Thursday morning, May 12, 1994, and the political was about to become very personal. My husband phoned to tell me John Smith had been taken to hospital. I called his home in Edinburgh, knowing that Elizabeth Smith was in London and the two younger daughters - then just into their twenties - would be on their own. Jane answered. ''Oh, Ruth,'' she said. ''He's dead.''

In the village that is Scotland, I came to know the Smith family through writing about politics. Occasionally, when both parents were away and the girls were younger, I had stayed in their home as a nominal minder. On mornings like these, instinct triumphs over common sense. I drove straight to the house.

The demise of a political leader leaves little space for private grief. Already the TV had rolling news from London where the official statement of his death had not yet been issued. Jane and Catherine were watching in horrified, compulsive, fascination. Their mother would not be able to fly home until the essential formalities were completed. A more immediate problem was locating the eldest daughter, Sarah, on holiday in Californian wine country. Ten years ago mobile phones were not ubiquitous, there is a nine-hour time lag and the state has a lot of vineyards. In the event she was traced quite quickly and given the kind of news you never want to hear long-distance.

Midway through the day, there was an eerie calm before the media storm. Close family friends Ken and Elizabeth Munro were on hand, offering their customary, unfussy, practical support. Helen Liddell arrived and said she would deal with the media interviews. There was no shortage of the latter, not least that afternoon when Elizabeth Smith finally braved the pavement press pack to be reunited with two of her girls. As they hugged and wept, the television behind them screened shots of her departure from London and arrival in Edinburgh. She had flown up with Meta Ramsay, now Baroness Ramsay of Cartvale, a senior foreign policy adviser in John Smith's office. Malcolm Rifkind, a passenger on the same flight, offered discreet condolences.

Meta and I barely knew each other. By the time John was buried, 10 days later, we had become involuntarily joined at the hip.

For both of us, for everyone involved, it was an increasingly

surreal experience. It wasn't just that the people who trooped into the house to pay respects were themselves household names: Donald Dewar, Gordon Brown, Menzies Campbell and, some time down the line, Tony Blair. Or that messages arrived from foreign heads of state. Or the constant acts of kindness from diverse political friends. Neil McCormick, SNP member of the European parliament, appeared with a vast pot of homemade soup. Neighbours brought trays of lasagne. Bill Taylor QC dropped in a case of wine.

A decade on, it all sounds quite bizarre, but in that week-and-a-half between the death and the funeral, the house swarmed with friends and guests, many of whom colonised the kitchen in the evening, swopping John Smith anecdotes and reminiscences in a room where a batch of freshly-laundered shirts hung behind a pantry door waiting for the Labour leader's return.

Those evenings held as much laughter as tears. But the swelling household posed its own problems. By day two it was clear I would need to escape to the nearest shops to hit a supermarket and find some clothes. Outside, swarms of photographers waited, anxious to capture shots of the immediate family. It was suggested I leave over the back wall and through a neighbour's garden. Heaved over the top by John's daughters, I belatedly registered there was a 4ft greater drop on the other side. My fall was broken, appropriately perhaps for a journalist, by a compost heap.

More family were now installed in the house, Sarah, home from the States, and John's sister Mary and husband Jack from Canada. Meta and I found ourselves sharing a room in the attic as the family bedrooms filled up. Catering took on an element of feeding the 5000. In the mornings, Elizabeth, weary from lack of sleep, would inquire what we planned to feed the multitudes that night. A mix of homemade soup and whatever arrived on the doorstep from neighbours and a Safeway hit-and-run formed the standard menu. You never knew whether six or 16 would be around and hungry. We never ran out. The weather improved and the garden provided private space for Elizabeth to talk alone to visitors: to people closest to John, like Murray Elder.

The days merged and blurred, and it was obvious Meta and I were unlikely to see our homes again until after the funeral. Arrangements for it were complex, not least because of the huge numbers of British politicians and foreign dignitaries planning to come. Coloured passes were devised for VIPs, and a media centre was set up in a church by the Labour party. The local parish minister, a family friend, came to talk through the service, and it was settled that Donald Dewar, Jimmy Gordon and Derry Irvine would all give personal tributes. Delicate territory this, since Donald and Derry had rarely socialised following the latter's marriage to Donald's former wife, Allison.

Lord McCluskey, friend and tennis partner, would read a lesson and Kenna Kennedy would give what proved to be a heart-stopping Gaelic rendition of the 23rd psalm. This would be one funeral where the religious component held no hypocrisy; evidence of John Smith's attachment to his local kirk lay all around, not least the empty Smartie boxes housing 20p pieces for the fabric fund.

In their Morningside home, the Smith family also deliberated just what you wear to a father's/husband's funeral service beamed into every home. Mysterious boxes of hats sat in the hallway, sent to give Elizabeth a choice without leaving the house. A dressmaker arrived. Elizabeth's hairdresser came from her home in England. A woman who used to clean the Smith house called and pleaded to be allowed to help get the house in order. It was the only way she knew to help, she said.

John's body came home and was placed in an upstairs bedroom. Elizabeth by now had decided that she wanted its final resting place to be in Iona, where they had spent many holidays, often with the Gordon family. Donald Dewar began a trawl of the necessary diplomatic channels. There was no obvious precedent; there was some local ambivalence; there was no shifting Elizabeth.

The phone rang incessantly. Often it was Jimmy Gordon, who'd taken on the daunting task of trying to fix travel and accommodation for Iona. The Smith girls dubbed him Para Handy. With a small ferry fixed, the family asked that the coffin travel separately on another route. The police and the undertakers went back to the drawing board. Once, a call came and a demure voice asked for Mrs Smith. Told she was resting, the voice went on to wonder if she might spare a few moments to talk to the Princess of Wales.

Friday morning, May 20, and

in Cluny Parish Church the pews bulged with a political generation. For some, it had been an equally busy week as they made calculations about the Labour succession. It

wasn't an issue which had much impinged on the citizenry at Cluny Drive. After the reception, the small cavalcade left from the house with a police escort and set off for Oban, where they were waved on to the ferry for Craignure on Mull. As the boat cleared the harbour, Jimmy Gordon lifted a crate from his roof rack, unveiling the quintessential Glasgow answer to post-traumatic stress syndrome . . . a large carry out. His generosity was not spurned. Then, borrowing the bridge phone, he radioed ahead to the inn at Craignure and ordered two dozen fish suppers. Sainthood beckoned.

The result at Craignure was arresting: the future lord chancellor in the kitchen explaining to the chef the finer points of frying fish; Lord McCluskey clutching his portion on the pavement, wondering if cutlery might be a possibility; the future

first minister not pausing for a second to find out.

The following day, the final service would be held in Iona Abbey followed by the interment, and John Smith's body already lay in the tiny chapel beside the graveyard. That morning we stifled a gasp as Donald Dewar, one of the coffin-bearers, briefly stumbled on the cobbled stones. Later, as the burial party trooped down to the village for lunch, Donald Dewar and Derry Irvine walked together, probably for the first time in 20 years. They talked about art, a shared passion. I had looked in vain for a hardback edition of Para Handy to present to Jimmy Gordon. In the event it had to be a paperback, signed by everyone there, and handed over after the meal.

On May 22, I took a trip to Fingal's cave with the Smith family and watched the puffins in their clifftop nesting grounds. A rugged, enduring slice of west coast Scotland. John Smith country. Then, 10 days after I'd left for work, I went home.