Joan McAlpine: Pupils have St Ninian's Day to remember

WHAT can you tell me about Pope Benedict XVI? I ask the primary seven pupils of St Ninian's in Gourock. "He's the first Pope to have an iPod!" they cry in unison. "And he plays Mozart and Bach on it."

The kids from my old school have a better grasp of the papal biography than I did back in the day. Eilidh Hudson knows he speaks eight languages and is learning another - Portuguese.

He was forced to join the Hitler Youth at 14. "He never went," says Ryan McGregor, 11. "His cousin with Down's Syndrome was killed by the Nazis."

"They didn't like disabled people," adds Robyn Kelly. I'm impressed and ask where they learned all this: "Wikipedia!"

This is my first encounter with my old primary school in more than three decades. We are gathered in the grounds of the old Royal High School, struggling to chat as the pipe band of George Watson's College warm up for the St Ninian's Day Parade.

Normally the school have Mass in the morning to commemorate the saint's feast, then they get a special visit from the ice cream van in the afternoon.

Today the routine is somewhat different - up at dawn to catch two trains then join the 14 other St Ninian's schools for the pageant that precedes the Pope's procession through Edinburgh.

It features musicians and an array of historical characters telling the story of Christian Scotland from St Ninian's fourth century mission to the present day. The first chap we see among the throng of children waving saltires is dressed as John Knox and the father of the Scottish Reformation has an impressively authentic beard. He is not quite as convincing, however, as the white robed ancient monk who is mistaken for the Pope by one youngster in the crowd.

Compared to Saint Columba, history dealt Ninian of Galloway something of a raw deal.

The Irishman who settled in Iona perhaps owes his celebrity to the efforts of the Gaels - great self-publicists even then.

But the Candida Casa featured on my school badge and the lyrics to the hymn Ninian of Galloway are punched into my DNA.

The St Ninian's Gourock contingent is led by depute head Patrick Connelly, who is marshalling 27 11-year-olds along with a good-natured bunch of teachers and parent helpers. There are only a few hiccups - a bee-sting and a bumped elbow. The boys compete to see who can acquire the most paper Saltires being handed out by stewards.

Eventually the parade gets underway. We march through streets lined with other young people. There are high fives, handshakes and frenetic flag waving to the sound of the pipes and drums. Our kids feel like celebrities.The event will benefit Marie Curie Cancer Care and Mary's Meals, the Scottish charity that provides 400,000 children in developing countries with a school dinner.

Marching past The Balmoral, Mr Connelly chats about the children he has taught, including my own contemporaries, their children and, in some cases, grandchildren. He remembers every class and every school football team since 1974.

The youngsters lining the route carry home-made placards reading "You Rule Pope" and "We come in partnership". One girl in a hijab proudly carries a silk pendant featuring St Joseph, others have papal mitre paper hats with cut outs of the keys of St Peter. I later spot students who have fashioned the same headgear from the Financial Times. Eventually we gather in a spot near the Scott monument to wait for the Pontiff to arrive. There are many false alarms caused by police outriders "It's him! It's him!" And eventually, it is him, travelling a tad faster than expected in the gleaming Popemobile.

There is a surge of excitement, he is feet away, so white, and then gone in a heartbeat, but the kids are not disappointed. They compare the video footage on their phones. The Pope just happened to turn his head towards the opposite pavement as he passed, but nobody seems to mind.

We part at Waverley, and I watch the children disappear down a crowded carriage.

One small boy has accumulated most of the flags. A few of the girls have acquired papal balloons in Vatican gold. New scarves in St Ninian's tartan flutter around their necks, their souvenir of a day that will linger as long in the memory as the words to Ninian of Galloway.

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