Driving toward Salem, we seem to be heading straight into a rain cloud. It looms forbiddingly on the horizon. This Salem, an un-witchy one, is the capital of Oregon, home to a population of 140,000, a stately university campus and dozens of imposing government buildings. It also boasts an impressive tally of no less than five prisons and the psychiatric hospital that was the setting for both the book and the film of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.”
A couple of years ago I walked down Salem’s Liberty Street and was stopped in my tracks by the sight of an entire shop window full of Scottish-themed Christmas ornaments. Who knew so many people peppered their trees with plaid-clad pooches on an annual basis? Glittery Scottie dogs and a troop of tall hat-wearing pipers adorned a tinsel tree in the Kilt and Thistle shop window. In one corner Santa Mac-ed it up in a kilt. In the other he had a Scottish Saltire flag crossed across his protruding paunch. I was simultaneously delighted and horrified to find this kind of evidence of home so very far away from home, in more ways than one.
Yet this is the place I have come back to in order to learn about the secrets of tartan and other such Scottish sartorial statements. My companion this morning, Erin, who spent a couple of years in Salem (outside the prison and mental health systems, I should add), is being very obliging and supporting me in my quest to attain true Scottish status. I think most of the novelty of my being Scottish has worn off at this stage, but obviously not quite, for here she is. If ever she wants me to accompany her to perfect whichever clichéd skills and abilities are expected of those from her part of the world I’ll happily sign up. Although perhaps I should check what is assumed of those from America’s Dairyland, before I make such a declaration. While, not unlike Scotland, stereotypical Wisconsinite activities seem to revolve around the core activities of alcohol guzzling and the consumption of deep fried items, I have a niggling suspicion that there may also be polka-dancing involved. Whatever, I owe her.
Erin and I park and scamper out of the car. We pass a sign outside the International United Methodist Church that begs, “Lord, Give Me the Persistence of a Weed.” I assume they didn’t have enough SnapLok letters to spell out “Lord, Give Me the Persistence of a Telemarketer.”
There is a terrible moment when we realize that the storefront is vacant. Could the search have gone to seed so soon? I display a moment’s distinctly un-weedy lack of persistence and am on the verge of sloping back to the car. However, we prospect a bit further and discover the Kilt and Thistle Shop lurking downstairs at the back of the Reed Opera House shopping arcade, a quirky building from 1870, somewhat perplexingly decorated with 1930s swimwear ads.
I halt at the foot of the stairs, barely able to contain my glee at the sight of so much tartan. A female mannequin models a floor-length kilt, ruffled white blouse and black velvet waistcoat. A suit of armour stands to attention by the shop’s doorway in a rather forbidding manner. But what really stops me in my tracks is the row of sporrans.
I squeal with amazement on spying their display case. Luckily only Erin, the knight and the mannequin can see my cartoon surprised face. I have only ever seen Mark’s faux leather Boy Scout sporran up close, and never paid much attention to the few other kilt-accessorising Scottish man-bags that I’ve seen on show at the weddings and the one Burns Supper I attended back home. These sporrans are furry. These sporrans have faces. These sporrans are made from taxidermied animal heads.
“Do you think they’re real?” I ask with astonishment.
Erin does. I am amazed anew. I continue to stare and get a wee start on seeing the beady eyes of a muskrat staring glassily back at me. A red fox looks snappy. A badger has tassels. I’d never really thought of badgers as the kind of mammal that makes that much of an effort. I’d half expect those vampy foxes to camp it up a bit when going out on the town, but I always picture the badger as more of a leisurewear kind of mammal. Perhaps this will teach me not to make such hasty judgments in the future.