A date to remember;Scotland Curriculum

9th July 1999 at 01:00
There was a very special atmosphere at the opening of the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh, writes Victoria Joffe, the 17-year-old schoolgirl who took part in the ceremony.

I walked up the Mound in bright sunlight to the sound of the first battalion of the Black Watch, their kilts swinging and Scottish flags blowing in the wind. I felt the crowd's frenzy, they were like small children waiting to open ... a birthday present. I entered the Assembly Hall at nine o'clock, with my VIP blue pass the means of entrance - no searches. It felt safe, a warm and friendly occasion.

Once inside the hall, I felt the frisson of excitment at the frantic organisation. Anxious bodies scurried from task to task to ensure a swift and efficient ceremony. Speakers rehearsed speeches, and musicians their score. There was a background drone of the humming of scales: "La, la, la, la, la, la, la".

Time shrank. The hour of eleven approached. Celebrities and guests took their seats in the public galleries, grinning and muttering to one another. Performers grew more nervous: a rustle of restlessness flitted through us as the guests flicked through the detailed programme with the readings and songs laid out for them.

Performers and organisers loitered around open doorways: "Big Sean's arrived. Wow! Look at his kit!" Not only was Sean Connery there, but so was Rikki Fulton, looking very "I.M Jolly". Then there was Clarissa Dickson Wright, rector of Aberdeen University, and many, many more.

The fanfare played by the Royal Scottish National Orchestra and specially composed by James MacMillan began reverberating round the hall and through all who were there. It was a sound only those present could have felt. It was blood curdling.

The MSPs arrived silently from different entrances around the circular space, smiling from ear to ear. It was startling. They all looked so joyful and proud.

I did not feel like an intruder, it felt like a family party. Looking relaxed and confident, the First Minister, Donald Dewar, entered, stopping on his way to exchange friendly greetings with his fellow MSPs. As he sat, the vibrant fanfare welcomed the Queen. Sitting in the balcony, I noticed a woman's head peep up next to James MacMillan, the conductor, asking him to stop playing. I watched his confused face as he hushed the orchestra. "The Queen is not ready," she quietly explained. Eyes shifted in bewilderment. Then, on cue, the orchestra restarted and everyone breathed a sigh of relief. The Queen, Duke of Edinburgh and Prince Charles, Duke of Rothesay, were led in by the Duke of Hamilton, proudly carrying the stunning Scottish crown.

The presiding officer, Sir David Steel, began his welcoming speech. The Queen stood - looking much smaller and prettier than I had expected. She had a warm expression which put everyone at ease. A rush of excitement filled me as she officially "opened the new Scottish Parliament".

Then Tom Fleming read the Iain Crichton Smith poem. We had met beforehand and he had been kind and encouraging. His voice, like honey running off a spoon, recited to each and every person there. Although sitting next to him only allowed me to look up admiringly from an angle, I watched him address every eye in the room with emotion.

Sheena Wellington began to sing Robert Burns's "A man's a man for a' that". Because I had just met her and liked her, I felt nervous for her. I needn't have bothered. Her singing touched everyone, and the hall spontaneously joined in for the final verse. Many had tears in their eyes. Sheena seemed thrilled and encouraged them with a lifting of her hands. A glance at the programme allowed the whole hall to sing with glee.

The First Minister, Donald Dewar, stood to make his response to the Queen.

Then it was my turn. I read out "How to Create a Great Country", the skilful, witty poem by 11-year-old Amy Linekar. It was less nerve-wracking than I had imagined. I tried to put across the humour and accent changes, and remember it was a recipe with a list of ingredients.

I tried to look at everybody and was encouraged to see people actually smiling. I wanted to see the Queen's face, but couldn't. I caught Prince Charles's eye, smiling and looking amused. Then I sat down, relieved I had not forgotten anything.

The hymn "All people that on earth do dwell" started. Many knew the words and sang distinctly, heads held high. A few shuffled uncomfortably as they quietly mouthed the wrong words. After the hymn, the Queen was escorted out. The ceremony was over. Everyone stood to leave, many with rumbling stomachs.

The walk to the Signet Library in Parliament Hall, described to me by Tom Fleming as "one of Europe's most beautiful rooms", was hectic. Closed roads and thrilled onlookers made our journey slightly difficult, but a feast of exotic fish, quails' eggs and cr me brulee awaited us.

Being a typical teenager, one of my strongest memories is my meeting with Mr Connery, or "Sean" as I now know him. He approached me and told me I was "a sshtar!" I couldn't help but laugh - he called me a star. He asked if I wanted to be an actress, and congratulated me on saying "No, I'm going to university". I was tempted to ask casually for his autograph, but refrained for fear of acting my age.

I mingled with people, then, feeling too overcome for words, I attempted to leave. I was stopped by David Steel, who said Prince Charles wished to meet me. How could I refuse? We shook hands, and what a firm handshake! I peered at him, almost in disbelief at how human he was, how tanned and cheerful. I was astounded when he asked me "Why have you tied your lovely hair back in that ponytail?" How did he notice? Then I realised he was a person like me. Well, nearly.

Walking out of the Signet Library, I was sad it was all over. When I came out into the square, the police were there and the crowds waiting for Prince Charles. A couple of people took my photograph, recognising my red blazer. I continued down the Mound past the partying crowds, back to the hotel and a sense of anti-climax, as I took my uniform off for the last time.

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