Anger grows as visitors flock to Smith grave

Iona/cemetery overwhelmed

Sunday 23 October 2011 00:53

ONE year after the former Labour leader John Smith was buried on Iona, the ancient Hebridean resting place of Scottish kings and clan chiefs, emotions over his grave site are running high.

Crofters and fishermen are distressed that Mr Smith's tomb, which was completed last week when a headstone was laid, is attracting thousands of visitors who are "desecrating" the historic cemetery at Iona Abbey. Graves surrounding Mr Smith's have caved in and 13th-Century pathways have been destroyed as tourists flock to pay their respects to the much- loved politician.

For many islanders, who opposed the decision to grant Mr Smith - a mainlander - a plot in a cemetery normally reserved for locals and their descendants, the grave has now become a symbol of upset. The visitors, they say, have damaged the revered site of Scotland's earliest Christian settlement.

The trouble began last month as the first summer tourists walked ashore off the ferry from Mull and made straight for Mr Smith's grave. Locals had hoped that one year after his death the number of political pilgrims would drop sharply. So many arrived last summer that Abbey managers were forced to fence off the grave and the adjoining plots to prevent damage.

But their hopes proved forlorn. Last Monday, with up to 1,000 visitors arriving at the gates of the Reilig Odhrain cemetery each day, the barriers went up again. And this time the damage was even worse. Five graves next to Mr Smith's were collapsing and headstones had been trampled on. Pathways leading to the grave were cracked and bare.

Although Argyll and Bute District Council has raised and returfed the sunken plots and begun to repair the paths, many of Iona's 100-strong community, who grudgingly accepted the council's decision to approve a request from Mr Smith's family for a burial site on the island, are now publicly voicing concern.

Iain Dougall, a fisherman whose parents are buried five feet from John Smith, watches in horror as tourists tramp over their grave. "It is very frustrating and upsetting," he said. "Every day it is the same. They get off their coaches and rush to the cemetery, ask where John Smith is buried and march across all the other graves to get there and take their photographs.

"My parents were buried at the Abbey because they were island folk. But John Smith was an outsider. These visitors are destroying locals' graves as they try to pay their respects to a man who, by rights, should not be here. His grave has changed the atmosphere of this simple cemetery. Now that it has become an unofficial tourist attraction my parents can no longer rest in peace, and I and other relatives are suffering."

Mary Hay, whose mother also lies alongside Mr Smith, said: "Most people on the island were against the burial plan at first but when it was approved they bit their tongues and accepted it. Now, with all the damage, they are asking: 'Why John Smith? Why should he be granted such an honour?' There are plenty of other people who have done more for Iona and come here more often but they have no chance of being buried here."

Managers at the Abbey concede the large number of visitors poses a serious problem. Crichton Lang, who runs the site for the Iona Abbey Trustees, said: "A lot of people who come are not interested in where Macbeth is buried, they only want to see John Smith. Visitors have been behaving quite appallingly - clambering all over the graveyard and standing on the headstones to get a better view. The damage is severe."

Faced with ever-rising visitor numbers - more than 100,000 tourists travelled to Iona last year and there is no sign of a reduction - the trustees and Argyll and Bute councillors are considering plans to build paved pathways and permanent barriers around Mr Smith's grave and the adjoining plots, closing part of the ancient burial ground for the first time.

Tom McKay, the council's director of environmental services, said: "Mr Smith would have hated to see the damage at an abbey he loved."

But Evelyn MacPhail, 71,chairwoman of Iona Community Council, says that fences, paths and signs will further desecrate the graveyard, which is a protected national monument. "Islanders don't want any sort of barriers here," she said.

However, Mrs MacPhail cannot see an alternative. "With hindsight the decision to approve the burial was very unwise, a bad mistake. Now, it appears, we have to live with these awful consequences."

John Smith's widow, Elizabeth, acknowledged islanders' concerns. Baroness Smith said: "I know people are upset and I am sorry about that. It was a wonderful thing when John was given the right to be buried on Iona. At that time no one could have foreseen the number of people who would visit. The damage to graves is a very sensitive subject, and I would urge all tourists to treat this sacred place with more respect."

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