Louanna noticed that everyone on the ferry was feasting.
We were traveling from Ullapool, a village in the Scottish Highlands, to the Outer Hebrides island of Harris and Lewis.
I was 17, interested mainly in listening to Lonely Is an Eyesore on my Walkman, so I hadn’t been paying much attention to the people on the ferry.
But now that Louanna (my mom, who called her parents Jan and O, so I called her Louanna) pointed it out, this feasting was strange indeed.
I pulled my headphones down and looked up from Dracula.
“I wonder why these people are eating like it’s their last meal,” Louanna whispered.
Ferry food in those days (this might have changed) was limited to factory-made soggy sandwiches that had been slopped together weeks before inhabiting the snack counter. They were made of Spammy meats and blackened lettuce. You could also get packets of crisps and Cadbury chocolate. And weak tea served somewhat warm in small plastic disposable mugs that were oddly equipped with paper handles.
What heat the tea may have carried from the carafe was conducted to the action of melting the cup, which quickly crumpled on the bottom. These cups could therefore never stand up straight, and you could often find them hunkered in the blue corners of the ships, swept in one direction by the occasional wave that knocked them off the tables.
The fare on ferries was far from fair, so we couldn’t figure out why anyone wouldn’t wait to feast once we landed.
Certainly sometimes you’re hungry, and you’ll scarf anything. You might have a snack to tide you over. But these five people were storing up as if for a winter of want. We heard comments like “I’d much rather wait to eat a full meal rather than 50 of these little snacks,” but clearly, for some reason, they had to seize the moment.
And they were Scottish, by the way. They had some kind of insider knowledge that drove this strange action.
Each person had several packets of everything, and they ate together at two tables, not casually or individually like they were munching quickly along the way, but formally and unitedly like they were reaping a short-lived harvest.
They feasted like they knew they wouldn’t sup again for weeks.
And they stocked their bags up with extra packets of crisps.
I’m surprised Louanna didn’t ask them why they were dining on slim pickins with such zest. She loved talking to people. She loved learning about their likes and their lives and their ways and their whys. But she probably didn’t see a polite way into the convo, so she left the question in the air.
“What do they know that we don’t?”
We got our answer when we disembarked.
We’d had no idea that the Isle of Harris would be composed of black granite boulders and not a scrap of anything else.
There was nothing on Harris, which caused us no end of laughter (and hunger). This was the island of our people, and there was nothing on it. We’d never heard of the Isle of Harris before, but when, on our travels through Scotland, we saw it on the map, we knew we had to make this pilgrimage.
And there was nothing as far as the eye could see.
Except for black stones and a little B&B.
There were no restaurants. There were no pubs. There were no grocery stores. There was probably a little market somewhere, but wherever it was, it was definitely closed.
There was fog, and there was descending darkness, and there was mist.
The mist turned to steady, cold, COLD rain, and it was all pretty Dracula, so we stayed in our room and read our books. I had three crisps in my possession, so we each ate one and split the other.
I know we ended up laughing about something, because I remember that the owner of the B&B yelled for us to be quiet. We were her only guests, and this area was so remote that we were probably her first and last guests for a long time.
I’ve been a night owl since I was born, so I’m sure I was up extremely late reading and writing.
In the morning, I could not get up. I was exhausted and for the life of me I couldn’t pull myself out from my slumber of the dead. And I didn’t even want to, because I was warm and sleep was savory.
Louanna went to the kitchen for breakfast, and came back talking about oatcakes. Through my dreams I heard something about sawdust and how “those stony little fuckers could break teeth.”
Apparently not a drop of sugar, not a pinch of salt, not a splash of milk or a dash of cinnamon flavored the homemade hockey pucks.
We felt terrible that the owner of the B&B, a solitary woman in her 60s, had worked so hard and so thoughtfully to make us her special oatcakes — and not only had Louanna barely been able to choke a bite down, I hadn’t even made an appearance.
So I dragged myself up.
And then the owner started banging on the door.
“Checkout time!” she yelled.
I flew into the bathroom to brush my teeth.
“OK!” Louanna called as she went to open the door. “Sorry — we’re running a little behind. Can you give us 10 minutes?”
“Now it’s past checkout time!” the lady yelled.
She was tiny and feisty and steaming.
“It’s past checkout time!”
In the bitty bathroom I tore off my pajamas and threw on some clothes, and then we chucked our stuff in our bags, which were oversized duffel bags.
No wheels. No backpack straps. Just short handles for carrying each monstrously heavy bag in your hands. Those bags were cumbersome as fuck, and it was no easy task dragging them around.
“It’s past checkout time!” The lady was yelling. “Now it’s five past 10!”
We hauled our bags out of our room….
“It’s past checkout time!”
Down the hall…
“It’s past checkout time!”
Out the door…
“IT’S PAST CHECKOUT TIME!!!!!!!”
And to the gate…
Where the irate woman shook her fist in the air and screamed:
“AND NEVER COME BACK!!!!!!!!!!!!!!”
We were banished from our namesake homeland by a very angry distant relative.
We felt like jerks.
But really, we were not horrific assholes.
Sometimes people laugh at 8:30 at night. Sometimes teenagers sleep through breakfast. Sometimes people run late at checkout.
Sometimes angry people overreact.
In a state of laughing shock and guilty astonishment, we popped over to Lewis.
We caught a bus down the road from the B&B. It barreled us away from black granite desolation and dropped us on the other side of the island.
Lewis was verdant. It was an oasis. It had food, and nice people, and buildings, and shops, and we visited the awe-striking standing stones of Callanish.
When we saw the following photo for the first time, we nearly died.
We must have laughed for twenty minutes, howling, guffawing, falling on the floor in hysteria.
This was no representation of my beautiful mother. Rather, it comically captured how disarrayed we felt that day, rushed to check out, teeth barely brushed, hair wild in the damp wind, banished by an estranged relation, sporting bagged-out clothes the way you do when you haven’t seen a dryer in weeks.
Even in the hard times years later, we still referred back to this shot for laughs.
The other day I was cleaning out my sock drawer and decided to finally get rid of some socks I’ve been dragging around for over 20 years. I’d kept them because I bought them on Harris, along with my Harris tweed hat (which has long since been lost to time).
The socks are thick wool forest-green knee-high socks, which served me well during those damp, chilly weeks up in the remote Highlands.
Before I tossed the socks in the donation box, I thought I’d try ’em on.
They’re in perfect condition, and they are the softest, coziest, most wonderful socks for cold January days like these.
My mom’s last 20 years didn’t turn out the way we expected them to. She lived far from Costa Rica, where she had wanted to retire. We didn’t visit the pyramids in Egypt or go to Bali together as we’d planned.
But we had memories of our travels to lots of cool places.
We had that funny picture.
And I’ve been wearing my socks for two days.
Top image by velmc.
Duck feast pic by RitaE.
B&W image by Nathalie Capitan.
Other photos by the banished Harrises.
I exaggerated about the landscape of Harris. The Harris side is bleaker than Lewis, but the entire island is stunning, as you can see in all these flickr pics. The actual population of the island is shockingly about 21,000. Our stay was a million years ago, and now there are loads of gorgeous Airbnbs.
In fact, Airbnb is now sending me emails that say “Hi Erin, if you’ve been eyeing Isle of Harris, look no further.”
This is very helpful. Cuz my heart’s in the Highlands.