, and that was in June month. In July the berries started, and whenever the berries was finished my mither would get a hoose in Blairgowrie at a place ca’d ‘The Croft’. That’s where the police station is noo, an auld, auld building it was at that time. That’s whaur I learned to walk. And fae that day to this we’ve aye had a hoose in Blairgowrie that we’ve ca’d oor ain, ye ken.” 

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