Padrón by Ronald Mackay
“What does a Scotsman wear beneath his kilt?” - the quest of the curious since the first Scot belted himself into his woollen plaid.
In 1959, a bare 20 years after the Spanish Civil War ended, I made the first of my be-kilted forays into Franco’s Spain. At the first sight of me, some primordial urge in the Latin psyche fired the entire population's curiosity and their drive to find out.
Attention had its up-side. The few drivers there were at that time would draw their cars or their lorries to an urgent halt. Sometimes they would go out of their way to take me to my destination. I’ve enjoyed lifts on carts drawn by mules and oxen. Horses and donkeys have borne my rucksack strapped to their backs affording their masters, under the pretext of lightening my burden, closer inspection of a rarity. On the downside, the noisy pursuit of ragged urchins or unashamedly curious adults, could become unbearable.
One night, I arrived at a village the outskirts of Santiago de Compostela, much too late to reach the town itself. The only inn was dark and locked down for the night.
“We’re closed,” came the answer when I rapped on the door. When I beat more urgently, a window flew open and a face appeared but its anger was immediately replaced by consternation.
I took advantage of her wordlessness, “It is late. I am sorry. I need a room. Please!”
Wide-eyed, she observed me a moment longer and then I heard her voice inside. “Girls! Girls! Open the door, we have a guest. A man wearing a skirt!”
The innkeeper – for that’s who the face belonged to -- and her two helpers couldn’t do enough for me. They showed me to a spotless room. When I mentioned that I hadn’t eaten since breakfast, they heated a tureen of soup and refilled my bowl until I’d supped the last drop.
The next morning all three served me breakfast. I did my best to answer their questions. ‘Who was I?’ ‘Where did I come from?’ ‘Did my mother know I was away from home alone?’ ‘Where was I going?’ ‘Did I speak a Christian language?’ All the while their admiring eyes were on my kilt. ‘Was it made of wool?’ ‘Why were the pleats so deep?’ ‘What was the leather purse for?’ Fortunately, they refrained from asking more intimate questions, though by their looks and gestures, these questions were on their mind.
On telling the three that I had no plans for the day, they recommended I take the train to the hamlet of Padrón.
“Today Padrón celebrates its annual fair. The local farmers show their best milk-cows, their finest goats -- and the roosters! You will see none prouder! They will trade horses. And the octopus – it is delicious!”
The hamlet of Padrón was at least two kilometres distant from its railway station.
I left the crowded train with what seemed hundreds of passengers trailing enthusiastically behind me, pointing at and commenting on the rhythmic swing of my kilt.
At a crossroads crowded with vehicles that included those drawn by ox, ass and draught-horse all heading for the fair, two astonished Civil Guards stopped the traffic in all directions to let me and my admirers pass. Just as I was about to cross, a woman raced up and whispered something in the officers’ ears.
"You! Man-in-the-skirt! They cried together, pointing. 'Stop!"
I had learned to obey armed Civil Guards without question. I had no wish to test the marksmanship of the one with the rifle nor of his partner with the machine gun. I stopped, and right there in the middle of the crossroads with impatient traffic waiting, they peppered me with the usual questions.
“Where are you from?” “Does your mother know you are away from home alone?” “Do you speak a Christian language?” “Where are you going?” All the while admiring my kilt. Even the drivers descended from their carts, ancient cars and dilapidated lorries to join the wondering throng.
Suddenly, a brilliant idea seemed to strike the drab Civil Guards. Or perhaps it was quietly suggested to them by the enterprising young woman on whose initiative they had originally accosted me.
“It’s too far for you to walk to the fairgrounds!” Said the first Guard. The young woman nodded her approval.
Were they banning me from the fair? I was already almost there. Scores were heading in the same direction, on foot like me. I could see and hear the flare and blare of the fairground through the trees in the distance.
“Too far? No comprendo!” I was confused and becoming aggrieved. Civil Guard or no Civil Guard, I hadn’t paid for the train ticket to Padrón and walked more than half way from the station just to be peremptorily turned away the very moment before I’d reached my destination.
“Much too far!” Agreed the second Civil Guard. Again the entrepreneurial young woman was nodding emphatically, encouraging what I took to be their pestering of me.
“We’ll find you a lift to the fairground!”
A lift? So, their aim was facilitation not obstruction! I looked at them with fresh eyes.
And a lift I got. Refusal was out of the question. A great, levitating hoist up onto the back of a creaky lorry laden with bales of fragrant hay for the fairground.
Both Civil Guards, the enthusiastic young woman and scores of merry-makers old and young who refused to be left out of the fun and the revealing public display, joyfully upraised me until I sat atop the itchy bales.
That is why, today, of all the folks in any region of Spain, those of Padrón will confidently tell you from knowledge gained first-hand, what a Scotsman wears under his kilt.