Old friends gather for the final farewell

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The Independent Online
THE MINISTER called it a pilgrimage, and for those two dozen of John Smith's family and friends who came to bury him on the island of Iona yesterday it was just that.

The funeral service on Friday had been large and public, but there was real intimacy in the final farewell as his coffin was lowered into Reilig Odhrain - the royal burial place a few steps from the abbey where Scottish and Norse kings lie. Alongside his brothers-in-law Jack and Alec, the men who carried his coffin the last few steps from the tiny chapel of St Oran were men who had been with him all his adult life.

Lord Irvine, who would have been Lord Chancellor in a government led by John Smith, Jimmy Gordon, who was best man at his wedding, Donald Dewar MP and Donald McCormick - all friends since student days at Glasgow University.

With them was Lord McCluskey, former solicitor general in Scotland, against whom John Smith waged war on the tennis courts. Two simple prayers, two short readings and a lament on the pipes from Neil McCormick - another university friend - completed the ceremony. The air, A Man's A Man For A' That, fitting for a politician with little time for pomp. Throughout the week that followed his heart attack, friends had gravitated to John Smith's Edinburgh home and in the evenings around his table shared their memories of a full life. It was there that the notion of Iona as his final resting place was broached.

It wasn't just because the family had spent so many holidays there, though that was a big part of it.

The Iona Community, founded by a Govan parish minister to rebuild the abbey and at the same time provide work in the depths of the Depression, encapsulates so much of what John Smith believed Christian socialism should be about.

Normally only those resident on the island where St Columba founded his Christian community have a right to be buried there, but the district council made an exception.

There was a lunch yesterday after the burial, and his friends decided that while they would require no prompting to remember the friend who had enjoyed their love and loyalty, perhaps they should repeat the pilgrimage annually in happier times.

(Photographs and map omitted)