Today I attended the funeral of Billy Wolfe.
I only knew him a little; he was a friend of my father-in-law for many years and he attended my wedding and both of my kids’ christenings. He was a lovely, lovely man. When we first started Planet Holyrood a few years ago he tried to get us in to the SNP spring conference. It didn’t happen, ultimately, but he tried, and he didn’t have to, and he did it simply because he could.
I wrote his obit on Caledonian Mercury last week. But an obit never does justice to the person concerned. Today’s funeral ceremony, though, did Billy justice.
It was the closest thing I think there’s ever been – at least in modern memory – to a Scottish state funeral.
There was a simple mass at St Ninian’s in Hamilton, said by his friend Father Bogan (possibly the most entertaining priest I’ve ever encountered – he was quoting TS Elliot ‘off the cuff’); the church bell tolled as Billy’s coffin was brought in, and a standard funeral mass was held.
Among the congregation were notable SNP figures. Fiona Hyslop and Nicola Sturgeon were present as was John Mason, MP for Glasgow East. But the mass, the chapel, was time for family. Billy’s granddaughter bravely completed a reading, and soon Father Bogan was telling tales of Billy’s exploits.
There was little mention of Billy’s political life throughout other than a few jokes about his pride at being at arrested whenever he went on Faslane CND marches. I think he enjoyed that. He used to park his car outside Maryhill police station before heading to Faslane – they always took him to Maryhill, and this way he could get home easily after a time in the cells.
I’m told he was most upset the day they took him to Greenock!
At the Crematorium in Holytown the crowd was five-fold, at least. I have never before been to a ticketed funeral – I likely never will again.
Billy’s coffin, wrapped in the Saltire he loved, was brought in. The SNP’s Mike Russell stood at the podium; on the right of the chapel, in the front row opposite the family, sat the Scottish Government. Well, not all of them, but a fair chunk: Alex Salmond, Nicola Sturgeon, John Swinney, Fiona Hyslop. John Mason, a Westminster MP, was there too.
Once the gathered throngs were seated and settled, the proceedings began.
Mike Russell spoke of Billy first as a friend, and second as a colleague. He spoke of Billy’s familiar New Year cards, “the last piece of Christmas post was always from Billy.” And he spoke of Billy’s last card, with a hand-written note on the back. It read “It’s all so different now, being an SNP member, with an SNP government, to what we did 40 years ago.”
Mike’s reply, one he had delivered before, was “Billy, we would not be an SNP government if not for what you did 40 years ago.”
Billy’s son, Patrick, and his daughter (Eileen or Sheila – I’m afraid I can’t recall which one) spoke at length of their memories of Billy and read some of his poetry. Poetry of which, I am privileged to say, I have been a recipient; he wrote one for Janice and I when we got married.
Following the family, it was the turn of friends. Specifically one friend – Michael Toner. My father-in-law.
Whenever Michael takes the stand you can be guaranteed that somebody will be embarrassed, but everybody will be laughing. He stood there, not 10 feet away from most of the Scottish Cabinet and said, “I’ll keep this brief, as I’m not a public speaker – as you can tell – and I’m not a politician either so you can be pretty sure that what I’m saying is thr truth.”
My mother law was embarassed. Everyone else laughed.
Michael ended his speech by announcing, “Billy died on the 18th, and on the 19th I submitted my application to join the SNP. Billy would have liked that – ‘ane oot, ane in’ ”
But our First Minister is not a man to be outdone. Upon being introduced by Mike Russell he said “I have special dispensation from Michael to tell the truth today. Let me be the third person to welcome him to the SNP, and Billy would indeed have approved of ‘ane oot, ane in’ – fortunately for Michael the SNP has no such tradition of ‘last in, first oot.’
The FM read from Scotland Lives: The Quest for Independence, and recalled his last meeting with Billy. He quoted Father Bogan’s eulogy where he referred to Billy not as a conviction politician, but as a conviction human being. He closed by saying “it was said of John McLean that he could reconcile his actions with his conscience. So let it be said of Billy Wolfe.”
As I said at the beginning. I knew Billy Wolfe only a little, met him only a handful of times; but as I studied him over the last few weeks and heard stories from friends and colleagues, despite not seeing him face-to-face I feel like I’ve known him for many years. He was by all accounts a man of conviction and determination. He loved his Scotland second only to his family and he was quite simply, a good, kind man.
Whether or not you agree with his politics, whether or not you agree with Scottish independence, and all things considered, here was a man whose life’s work changed the face of Scotland and her politics for me, and my children; and that has changed the world we live in. How many of us go to our graves with that epitaph?
Damn few, an’ thir a deid!