At the recent Glasgow Film Festival an unlikely hero emerged in the formidable form of Sheila Stewart, the legendary Scottish folk singer. She is the perhaps surprising link between two of the best films of the year; Ronnie Fraser’s moving and joyous Hamish, a biopic of Hamish Henderson, (more of which below) and Where You’re Meant To Be, Aidan Moffat’s travelogue of Scotland and its traditional music. Sheila Stewart appears in both, and taken together you are left in little doubt that this was a woman of substance who, in refusing to compromise her self, her traditions and her music, leaves a powerful impression onscreen and on the memory of any audience. She certainly had a lasting effect on the two men who are ostensibly the focus of these two films.
Aidan Moffat says early on that the simple idea behind Where You’re Meant To Be was to have a giggle, touring the country and performing his adaptations of Scottish traditional songs. Most of these are originally rooted in the country, part of a rural Scotland that Moffat, and much of modern Scotland, doesn’t easily identify with. At one point he asks why folk songs have to be about hills and heather? Why can’t they be about glass and neon? That’s what he tries to install to into these songs in his own style, and there is little doubt his tongue is firmly in his cheek when he does so (his filmed homages to Tom Weir and Robert The Bruce only confirm this). And then he meets Sheila.
Moffat will have been aware that many would immediately take against this undertaking, and you can’t shake the feeling that his love for mischief as well as his love of music is behind his decision to take his versions into the heartland of the originals. However, that’s with regard to mostly unknown crowds who he can confront, confuse and hopefully convert, before moving on.
When he initially gets to spend time with Sheila Stewart, whom he obviously admires (the film is in part a tribute and love letter to her) he tries to convince her of the validity of what he is trying to achieve, but she gives him the shortest of shrift. In her critical response, traditions and worlds collide. Many of Moffat’s songs are set in a world of drink, drugs and dance music. You can argue that so are Sheila’s, just of a different vintage. What also unites them are that their songs are dark, and downbeat – often concerning tales of love gone wrong, inevitably. It takes a while, but there is a growing realisation that these songs and the world they are from are perhaps not so different after all.
The conclusion of the film is a concert at Glasgow’s Barrowland Ballroom, where Moffat performs with his wonderful band, and also invites those singers he has met on the road to share the stage. It’s a celebration of music, the perfect final stop on Aidan Moffat’s travels, and he does seem a different man by the end. The film provides the promised laughs that Moffat was after, but lessons are learned and traditions reassessed.
What stays with you are the more poignant scenes, where the power of music is clear; how it can comfort, heal and help remember, but never forget. As with Moffat’s songs, and helped by his pitch-perfect narration, the film is a mixture of dark humour, loss and reflection. That night at the Barras is a fitting conclusion, yet even here there is emotional drama which builds as Aidan waits for Sheila. Does she arrive? That would be telling.
Hamish Henderson was also a collector of Scottish songs, in a more traditional manner than Aidan Moffat – though he was fond of a giggle too. Henderson was keen to make sure the folk tradition of song, already on the wane in the mid-20th century, was not forgotten and he took it upon himself to make recordings and notate manuscripts to keep record. It was in this endeavour he befriended the Stewart family, and in the film we see a younger Sheila singing with her family. Once you hear her voice there is no mistaking it. Here she is, filmed in 1980, to give you a flavour:
But the Stewart’s story is only a small, if memorable, part of Hamish. I had heard of Hamish Henderson as a poet, but knew little else. I now feel shamed and annoyed about that as this is a hugely important figure in Scottish culture. Everyone should see Robbie Fraser’s film for that reason alone, but the story that unfolds proves once more that real life will trump fiction every time. It is an amazing tale of a life well lived, and lived well. From unsure and confusing beginnings we meet the compassionate soldier, the caring communist, the curious academic, and the musician who was happy to shine the spotlight upon others, and who would do all he could to bring people together. A man of the people – a man of all people – he didn’t care who you were or where you were from, he would treat you as an equal.
What the film makes clear is that he was more interested in others than he was in himself, and that’s a fine thing in anyone. The word that stuck in my head as I watched was ‘love’. It’s made with love, and it seems that the love Hamish Henderson sent out to the world was given back with interest. Everyone who met Hamish loved Hamish, and when you see Hamish you’ll not only understand why, you’ll do so yourself. It’s rare to see a man of such undeniable and inherent decency depicted on-screen – people often appear more interested in flawed characters, or are at least determined to find them in others. But this is no hagiography. Hamish will have had his flaws in some people’s eyes, and the film doesn’t shy away from possibly controversy; although if people view those aspects of his life as flaws, it perhaps says more about them than it does Hamish.
The contributors, friends and family who are interviewed are so obviously moved when talking about him, and are so happy to have known him, that you can’t help but be as well. Would that we all had such a testimony to our lives. But only a few could boast lives that merit it. There is no doubt that Hamish Henderson is more than deserving. if you get the chance to see this film, you simply must. Not only does he deserve it, so do you.
Here’s Lorraine MacIntosh singing one of his finest songs, ‘Freedom Come All Ye’: