The Mistress Stewarts on the Isle of Bute

3 older women in rain coatsholding hands
Three sisters on holiday / photo by author (Margie Peterson)

Where you can meet your ancestors on holiday

Meet Mistress Stewart, Stewart, and Stewart

The three sisters were on their seaside holiday in the town of Rothesay, Scotland.

I met the sisters at a seaside hotel when I was 19. It was my very first trip out of America. For me and the two Davids I traveled with, Scotland was a foreign land.

I concluded it was my boyfriend’s composure and red hair. My high-pitched laugh startled people wherever I went, but once they saw it came from me, they’d smile with indulgence. I was young and reacting to something the Davids were doing.

On the way out of the breakfast room one morning, the short sister leaned close to our table and asked, “Are you sure you’re Americans? You’re very polite.” The eldest sister shushed her and off they went for their morning rambles.

Fond Memories. . .

I smile whenever I pull this picture out. I just noticed that they are holding hands. The middle sister keeps them close to her with steady purpose.

Seeing the three so strong together made me wonder about the bond I hoped I would have with my own sisters. Maybe it was because these women were so comfortable together that they could be so accepting of me.

Whenever I met them on the street, they answered every question I asked.

Had they been married? Two had been.

Any children? “Ah, no, but we kept a good home together.”

But you go by your maiden names? “We’re widowed, but we still carry the names we were born with. That hasn’t changed.” And together, they spelled out their last name for me to be clear. S-T-E-W-A-R-T.

Perhaps that’s why they used the word Mistress as it was intended, for a woman of consequence.

Women of consequence have forthright opinions

They didn’t bother asking me why I was traveling with the Davids and sharing the same room with one of them.

I can’t remember if they asked me about my parents. I’m not sure we exchanged first names, but I wouldn’t have used them without their say-so.

They did not approve of my staying with my man unmarried, but not because of sin.

The eldest shook her head.  “He’ll take all of the sweet with none of the cost. Think on it, my dear.”

The middle sister said, “All this playing at love instead of the work it takes.”

They weren’t angry with me. Not really.

The younger one took the sting from her sisters’ words, “Ah, she’s so full of life. He won’t be giving that up.”

“Aye, that’s true,” the middle sister said.

The conversation changed when the youngest shared a key detail.

“She’s with the tall one. Not the other one with the fancy hair and airs.”

“Well then,” they decided, “that’s different.”

There was barely a pause before the eldest sister offered me some wisdom.

“I dinna ken with tasting the fruits before there’s a wedding. You should have more respect for yourself lass.”

I’d never heard the word respect described as something that I had a right to.

That small seaside town was an oasis

The Isle of Bute is a tiny island in the Firth of Clyde slightly west of Glasgow. It’s protected from the gale forces of the North Atlantic Ocean by the Kintyre Peninsula.

It took us 30 minutes by ferry to reach the island. We were used to inland lakes and had never experienced such strong winds before. We were exhilarated.

Palm trees dotted the boulevard courtesy of the jet stream. While on the bluffs, stumpy trees grew away from the ever-present north wind. They reminded me of Wanda Gag’s tree drawings in her book “Millions of Cats.”

We were so young, the inhabitants made allowances for us. In one pub we ate at, I would have been the only woman so the owner let us eat lunch in the small dining room off the back.

She asked me if I wanted anything on tap. The Davids translated for me and I remember saying, “A beer in the daytime?”

Without missing a beat she said, “That would be tea then. And for the gents?”

“Well, of course. Tea.” She gave them a wink and we all ordered fish and chips. She laughed at our order and explained we could get it for half the price at the fish shop around the corner.

We wailed, “We can’t get anything that tastes this good at home.”

I added, “And they don’t have a bathroom.”

“That’s true. They don’t.”

That’s when the Davids discovered what a W.C. really meant. A water closet with pipes dribbling down the ceramic tiles with ice over the drains.

When I braved entering the pub looking for my W.C., all the men in the pub pointed right, as I sputtered all the words I knew for bathroom.

The barman told the group, “Don’t scare her. She’s young yet.”

I dashed down the dark hall and to my relief, it looked like any bathroom I’d find in a small town cafe back home.

I thanked the room on my way back.

“That’s all right, lass. Enjoy your holiday.”

I should have known then I wasn’t cut out for a life on the stage.

The Treasured Photo

I could have stayed in Rothesay for weeks and felt satisfied, but we had reservations elsewhere and it was time to continue our adventures.

I told the sisters we were leaving and I asked if they would mind if I took their picture. They gave it some thought and agreed. The picture was taken outside the front door of the Sunnyside Hotel which is still in business.

“We’ll be one of your holiday memories to take home with you.”

I’m sorry for the light leak near the sisters’ feet. My sister lent me her Beseler Topcon D for the trip and loading with 35mm film can be tricky. The back popped open quite often during the trip. It’s always a good idea to travel with black electrical tape with older cameras.

Are you sure you’re American?

The three of us remained mystified by this question during our travels.

At another Bed & Breakfast, I’d asked a young German hosteler why people were surprised when we said we were American?

“You’re not rude.” He could see my confusion, “Loud — like you are the only ones here,” and he gestured at the room filled with other people eating breakfast.

(originally published on Medium.com)