James Stewart is one of the most recognizable faces of Nova Scotia. As the official town crier of New Glasgow, he is part presenter, part historian, and part global ambassador. He’s also the man that delivers Boston’s Christmas tree most years. In this interview, we talk with James about what it’s like to be one of only 400 town criers in the world.
The hand bell explodes with the deafening vigor of a fire truck siren at 2am. It’s piercing ring fills the ear, shakes the head, and shatters the silence of the small municipal room in the town hall of New Glasgow, Nova Scotia. We are seated in a semi-circle like school children during show and tell.
“Oyez!,” bellows a man in a tricorne hat; It comes out elongated, “Ohhhhhhhhhhhhhhh yaaaaaAAAYYYY!” The bell clangs four more times (I count), followed by another, “Oyez!”
The producer of boisterous noises is garbed in 19th century Glasgow Tartan regalia, and the glint in his eye indicates that he enjoys the ruse. He unrolls a scroll and begins bellowing his Cry: “My lords and ladies, boys and girls, I welcome you to the township of New Glasgow.” His voice carries depth and reverberation. We settle in for the show.
James Stewart is one of the most recognizable faces of Nova Scotia. As the official town crier of New Glasgow he is part presenter, part historian, and part global ambassador. He’s won numerous awards in world town crier competitions. Aged 64 years old, he’s a burly man with a ruddy face that accentuates his snow white beard. He has been the crier for 27 years, and one wonders if he is only getting better with age.
Stewart accompanies Boston’s Christmas tree most years, the big one you see in The Common, which comes compliments of our neighbors up north.
Why is that? On Dec. 6, 1917, catastrophe struck Halifax and Boston helped in the aftermath.
Here’s what happened: The French ship, the SS Mont-Blanc, was preparing to exit the harbor to carry high explosives needed for the war overseas. But it didn’t make it very far. The cargo ship collided with the Norwegian vessel, the SS Imo, precipitating the largest man-made explosion at the time.
Approximately 2,000 people were killed by the blast, fires or collapsed buildings, and an estimated 9,000 others were injured. One of the main culprits of injury was high-velocity glass shards ripping through the air leading to eye trauma. Roughly 5,900 eye injuries were reported. (The Canadian National Institute for the Blind would go on to become internationally recognized as an important center for eye-injury research and rehabilitation.)
Halifax, scrambling in the aftermath, sent out frantic telegraphs for help. Boston took up the charge and organized a relief train filled with supplies, doctors, and other volunteers. The train, delayed by a blizzard, arrived two days later.
Nowadays, Halifax, and Nova Scotia as a whole, sends Boston a locally grown spruce as a way to commemorate the support and to spread good tiding from the annals of history.
Each year, around this time, a ceremony on the Boston Common welcomes the delivery. Alongside the commanding tree, chaperoning Dave, the truck driver, is, you’ve guessed it, James Stewart, town crier of New Glasgow.
If you’ve attended the event before, you may have noticed James as the man wearing a kilt and Inverness cape in winter. He’s the one who opens the spectacle. This year, he will be delivering the tree on Tuesday, Nov. 19, and you can be certain he’ll be presenting it with a loud crash and a Cry.
(Editor’s note: You can follow the tree’s journey online.)
I chatted with James to find out, well, why he’s a town crier, and like the hokey-pokey, what it’s all about.
Aaron: Let’s start with the basics: What is a town crier?
James: Traditionally, criers were one of the few people who could read, which allowed them to translate cables, announcements, etc. and share it with the public.
They were like the earliest form of public broadcasting.
How did you first find out about town criers?
I’m the second town crier in New Glasgow. The first was Ian Cameron. I wear his cape, the same tricorne hat.
He was the crier from 1988-1992, then he decided he would retire. There was an article in the local paper stating the town was looking for a new crier. My wife read it.
At that time we were doing a lot of community theater, dinner theater, drama festivals. Very busy in the theatrical community.
She came to me and says, “Oh New Glasgow is looking for a town crier. You should do it, you’d be good at it. If you don’t, I’ll kick your butt.”
So I drafted a letter (because that’s what we did in those days), then a month later I got a call. They asked if I could do a cry in front of a committee. “When?,” I asked. “How about in 20 minutes?,” they said. I had to throw together a costume, a cry and present in 20 minutes. This was in 1992.
How did you prepare for the role?
Every time I do a proclamation it is like theater. But, I was a crier for four or five years before I started to learn how to do it properly.
[In the beginning I was] very much like a singer that sings from their throat. A trained singer sings from their diaphragm. It took me going to competitions and watching other town criers, and seeing what they did, learning by watching, and experimenting [to get the hang of it].
What opened my eyes was a competition in Pennsylvania, outside Pittsburgh. It was the North American Town Crier Championship, and it was MC’d by Robin Leach, from Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.
It warranted being written up in one of the airline mags. Delta, maybe. I saw it on the plane on the way there.
That was when I saw Francis Taylor Slate, from Alexandria, VA, 80 years old, still crying. At that time I was in my 30s. I thought to myself, “Is this something you just do for the rest of your life?”
This was the first introduction to criers who were really, really good at what they did. I didn’t place anywhere near the top. I don’t even know where I finished (they only told you who the top 10 were).
Next year, at an event held in Hamilton, Ontario. I came in 5th. Then at the the World Championship in Sidney, BC, with 100 town criers from around the world, I came in 15th.
Every time I go to a competition I observe and learn. I’m still learning.
What is it like to be part of the town crier “fraternity” (using this term loosely)?
It’s a very social thing. There are only about 400 town criers in the world.
Odds are pretty good if I’m in another city, and someone says, “Oh, we have a town crier in our town,” about 50% of the time I know them or know of them.
When I gave my first proclamation, which was on June 30th, 1992, there were two other town criers in area, from Trenton and Westville [Nova Scotia]. Still are. They were welcoming of me to the fold.
What are competitions like? What are the events?
Generally, they give you a list of topics for a 3-day competition. One day is your town cry (I’ve been doing this [same] one for years), and there are other topics, usually related to the area.
In Bermuda, for example, they might choose a bird, or something native to the island:
When the island was first founded, one of the first ships had pigs or hogs, as they were called then. They went forth and multiplied. Or a bird that is native, called the cahow. It has a weird cry that almost sounds like someone screaming. Bermuda was called “the island of devils” because of the sound the birds would make. [These are things I might incorporate into my cry.]
For grading, you are judged on clarity, volume, content, poise, etc. Your voice needs inflection, to be “listenable.”
How do you research your proclamations for competition?
It depends on the topic.
In respect to the tree for Boston, there’s so much documented history. But, sometimes you just can’t find information.
Last year, at the Nova Scotia Championship, it was held at a seaside community and we had to write a cry about “women in the age of sail.” I ended up writing about how frustrated I was trying to write this. But I had absolutely nothing about the topic itself [just how hard it was to find information].
Here’s a story: The Founder of Bermuda, when he died, they put him in a rum barrel and pickled him. That’s how they sent him back to England. I used that for a cry.
…I’m a trivia buff. I enjoy telling stories.
How did you form your costume?
Some of the stuff I have was from a short-lived project, the Historic Costume Co-op. I don’t always wear a kilt, I do have britches. But I probably only wear those 2-3 times per year. The kilt is so comfortable, and it matches my cape.
(Editor’s note: Perhaps James meant The Costume Society of Nova Scotia (CSNS). I couldn’t find the Historic Costume Co-op online.)
The kilt was made locally by MacIsaac Kiltmakers. My other cape was made by the Historic Costume Co-op.
When they made the original cape, the design was called an Inverness Cape, or a coachman’s cape, from the 1780s. That’s basically the period when New Glasgow was first founded.
The joke I made in England [during a recent competition]—over the two days they gave out awards for best dressed, I won both of them—“I’ve been trying to get a new uniform for years, and this won’t help at all!”
My cape is 31 years old, same as the hat.
Have you made any additions to the kit?
When I got the original uniform [with britches], it was all velvet. Rarely wore them because they didn’t have any pockets. I went right to the kilt off the bat because I had one.
I’d love to get a uniform that was similar but a different color. Perhaps in Nova Scotia’s colors.
One guy in Ottawa has 26 uniforms. When you go into competition against that, you go, “There goes the best dressed!” He travels with 2-3 uniforms, and his partner is dressed in a matching set.
What is it like to present the tree to Boston?
It’s special. I think, “How lucky I am to be the person to deliver it to Boston?”
Every time I go down, I hand out hats from the province. Last year, I was staying at the Omni House and shared Nova Scotia touks (Editor’s note: A knitted winter hat popular in Canada) with the staff outside. I usually have a lot of pins from Nova Scotia and New Glasgow and give them out as well.
When I put on my uniform and do a walkabout, to the Common, let’s say, I get approached quite a bit. One time, I went to Macy’s to buy a bottle of perfume. The lady behind the counter goes, “well aren’t you the cutest little Paul Revere-Santa Claus I’ve ever seen in my life!”
Where does the tree come from?
The tree this year is coming from Chance Harbor in Pictou county, outside New Glasgow.
Where I’m sitting right now (Editor’s note: He was calling from his home), is in Chance Harbor, where I grew up. My dad had a place down here. When I was born, I was taken from the hospital and the first place I went was Chance Harbor. The tree, like me, is from here.
I’ve lived in New Glasgow nearly my whole live, but spent the first 25 summers in Chance Harbor. I built a place here in 2013.
I am actually two km from where the tree is. If I were to walk, it would take about 15-20 minutes to get there.
Is history important to you?
When I travel, maybe people know about the Halifax Explosion and maybe they don’t. We take it for granted that it’s something that everybody knows about [here in Nova Scotia].
In England, I toured two museums, the Royal Armouries Museum in Leeds and the Imperial War Museum in Manchester. Didn’t see anything about the Halifax Explosion. I did see a few things about Nova Scotia, but nothing about the explosion. There was a made-for-TV movie about 15 years ago, but never a major motion picture.
It’s a really well known secret. And it’s something I get to help educate people about.
You’ve been doing this for 27 years, do you see yourself doing this much longer?
As long as I can continue to do it well, and not embarrass myself. I’m a firm believer that one should know when it’s time to quit.
Maybe I’ll continue to my 70s or 80s? As long as my voice holds up.
I’ve talked with the town about secession planning.
I see the value in it when I see the look on people’s faces when I interact with them. The majority of time it’s approval and warmth. When I’m dressed the way I am, people feel I’m very approachable.
It’s funny, when I’m in Boston, they think I’m a tour guide. They are always asking me for directions.
You can follow James on Facebook and track the tree delivery at Tree for Boston.
Thank you to Coastal Nova Scotia for having me on the Destination Eastern and Northumberland Shores fam tour. (Which is how I met James. My ears are still ringing.)
Feature photo by Kimberly Dickson, Town of New Glasgow