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Calmly, the sea closes over the future

Iona will never be the same after last week's drowning tragedy, writes Andrew Buncombe
LITTLE MORE than a mile of dark water separates Iona from the clean white sands of neighbouring Mull. It is a few hundred yards of often choppy, churning sea known as the Sound of Iona. The four islanders who drowned there last week had crossed it hundreds of times.

For Robert Hay, Logie MacFadyen, Alisdair Dougal, David Kirkpatrick and survivor Gordon Grant, pushing off from the beach in their 14ft wooden dinghy was like hopping on a bus or boarding a train.

At least for Mr Hay, 23, whose body was washed up soon after the accident at the small bay known in Gaelic as Laalt Mor, there will be one final journey across the Sound. On Tuesday a large, steel-hulled Caledonian- MacBrayne ferry will take his coffin over to Iona, and from the tiny jetty a hearse will travel the few hundred yards to the island's cemetery at St Columba's Abbey.

There, in the small graveyard surrounded by a stone wall, he will be buried alongside merchant sailors from both World Wars, Macbeth and the Labour leader John Smith, whose large slab inscribed "An honest man's the noblest work of God" is the only one facing east rather than west. Most importantly Robert Hay - and his three friends, should their bodies be found - will be buried next to generations of islanders. Lying side by side, they will represent the entirety of the island's male workforce aged between 18 and 28.

Mr Hay's family had wished to delay the funeral to wait for the other bodies to surface, but yesterday decided to go ahead. There is no doubt where the "boys" will be buried when they are found. Custom and tradition would not have it any other way. Custom and tradition count for a lot on Iona, a small speck of granite, broken off from Mull as though by afterthought. Perhaps, ironically, given Iona's role in the history of Christianity in Britain, the islanders are not particularly religious. But their lives are still governed by rules and habits laid down as firmly as any scriptures. Iona is a world where the tides, the weather, the size of the catch of velvet crab and lobster and the available hours of daylight are factors which are vitally important.

The Rev David Taylor, the local Church of Scotland minister who spent last week visiting the families of the victims, said: "The island can become very isolated in the winter. There are only two ferries to the mainland [Mull] and these can be stopped. It is a very treacherous piece of water.

"It certainly makes the people strong; they have to be dependent upon themselves. It means the community has to live by its own resources."

But like many communities in Scotland's Highlands and Islands, the isolation that makes its people so strong is also its weakness. For younger people there are few opportunities. The island's stone-built primary school is to close next year, when its four pupils reach leaving age. There is little well-paid work, meaning people have to take on two, three or more jobs to survive.

And in a world where the alternatives are so readily advertised on television, the allure of a life on the mainland is strong. A sad irony of last week's accident is that these four men were the only ones of their generation who had opted to stay for a life on Iona.

"There is not a person here who is not affected by what has happened," said one of the few islanders who agreed to speak about the deaths. "The whole island is devastated." Another, again declining to be named, said: "Everyone feels the loss." The Rev Taylor added: "This is a fishing community. People here accept that if you go to sea in small boats accidents can happen."

But last week's accident hit the islanders hard. Not only did they lose four men, not only were they horrified to be besieged by the media they had had few dealings with before, but as the days passed and the sea refused to give up the bodies, so more details about the disaster came out.

Mr Grant, who took 45 minutes to swim ashore, told how Mr Hay clutched a petrol can and Mr Dougal grabbed a float, while Mr Kirkpatrick and Mr MacFadyen held on to the hull of the upturned dinghy as the waves pounded them. He said they had all been calm and trying to support each other before they were eventually swept away by the currents.

This has had a terrible effect on the islanders. Apart from dealing with an obvious sense of helplessness, there has also been guilt. Mr Grant's father, also called Gordon, said of his son: "He has to cope with saving his own life, the euphoria he felt when he managed to get help and then the feeling that it was all for nothing."

Iona will survive. Unlike many other islands, its economy - boosted by the 250,000 tourists who visit each year - is relatively healthy.

But after what some islanders feel is their worst tragedy in living memory, the island will be scarred forever.