by Belle Stewart (1906 - 1997)
When berry time comes roond each year
Blair’s population’s swelling,
There’s every kind o picker there
And every kind o dwellin.
There’s tents and huts and caravans,
There’s bothies and there’s bivvies
And shelters made wi tattie-bags
And dug-outs made wi divvies.
There’s corner-boys fae Glesgae,
Kettle-boilers fae Lochee,
There’s miners fae the pits o Fife,
Mill-workers fae Dundee
And fisherfolk fae Peterheid
And tramps fae everywhere
Aa looking fir a livin aff
The berry fields o blair
There’s travellers fae the Western Isles,
Fae Arran, Mull and Skye;
Fae Harris, Lewis and Kyles o Bute,
They come their luck to try.
Fae Inverness and Aberdeen,
Fae Stornoway and Wick
Aa flock to Blair at the berry time
The straws and rasps to pick.
There’s some who earn a pound or twa,
Some cannae earn their keep,
There’s some wid pick fae morn till nicht,
And some wid rather sleep.
There’s some wha has tae pick or stairve,
And some wha dinnae care,
There’s comedy and tragedy
Played on the fields o Blair.
There’s families pickin for one purse,
And some wha pick alane,
There’s men wha share and share alike
Wi wives wha’s no their ain.
There’s gladness and there’s sadness tae,
There’s happy herts and sair,
For there’s some wha bless and some wha curse
The berry fields o Blair.
Before I put my pen awa,
It’s this I would like to say:
You’ll travel far afore you’ll meet
A kinder lot than they;
For I’ve mixed wi them in field and pub
And while I’ve breath to spare,
I’ll bless the hand that led me tae
The berry fields o Blair.
Berry time: time for seasonal work picking fruit
Bivvy: small tent or temporary shelter (from bivouac)
Blair: Blairgowrie, Perthshire
Bothy: temporary hut; living quarters for single men on a farm
Corner-boys: unemployed men hanging about the streets
Divvies: sods of earth, divots
Kettle-boilers: unemployed, stay-at-home men in Dundee
This song was brought to Sangschule by Gordeanna McCulloch, who told us about Belle Stewart and the berry fields of Blair – Blairgowrie in Perthshire – famous for its fields of soft fruit, especially raspberries, drawing seasonal workers from all over Scotland and beyond, as Belle’s song describes. Her husband Alex owned fields himself in the fifties. There was a holiday atmosphere with old friends and ready money, although the work was hard. When mechanical pickers were introduced, the party was over.
Sheila Stewart tells us in Queen Amang The Heather that “The Berryfields of Blair” was written one Hogmanay at the request of Belle’s brother, Donald. After its success in the family, Belle was required to write a new song for every Hogmanay.
It was this song that led to the "discovery" of its writer, Belle Stewart. Hamish Henderson, of the School of Scottish Studies in Edinburgh, had asked Blairgowrie collector Maurice Fleming to look out for this song amongst the travellers picking in the berryfields. Maurice found Belle and the Stewart family, and sent for Hamish, who said that recording amongst the travellers there was “like holding a tin can under Niagra Falls.” (Tocher: tales, songs, traditions No. 43)
Born in a bow tent beside the river Tay near Caputh, Belle experienced all the prejudice from the settled community that travellers were likely to meet at the time, but from her middle age, her recognition as a tradition bearer saw her receive international acclaim, and even a medal (the BEM) from the other Queen.
Belle Stewart was the matriarch of the musical Stewart travelling family in her day and became well-known in the folk music revival of the 60s and 70s as one of Scotland’s finest traditional singers and foremost amongst “the Stewarts o Blair”. Her first solo album was aptly called Queen Amang The Heather, after one of her best-loved songs, as is the biography written by her daughter, Sheila Stewart. (Queen Amang The Heather: the life of Belle Stewart by Sheila Stewart)