In the morning, John had been netting moths in the garden. The day was warm enough to have lunch outside, but at the start of the meal he interrupted Margaret to point out a butterfly. As he did so he slumped to the table, dying instantly from a heart attack. He was five months short of his ninetieth birthday.
That was 15 years ago today, on the 25th April 1996. Recovering from a Hebridean winter in the warmth of an Italian spring, John could not have designed a better last day even if he had been given the choice.
As usual John and Margaret had come to Fiesole to stay in Villa San Giralomo. It had become their annual habit, a chance to recover from the Canna winter and refresh themselves in readiness for summer visitors.
Several of the Blue Nuns, who ran the 50-room guesthouse, had become personal friends and John, recovered from his winter illnesses, relished the chance to speak Irish Gaelic with them. The villa’s terrace gave an incomparable view across gardens, orchards and private villas to the roofs of Florence, dominated by the distinctive terracotta dome of Brunelleschi’s cathedral. In the distance beyond was the Arno valley and its surrounding mountains.
John’s death brought to an end a remarkable 60-year marriage, a partnership of two independent and equal individuals. It was also a long love story, against the most romantic of backgrounds – islands and boats, a life suffused with humour, music, poetry, a language and a culture which, although foreign to both of them, became their shared passion.
He had asked to be ‘buried where he fell’ and so he was interred in Fiesole. Margaret returned home to Canna, alone without John for the first time since 1935.
Margaret was to live another full and active eight years, celebrating her 100th birthday with her friends from South Uist the year before her death in December 2004. She was buried in the Hallan cemetery, South Uist, alongside her friends Peigi and Mairi MacRae. If that seems strange to people who did not know her, it was only logical to Margaret to return to the place where she had first learned to love the Hebrides.
In June 2006 John’s remains were exhumed from the grave in Fiesole and returned to Canna on a stormy midsummer day sharing the ferry journey with a wedding party. But that is a story for another day
*The time or place of our death doesn’t matter, Since happiness doesn’t need a funeral. From Ba` rdachd Mhgr. Ailein. The Gaelic Poems of Fr Allan MacDonald. Transcribed, translated and published by John Lorne Campbell, 1965.