In the shadow of the majestic peaks of Ben Nevis deep in his beloved Highlands, family, friends, local constituents and national dignitaries from across the political spectrum gathered to say their final goodbyes to Charles Kennedy.
Mourners met at noon on Friday at the Roman Catholic church of St John the Evangelist in the village of Caol, near Fort William, where the former Liberal Democrat leader’s parents had been longstanding parishioners, and his mother had played the organ and his father the fiddle.
Kennedy died at this home in Fort William last week at the age of 55, after suffering a major haemorrhage caused by alcoholism.
Some 500 mourners joined Kennedy’s 10-year-old son, Donald, his former wife, Sarah Gurling, his brother, Ian, who lived next door on the family croft, and his sister, Isobel. It was a gathering dominated by his local connections and evidence of the esteem in which he was held throughout the Highland constituency that he had represented for 32 years.
Schoolchildren from his former primary school, St Columba’s, sang a psalm, and when his old friend, the businessman Brian McBride, concluded his eulogy by saying: “That’s what you were Charles, one of us,” the 500-strong congregation broke into affectionate applause. Around 100 more mourners who could not fit inside the church sat on wooden chairs in the grassy grounds, listening to the service as it was relayed on loudspeakers.
But Kennedy’s sudden death, three weeks after he lost his parliamentary seat of Ross, Skye and Lochaber, also shocked the political establishment in Holyrood and Westminster. Nick Clegg, who followed him as party leader, walked into the church accompanied by the former treasury minister, Danny Alexander. The former Labour prime minister, Gordon Brown, departing Scottish Labour leader Jim Murphy and SNP deputy leader John Swinney also attended, sitting far back in the church to allow space for family and close friends in pews closer to the altar.
Kennedy’s body was discovered by his partner, Carole MacDonald, the widow of one of his oldest and closest friends, Murdo MacDonald, late on the evening of 1 June. McBride described them as “a great team, and a constant source of love and respect for each other”.
The parish priest, Fr Roddy McAuley, who preached the homily, spoke of Kennedy’s humility, which, the priest said, he had inherited from his parents.
He told the congregation, to ripples of laughter: “Charles Kennedy was a humble man. When Charles’s parents died and Charles said a few words in the church, he wouldn’t come up here to the lectern but insisted on speaking outside the sanctuary, from the floor. In this church, Charles was one of the ‘backbenchers’. He didn’t always sit in the same pew but he always sat at the back of the church.”
Brian McBride, chairman of the online retailer Asos, also touched on his friend’s battle with alcoholism, which ultimately killed him. Kennedy admitted publicly that he had been receiving treatment for alcoholism just months after leading the Liberal Democrats to their greatest success in the 2005 general election, when he was forced to stand down in the face of the threat of resignations by senior colleagues.
Celia Munro, the veteran Liberal Democrat activist, who helped select Kennedy on the first occasion he stood for parliament at the age of just 23, attended with her daughter, who worked in Kennedy’s constituency office for 25 years.
Munro revealed last week that she had a series of painful conversations with the late MP about the consequences of his drinking. She told the Guardian how she tried to assist him with the help of her late husband, John Farquhar Munro, a former Lib Dem MSP and a member of Alcoholics Anonymous.
Munro said: “We’re just heartbroken. Ther’s nothing more to say. He was held in such huge esteem.”
Candy Piercy, a close friend and adviser who worked with Kennedy on his final election campaign, said the congregation was predominantly made up of local people who cared for and respected the family: “That’s the Highland way.”
“He was so widely loved,” said Piercy. “I think that people came who wanted to say that, even though they didn’t vote for him this time, they still loved him. He had helped so many people over so many years.”
79-year-old Margaret McKeown, from Cambuslang near Glasgow, had come to pay her respects despite voting for the SNP in the general election. “This goes beyond party politics,” she said. “I respect him so much. He was so honest about everything.”
Another former Liberal Democrat leader present at the funeral, Menzies Campbell, who entered parliament in the same year as Kennedy, said: “The respect and affection in which Charles Kennedy was held by his family, his friends and those whom he represented in parliament for 32 years is amply demonstrated today.
“It is inevitably a sad occasion but those who knew him well will recall his ability to provide wit and insight whatever the occasion. It’s often said of public figures when they die that they would have loved to have been at the service and the wake afterwards. I’m in no doubt that Charles Kennedy would have fallen in that category.”
Following the service, mourners spilled out into the warm sunshine, and applauded the hearse as it began its slow progress through the village and up to the Kennedy family plot in the hillside cemetery at Clunes, on the shores of Loch Lochy.
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