IT WAS a fittingly humble end for a man who is remembered for his humility and strong ties to his roots in a Highlands crofting family.
Yesterday, hundreds of mourners gathered in the shadow of Ben Nevis in the tiny village of Caol to pay tribute to the life of Charles Kennedy, described as a man who would be “universally mourned”.
Politicians Gordon Brown, Nick Clegg, Danny Alexander, John Swinney, Michael Moore, Sir Menzies Campbell and Willie Rennie were among the 500-strong congregation packed into the tiny St John the Evangelist RC Church in the village, just a mile from Fort William, to remember the life of the former Liberal Democrat leader who died aged 55 on 1 June following a long battle with alcoholism.
However, the funeral, led by Father Roddy McAuley, was very much a family occasion, with the front three rows in the church occupied by Kennedy’s closest relatives and friends.
Mr Kennedy’s son, Donald, and former wife Sarah Gurling, whom he married in 2002, were among the mourners. Donald, ten, remained dignified throughout the service, leaning against his mother’s shoulder as he wiped tears from his eyes.
The funeral was also attended by Mr Kennedy’s partner, Carole MacDonald, who found him dead at his nearby croft home after he suffered a massive haemorrhage.
Ms MacDonald is the widow of his close friend Murdo MacDonald, who died from cancer in 2007. She has been close to Mr Kennedy for a number of years, although their relationship only became public following his death.
Many of those who turned out were locals who remembered Mr Kennedy as a small boy, growing up on a croft alongside his brother Ian and sister Isobel, who flew in from Canada for the service. The politician’s father, Ian, died during the general election campaign, while his mother, Mary, passed away less than two years ago.
Pensioner Charlie MacIver has lived in Caol – his neighbours were Mr Kennedy’s parents – for more than 50 years.
“Everyone in the village knows Charles’s family,” he said. “I have always voted for him and I have always found him to be a nice, decent guy. He will be very much missed.”
Retired social worker Andrew Finnimore, from Fort William, said: “He has died far too young and it is such a waste.”
About 70 people listened to the service from outside, some taking shelter from the hot sun under trees in the church garden, where the service was piped through loud speakers. The snow-topped mountains of the Ross, Skye and Lochaber constituency, which Mr Kennedy served as MP for 32 years until his defeat in last month’s election, were visible behind the modest church building.
The service began at noon, with the congregation singing the hymn Christ Be Beside Me. The requiem mass was celebrated by four priests, who allowed congregation members inside and outside to take Communion at the church where Mr Kennedy’s late father and mother had been members.
Friend of 40 years Brian McBride – chairman of online clothes business Asos.com – gave the eulogy at the hour-long service, which also included singers from the local Lochyside Primary School and music from a string ensemble.
Mr McBride, who first met Mr Kennedy when he took part in debating competitions as a teenager, remembered him as an “incredibly bright” mind and with “no ego at all”.
“I doubt I will ever see his like again – one of the few public people who walked this earth and didn’t really have a single enemy,” he said. “The man I knew in private was the same man I saw doing a speech on TV.”
He spoke of Mr Kennedy’s closeness to his mother, with whom he shared a love for music, the cinema and current affairs.
“I think only Winston Churchill and John Smith have been so universally mourned,” he said. “Charles, we will always remember you.”
Spontaneous applause burst out among the congregation at the end of his touching tribute to Mr Kennedy.
Prime Minister David Cameron and his wife Samantha were among those to send a floral tribute to the church.
A note accompanying the wreath said: “The country has lost an extraordinary talent whose character and courage inspired us all. Our thoughts and prayers are with Donald and all Charles’s friends at this sad time.”
Mr Kennedy’s coffin, surrounded by yellow and purple flowers, processed through Caol before an internment service at Clunes, Achnacarry, on the shores of Loch Lochy. A piper played Highland Cathedral as the coffin was carried to the hearse and mourners lined the streets.
Father McAuley remembered Mr Kennedy as a much-loved man with “great humility” and described him as a “back-bencher” at the church due to his reticence to take the lectern, sparking a laugh from the congregation. “Charles Kennedy was a humble man,” he said. “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 back-benchers. He didn’t always sit in the same pew but he always sat at the back of the church.”
He said that the “humility” demonstrated by Mr Kennedy’s parents when they were both awarded the Benemerenti medal for services to the Catholic Church had been passed down to the politician and his siblings.
He told the congregation: “Mary played the organ and Ian the fiddle here in St John’s for over 40 years, and at their son Charles’ funeral today, we are pleased to have a number of musicians who have come together to play, as they did for the funerals of his parents.”
The mourners again enjoyed a moment of light relief when Father McAuley added: “Charles loved music and he famously quoted, ‘I couldn’t imagine a day without music. It relaxes and stimulates me in equal measure and, I hate the sound of silence – the concept I mean, not the track by Simon and Garfunkel’.”
Before the service, principal celebrant Monsignor James MacNeil, administrator of the Diocese of Argyll and the Isles, said the requiem mass would be a “deep moment for the family and for the community in which Charles worshipped – an expression of our faith”.
He said he always remembered his encounters with Mr Kennedy, who regularly attended St John’s, and added that the local community felt a sense of solidarity in grieving over his loss. “He was their brother,” he said.
“I wonder how Charles Kennedy will be remembered. Will he be remembered as the honest politician he was, the man who behaved with integrity? Or, I’m inclined to think, don’t underestimate the authority of the person who suffers – the command he has, the respect and the compassion and the strength he gives to others.
“That’s the way I think I will remember him, as the big human being who trusted God.”
Glasgow University, where Mr Kennedy was a student, union president and later rector, is to hold a memorial service for him next Thursday. Another memorial service will be held in London at a later date.