Betsy Whyte (1919 – 1988)
Betsy Whyte was born in 1919 in the small Perthshire village of Old Rattray. She was born into a travelling family called Townsley and was named after the midwife who helped to deliver her. Betsy’s travelling life began immediately, joining her mother, father and sisters as they walked through the winding roads of the Perthshire and Angus countryside during the 1920s and 30s in search of work.
The Townsley family didn’t travel in the winter and this meant that Betsy was able to complete her hundred days of schooling every year, as stipulated by the authorities. Although she attended many different village schools she still managed to win a scholarship to Brechin High School, where she was the only traveller child and sometimes subject to bullying.
Betsy and her family were great basket weavers, making baskets from local willows in many different styles and for many different purposes. Other crafts that helped Betsy and her family earn an income were the making of clothes pegs which were made from hazel or willow, and the fixing and making of pots and pans. Betsy also made wooden and paper flowers and these and the other crafts were taught to her by her mother and father.
Field work was a major part of Betsy's life and she did everything from picking strawberries and raspberries in Blairgowrie to the harvesting of potatoes, peas and flax. Betsy's father and uncles would also go pearl fishing.
Please click below to hear Betsy talking of how pearls could change colour. (School of Scottish Studies ref. no. SA1975.094.A7)
Betsy gave up the travelling life when she married Bryce Whyte in 1939 and raised their children in the village of Usan and then in different parts of Montrose. Betsy and Bryce loved Montrose and although it was difficult to live there at first, people became more accepting as Betsy’s fame increased. Betsy was well-known for singing the ballad 'Young Johnstone'. This is one of the 305 types of ballads collected by Francis James Child in the late nineteenth century and published as 'English and Scottish Popular Ballads'. 'Young Johnstone' is known as Child Ballad 88.
Please click below to hear Betsy's rendition of it. (School of Scottish Studies ref. no. SA1975.012)
Betsy's life was filled with captivating stories and encounters with the most interesting people. However a wider audience might not have heard about them if she hadn't come to the attention of the School of Scottish Studies, who had been told about her by the famous Stewart family of Blairgowrie.
Betsy had a great sense of fun and this is evident in the story she tells about an old couple having a domestic dispute. Please click below to hear it. (School of Scottish Studies ref. no. SA1975.012)
With assistance from the School of Scottish Studies, Betsy was able to write two books about her life, 'The Yellow on the Broom' (published in 1979) which is now regarded as a classic and 'Red Rowans and Wild Honey' (published in 1990). Betsy had started work on the third book but died before it could be finished. She passed away while attending the Auchtermuchty Folk Festival and the last song she sang was 'The Yellow on the Broom', which was written for her by Adam McNaughtan.
'The Yellow on the Broom' has been re-printed several times and has also been produced in large print and on cassette. In 1988-89 a dramatised version of the book by Anne Downie toured Scotland. It has also been produced as a play on several occasions, including a Perth Theatre production in 2004 where every show was sold out. The book was also published in serial form in the Dundee Courier in 1992.
The late Betsy Whyte was a strong ballad singer and a powerful and influential storyteller and also a remarkable and gentle lady. Two decades after her death she is still bringing joy, happiness and wonder into people's lives through her books and in the memories of those who met or heard her.
Please click below to hear a fragment of story about a jealous sister and the story behind it. (School of Scottish Studies ref. no. SA1975.094.B7)
This article had been adapted from an article written by David Pullar, Betsy Whyte's great grandson. Many thanks to David for providing the photographs.
Betsy Whyte, Red Rowans and Wild Honey (2000, Birlinn)
James Hunter, Scottish Highlanders: A People and Their Place (1992)
Betsy Whyte, The Yellow on the Broom (2006, Birlinn)
Betsy as a Baby
Betsy with her husband Bryce
Betsy with her son Willie