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The cry heard ’round the world

Town crier Jim Stewart made the proclamation noting that Queen Elizabeth II has become the longest reigning monarch of England and Canada.
Town crier Jim Stewart made the proclamation noting that Queen Elizabeth II has become the longest reigning monarch of England and Canada. - Carol Dunn

Town crier Jim Stewart is making himself heard

Jim Stewart has been crying for the Town of New Glasgow for 26 years and his cries have been heard across Canada, the United States, Bermuda and the United Kingdom.

On his recent prize-winning trip to competitions in the U.K., Stewart and a fellow town crier from Hamilton, Bermuda, came in for a lot of media attention.

“We had come the furthest to compete so the BBC and the Yorkshire Post were quite interested in where we’d come from and what we could do.”

He was also presented with what he views as the opportunity of a lifetime.

“I had the chance to cry at the British Championships at Windsor Castle which is a dream for any crier. Unfortunately, I didn’t get the offer until I was in England and by then I couldn’t afford to extend my travel. I really hope I get another chance,” he said.

Stewart, 62, has no immediate plans to retire, having just witnessed an 88-year-old competitor at the Armada Cup. But he pointed out it’s time to begin thinking about succession.

“I’d like to know someone is coming along behind me while I can be of some assistance. George Dooley of Westville was my mentor and it was wonderful having him,” he said.

In some parts of England, the position of town crier is a hereditary office.

“I’ve met people whose families have been crying for generations, some as far back as the 15th century. My son has friends who have suggested he might want to take it on but I’m not sure of his interest.”

Before he retires, Stewart would love to see Pictou County host a world event for town criers.

“We could invite the top 20 to 25 criers in the world for a tournament and make it a great cultural event.”

He noted response to previous events held in various Nova Scotia locations has been very good.

“I could see it happening, perhaps in late September, during the shoulder season of tourism. People traditionally bring spouses and come early and stay past the competition dates so there is considerable economic activity generated.”

He suggested Carmichael Park, the garden behind Carmichael Stewart House, Laurie Park or Tartan Field would all be good venues for a criers’ competition.

“I’m confident Pictou County could attract the best criers and provide a great event. We’ve previously hosted a provincial competition,” he said.

Stewart applied for the position of town crier in 1992 when it was announced New Glasgow’s first town crier, Ian Cameron, was giving up the post.

“I was very active in local drama organizations, from Coastline Theatre to Postcard Players to Pictou Rotary and Antigonish Drama Festival so I had some sense of what was required. I was encouraged to apply, and I did.”

He got no response for quite some time.

“Then I got a phone call asking me to appear before a committee in 20 minutes, so I rushed to town hall with no time to prepare. I bellowed away inside, which is not the best place for a crier, and left, hoping to hear back.”

Again, there was no response until three days before Canada Day, when he was asked to open celebrations.

“That’s how I found out I had the job. I had a lot to learn over the next couple of years.”

 At his first competition he quickly learned he needed a much larger bell and his current one weighs in at about five pounds.

“I also learned I had to hydrate myself and to use my diaphragm to push rather than just my throat if I was going to continue. My late wife (singer Emma Stewart) gave me very good advice.”

While Stewart is frequently called upon to read proclamations from municipal and other governments or organizations and to open events, competition is quite different.

“In formal competitions, such as in England recently, a cry must fall between 100 and 125 words, contain three oyezs and proclaim ‘God save the queen’. If you go over, you lose points and if you fall short of the 100 words you also lose points.”

Competitions generally feature a series of cries, including a home town cry in which Stewart delivers greetings from the Town of New Glasgow and urges listeners to come and visit. He opted for a tongue-in-cheek cry at the Magna Carta Cup.

“I pointed out the document was a response to a leader who was deceitful and that history seems to be repeating itself. I ended with ‘God save America’ and ‘God save the Queen’. It was a gamble because you never know how judges will react but it went over very well.”

Some town criers spend thousands on their attire but Stewart is not among them.

“I’ve tried to reflect the period of the founding of New Glasgow, so I wear highland dress from that time. I’ve been wearing much the same thing, with a few tweaks, for 26 years. I have Ian Cameron’s cape which was trimmed in City of Glasgow tartan so that’s what my kilt is, as well.”

Criers are judged on a variety of criteria, including poise, bearing, confidence, volume, clarity and continuity.

“I’ve won competitions where I didn’t think I had a chance and lost at times when I expected to do well but overall it has been very rewarding to be part of a unique international fraternity. I’m probably consistently among the top 20 of 400 criers in the world,” said Stewart.

- Rosalie MacEachern is a Stellarton resident and freelance writer who seeks out people who work behind the scenes on hobbies or jobs that they love the most. If you have someone you think she should profile in an upcoming article, she can be reached at r.maceachern@ns.sympatico.ca

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