Obituary: David Carey Miller FRSE, Emeritus professor of property law

David Carey Miller, Emeritus professor of property law with a life-long interest in photography. Picture: Contributed
David Carey Miller, Emeritus professor of property law with a life-long interest in photography. Picture: Contributed
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Born: 26 June, 1941, in East London, South Africa. Died: 28 February, 2016, in Aberdeen, aged 74

At one time he would rather have been a photojournalist than a lawyer, but David Carey Miller’s legal heritage won out and he went onto become an internationally-respected academic specialising in property and art law.

The son and grandson of lawyers, he trained and worked in South Africa before arriving in Edinburgh to study for his Master of Laws. After being called to the Bar in his homeland he returned to Scotland, which he made his home for the next 45 years, teaching and researching at Aberdeen University where he became head of the School of Law.

Yet he never forgot his early aspirations to forge a career in photography and continued to view the world through a camera lens whenever he could, combining his hobby with his interest in art law when, while writing about the Lewis Chessmen and the St Ninian’s Isle Treasure, he also photographed the locations where the historic collections were discovered.

His grandfather left England for South Africa in the 1890s and half a century later David was born in East London, South Africa, the only child of attorney Lancelot Carey Miller and his wife Ivy, a legal clerk. For much of his son’s early life his father was away serving in the Second World War while his mother kept her husband’s office running.

The family lived in the Transkei, where young David was educated at the local school, until he was about ten, when they moved to Richmond in KwaZulu-Natal. He had enjoyed growing up in the wild beauty of the Transkei but it was increasing difficult for those of British descent to live there. By that time the region was well on the way to becoming a homeland for the Xhosa people, whose language, with its distinctive clicks, David had started to master.

As a teenager he was schooled at St Charles College, Pietermartizburg, where his interest in photography was sparked. As a result of contracting scarlet fever, which developed into rheumatic fever, he missed a great deal of school and was forbidden to participate in the large variety of sports for which the college was known. He came up with an alternative – “snapping” everyone, an activity highlighted in his leaving year book entry which said: “No-one was safe from his camera.”

In the absence of any parental support for his desire to pursue a career in photojournalism, in 1958 he went instead to the University of Natal, where he initially studied political science and graduated with an MA. The era of apartheid had formally strengthened the country’s systems of racial segregation and as a young man he fought against that, becoming a member of the Liberal party and taking part in anti-apartheid protests. It would not change until African National Congress leader Nelson Mandela, then recently released from prison, and president F W de Klerk reached agreement in 1993.

After graduating David was articled with an attorney and studied part-time for a law degree at Natal University, subsequently working for a time for his father in Richmond, KwaZulu-Natal. It transpired that the law was a profession that suited him and he developed an interest in the academic side of it, going to Edinburgh University in 1967 to study for an LL.M. His original intention had been to go to an English university but he was encouraged to apply to Edinburgh due to the links between South African and Scots Law, which are both rooted in Roman Law.

While studying in the Scottish capital he was taught by Professor Sir T B Smith QC, a man who would influence his thinking and career. He later organised a conference and jointly edited a volume of essays reflecting his interest in comparative law and legal history, as a tribute to Prof Smith.

His time at Edinburgh also introduced him to his first wife, Anne Sutherland, whom he married in 1970.

After completing his LL.M he returned to his native South Africa, went to the Bar and practised as an advocate. However, by 1971 he was back in the UK and secured a post as lecturer at Aberdeen University where he would remain for the rest of his career.

He had completed his PhD with a thesis focusing on the role of the advocate but became increasingly interested in property law, publishing Scottish and South African textbooks on the subject in 1986 and 1991. One publication, Land Title in South Africa (with Anne Pope, the University of Cape Town, 2000) was researched with funding from the British Academy and Carnegie Trust. Other publications included a second volume of essays, jointly edited with Prof Reinhard Zimmerman, in 1997 to mark the quincentenary of Aberdeen University.

Promoted to senior lecturer and then to a personal chair in property law, one particular aspect of his work was the area of property problems in portable antiquities and works of art. He was head of the Law School from 2005-6, during which time he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh in recognition of his academic achievements, following in the footsteps of his mentor TB Smith.

From 2006-9 he was visiting senior research fellow at the Institute of Advanced Legal Studies before being made emeritus professor and for many years had been the director of the Baltimore/Maryland Summer School in Comparative Law, hosted by the Aberdeen Law School.

Post-retiral he spent almost three months in Colombo researching links between Scots and Sri Lankan law. Just a year ago a two-day conference was held in his honour in Aberdeen when his work was celebrated by leading academics from all over the world.

Current head of the University of Aberdeen’s School of Law, Anne-Michelle Slater, said: “David was an internationally renowned expert in property law and published many articles and books, including South African and Scottish property law textbooks as well as the definitive monograph on the Scots Law of Corporeal Moveables.

“His service to the University of Aberdeen spanned over four decades, during which time he passed on his wisdom to successive generations of law students, all of whom benefited from his renowned expertise. His influence and reach in terms of research and scholarship is unparalleled.”

Outside his professional life his interest in photography, particularly black and white images, never dimmed. He also loved hill-walking in Aberdeenshire, was a member of Kintore Golf Club and had been Aberdeen secretary of the annual Senate golf match between Glasgow and Aberdeen universities. He was also a keen cyclist, and an active member of the Morgan Car Club as the proud owner of a 1955 Ivory Morgan.

A father of four, he was hugely proud of the achievements of his two sons and two daughters and became step-father to four more children on his second marriage.

He married Anne MacKenzie in 2004, and is survived by her, her children, his own children Phoebe, Guy, Claude and Stephanie and three grandchildren.