Leading the nation

Walter Smith's funeral

When news of Walter Smith’s death broke, it prompted an outpouring of tributes from across the world of British football. Walter had been manager of Everton and, north of the border, Scottish Premiership stars Rangers and the national Scotland team. It was originally thought that arrangements for his funeral would fall to a large corporate, but instead a familiar face took on the coveted role.

Jim Auld, ex-National President of SAIF, was called upon to lead the proceedings in what would be one of the biggest funeral processions of the year.

“Walter was somebody that I knew to say hello to as he attended many funerals we arranged in Helensburgh,” said Jim the day after the funeral. While Walter was a resident of the Clydeside town and kept his private life under wraps, it soon became clear that a bigger send-off would be best for the fans who wanted to pay their respects – and Rangers’ Ibrox stadium in Glasgow was the natural place for fans to gather.

“Walter’s public persona and his private life were two very different elements. A huge proportion of the people of Scotland felt a great affinity to the man and the family were quite touched by that,” says Jim. “They chose to have their private time with the cremation but thought it may be appropriate to go to Ibrox one last time.”

Fans’ show of support outside Ibrox

Despite the fact that there was the small matter of Glasgow’s COP26 to consider that week too, Jim worked with Police Scotland and the management at Ibrox to make sure the Smith family’s request was carried out.

COP26 also impacted on Jim’s preparation as two days before the funeral, he set out on a dummy run to work out exact timings.

“The Erskine Bridge was closed because the Rainbow Warrior was coming under the bridge as a protest at COP26, but in the end everything went really, really well and was all timed to perfection down to the last minute.”

On the day itself, the procession was accompanied by a police escort from Helensburgh, then another as the cortege approached Ibrox. TV crews from Sky, the BBC, and ITV all filmed the fans’ reaction, with Jim centre stage as scarves, flowers, and flags were thrown onto the hearse.

“That was quite emotional,” he recalls. “I just had to keep my eyes firmly on the road ahead and remain po-faced. I couldn’t engage eye contact with anyone.”

Jim has been involved with many major funerals through the years. “We have a close connection with Faslane naval base so we have conducted a lot of military and Ministry of Defence police funerals, but not on the scale of Walter’s funeral with 10,000 mourners.”

Being in the limelight brought a lot of attention to Jim, who says: “I needed a social media manager – it was crazy in the days following the funeral. I got a lot of colleagues sending lovely messages. Some slightly smaller Independents, funeral directors like myself, sent messages which were actually quite moving.

“One said: ‘We’re so glad a smaller independent funeral director was asked to do such a high-profile funeral’, and one of our local corporates sent a lovely message too. I’ve also had a lot of emails and messages from families that we’ve looked after over the years.”

Jim says it was a great honour to facilitate everything for the family, who texted: “Jim, we just wanted to thank you so much for organising everything yesterday you and your staff went above and beyond to give Walter the best send-off we could have hoped for.”

Jim adds: “But, actually, I didn’t do any more or any less than I would do for any other family.”

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