Obituary: Stuart Kermack, sheriff and penal reformer
BORN: 9 July, 1934, in Edinburgh. Died: 8 August, 2012, in Edinburgh, aged 78
Stuart Kermack came from a family with a long tradition of service in the legal profession and his father, who had been a sheriff in Glasgow, and later in Oban, held a respected place in the legal world of his time. Educated at Glasgow Academy, Jesus College, Oxford, and the universities of Glasgow and Edinburgh, he was called to the Scottish bar in 1959. In 1965, he was appointed as sheriff at Elgin and Nairn and, in 1971, he moved to Forfar where he remained for the rest of his career.
He was not, however, the conventional figure that his background might suggest and he made a distinctive contribution in his work as a sheriff, in the life of the local community and in the wider influence he exerted.
Stuart Kermack was, from the outset of his professional life, concerned to promote improvements in the law’s treatment of offenders. He was for some years before he went to Elgin, secretary of the Edinburgh branch of the Howard League for Penal Reform and retained a continuing interest in and contribution to its work long into his retirement. He was also active in Sacro (Scottish Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders), in the formation and development of the Children’s Hearing system, in family conciliation and in alcohol education.
All he did flowed from his humane concern and was informed by a close acquaintance with contemporary thinking in relevant fields of knowledge. In one of his publications he described himself as an “old-fashioned Scottish lawyer.” It was not a description which many would have recognised.
Throughout his time in Forfar, Sheriff Kermack had to combine his duties there with duties in other courts, successively Perth, Arbroath and Dundee. Although he was not a countryman, he settled readily into dealing with the domestic and land disputes that form part of the rural sheriff’s diet, but much of the work in the courts in which he sat was concerned with criminal cases.
His guiding principle in sentencing was a philosophy of rehabilitation rather than retribution. Rehabilitation sometimes had to give way to other concerns, the interests and feelings of victims and the protection of the public, but he sought wherever possible a positive result for the offender.
Sheriff Richard Scott, who knew him well, has said: “What I admired about Stuart, apart from his good humour and good nature, was his longstanding and principled interest in the rehabilitation of offenders. He pioneered local initiatives which are now applied generally.”
Among the initiatives pioneered by Stuart Kermack was a scheme for alcohol education for drink-driving offenders. Others were not directly related to criminal matters.
He was the driving force behind and founder president of Family Mediation Tayside and Fife which was to become, with his strong support, what Sheriff Kevin Veal, his successor in Forfar, has described as “a truly major player on the wider contact and mediation scene” and through his involvement with what is now Relationships Scotland he ensured the availability to the courts of child-centred contact centres where parents could have contact with children from whom they were separated.
An advantage Elgin and Forfar shared was access to the hills, which Stuart loved. He had met his wife, Barbara, on a ski club outing and continued to ski until he was 50; and he was a keen walker and camper who with his family used the advantage of nearness to the hills to the full.
Another advantage was proximity to places of historical interest. His knowledge of Scottish history, and particularly of the Highlands, was extensive and profound.
As president of the Forfar and District Historical Society, he played a leading part in the commemoration in 1985 of the 13th centenary of the battle of Dunnichen (or Nechtansmere), a battle which may have been as crucial as Bannockburn for the identity of the Scottish nation.
Stuart Kermack’s retirement in 1993 was brought on by failing eyesight and by illness. It was followed in 1994 by the death, at the age of 25 and after a long illness, of his son Gavin. It was a blow which affected Sheriff Kermack greatly.
He retired to Edinburgh, partly for family reasons and partly because of the facilities it gave for the historical and literary interests, which he pursued as long as his eyesight permitted.
In The Pictish Symbols and the Vita Sancti Columbae he developed an original interpretation of Pictish symbolism. He read widely, from PG Wodehouse to Tolstoy, and wrote poetry. Much of his poetry was for private use but one of his poems found a place in Gordon Jarvie’s anthology 100 Scottish Poems to Read Out Loud and Sonnets for My Son, written after the death of Gavin, was published and well received.
From his youth Stuart Kermack had suffered from a degenerative condition of his eyes which he knew might lead to eventual blindness. For a time after his retirement he was able to see well enough to read and to get about more or less independently. As his eyesight deteriorated further he learnt Braille and increasingly used audio books. His blindness became virtually total and deafness, although not of equal severity, supervened. A few years ago he seemed to make a good recovery from a stroke but later became immobile.
As a judge Sheriff Kermack was scrupulously fair and completely without pomposity or remoteness. He was also noted for his helpfulness to those in the early years of professional practice. Tributes paid after his death showed the respect and warmth with which he was regarded by the legal profession in Angus. His friends and others owed much to his kindness and considerateness. Those who were in touch with him in his later years will remember most of all his courage and perseverance in the face of adversity.
In 1961, Stuart Kermack married Barbara Mackenzie who was his support in all he did and on whose care he was much dependant. He is survived by her and by his daughter Janet, his sons Calum and Lewis, his daughter-in-law Rita and two grandchildren.
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