Saturday, 18 September 2010

Costume drama warning: Thou shalt not covert thy neighbour's hat

It was not just the Pope who claimed the streets of Edinburgh yesterday. Ninian, a fourth century Scottish bishop, ran him a close second. On T-shirts, placards and balloons, the name was everywhere, as the grand parade in the saint’s honour formed up, in the shadow of Calton Hill.

At nine o’clock, lines of obedient schoolchildren were first to arrive at the head of the march, ready to squeak their excitement. Orderly adults followed on, dignified bandsmen who joined the 1,000 pipers who made up the procession, and bashful blokes in fancy dress, kitted out as St Andrew, Robert Burns and Ninian himself.

Next up were the Knights of Malta, the oldest Christian charity in the world, all grand in their ceremonial robes and carrying flags. “It is a big day out,” said Nick Crean, the Chancellor of the Knights. “This parade demonstrates that the Catholic Church is a force for good. This parade is a tremendous symbol of its worth.”

This being secular, 21st century Scotland, not everyone agreed. In 1982, when John Paul II came to Edinburgh, the streets were jammed. This time, even the Catholic Church had to admit that only 60,000 turned out to form a thin line of well-wishers along the mile-long route down Princes Street.

Much has changed in three decades. Now there is a parliament building in the city, Scottish football is even worse, church attendances are down in the depths — but the Rev Ian Paisley, now Lord Bannside, remains immovable. For his last fixture with the Vatican on Scottish soil, Lord Bannside trekked from Co Antrim to the Mass given by John Paul II in Glasgow, where he hurled sectarian abuse at the prelate known in Paisleyite circles as “the Antichrist”.

This time out, his protest was hidden away deep in the bowels of Edinburgh’s Old Town, and, mercifully, far quieter. Indeed for an hour or more, it was entirely private, while Lord Bannside communed with 50 grim-faced clergy from the Free Presbyterian Church of Ulster inside the tiny Magdalen Chapel.

The setting was suitably historic. The chapel was built by Catholics in 1541, but occupied by John Knox for the first General Assembly of the Church of Scotland. As the clock ticked on, the question arose, what on Earth was Lord Bannside doing in there? Knocking out the stained glass windows, manufactured by papist craftsmen?

He probably was, because when he finally emerged he was in high spirits. Sporting a nifty black fedora and a broad smile he stepped into the sun. Would he answer a flippant question — where did he get that great big beautiful hat? “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s hat!” boomed the voice that rattled a thousand pews. And could Lord Bannside spare a message for the Pope? “Go. Back. Home.”

That was more or less that. A quick chorus of The Lord’s My Shepherd at the nearby Covenanters’ monument, and Lord Bannside was off.

The Pope, by now ensconced in his Popemobile, and trundling through the nearby city-centre streets, was not free of his tormenters yet. By the Usher Hall, the staunch gentlemen of the Orange Order had gathered to register their silent protest at the papal visit. Across the street, a noisier faction of sceptics, humanists, gay and women’s rights campaigners had assembled to shout out their individual grievances.

For once, as the demonstrators surged, the crowd along the route swelled to four or five deep. But then, just as a frisson of opposition could be felt, the moment was gone and the Popemobile drove back into the real, and sometimes raucous, Edinburgh.

Now the crowds were different. Sikh waiters in turbans throwing curious looks from a restaurant doorway; office workers, leaning against the barrier to stare at the man in white and his tartan scarf. Even the girls at the Ambassador Sauna had time to get to their window, above the Bottoms Up Show Bar, to wave down at the Pope as he trucked past. And he was gone. In the office, the restaurant, the sauna and the show bar, it was back to business as usual — in 21st century, secular Scotland.

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