Noel McPartlin, whose sudden death aged 79 has been a devastating blow for family and friends, was Scotland’s longest serving sheriff when he retired from Elgin Sheriff Court in 2011 following 28 years in full time office.
Prior to permanent appointment in 1983, he had been a temporary sheriff. After retirement he continued part-time until 2014, when he had to retire compulsorily at 75 despite being keen to continue.
Such was the high regard in which he was held by the authorities that it was jokingly suggested to him to ‘doctor’ his birth certificate to allow him do so. But it was not only officials who held him in high regard, everyone connected with the court system also did, including prosecutors, defence lawyers, police officers, litigants, office and court staff and often those who were sentenced by him.
In a position not often synonymous with popularity for obvious reasons, Noel was an exception to the rule. He did not leave his humanity behind on entering the court room and treated everyone with respect, courtesy and patience, wearing his considerable learning lightly.
His pleasant, non-intimidatory manner made a court appearance less of an ordeal and encouraged the articulation of competing interests constructively. With his astute legal brain, sense of fairness and compassion, he achieved the difficult balance of dispensing justice effectively while retaining the goodwill and respect of all involved.
Where appropriate, a dash of humour lightened the seriousness of proceedings although if firm action was required it was taken. He was an exemplar of the ideal holder of judicial office, an excellent role model whose attributes merit incorporation in training manual modules.
Having graduated M.A., LL.B. from Edinburgh University, he completed a solicitor apprenticeship with the Edinburgh firm of Morton, Fraser and Milligan W.S. before taking up an appointment with Stirling Town Council and thereafter joining practices in Linlithgow, Glasgow and Stirling, having set up his own firm latterly. Initially he covered a wide range of work but became more involved in litigation, both criminal and civil, in which he demonstrated particular ability.
In 1976, he was admitted as a member of the Faculty of Advocates after a period of ‘devilling’ (training) to Robin MacEwan principally and also to John Wheatley, later both judges. For the next seven years he undertook civil and criminal cases in the Court of Session and High Court respectively, building up a successful practice and reputation throughout Scotland which led to his appointment as a temporary sheriff.
He was involved in several high profile cases including the appeal by Raymond Gilmour against his conviction for the rape and murder of a young girl in Johnstone on the grounds of a dubious confession to police. Although that was then unsuccessful, continuing disquiet over the conviction led to its being overturned 20 years later on similar grounds.
In 1983, he was appointed permanent sheriff at Peterhead and Banff before transfer to Elgin where he remained until 2001, when he was appointed to Edinburgh. After seven years he returned to Elgin until retiral in 2011, after which he served part-time, sitting regularly in Aberdeen, Fort William, and Stornoway among other venues.
One judgement of his in Elgin which attracted worldwide interest was the case where a golfer struck by an errant shot off a nearby tee successfully sued for damages. Noel decided that, in the particular circumstances, the player on the tee owed a duty of care to the injured party before driving. For many years afterwards, copies of his judgment were regularly sought from courts abroad, especially North America.
A Francophile, he was past chair of the Franco/British Lawyers’ Association, in which capacity he was honoured to sit as ‘guest’ judge in courts in Bordeaux and Paris.
Noel McPartlin was born and brought up in Galashiels where he attended St Margaret’s primary school and Galashiels Academy.
He was the youngest of four children, Patrick, Leona and Joseph the others, to parents Michael and Anne, both millworkers. A bright pupil who won the school Latin prize, he also developed his love of sport there and particularly enjoyed being able to watch Gala Fairydean play football at the same time as Gala Rugby Club played next door. As a youngster he even formed his own football team, grandly naming it Juventus.
Throughout his life he participated in most sports including rugby, football, swimming, cricket, hockey, running, golf and cycling. He completed many marathons and half marathons and was a member of the Moray Wheelers cycling club with whom, in 2012, aged 73, he completed the 400-mile Hebridean Challenge, raising funds for Cancer Research.
In 1965, in Dunblane, he married June Whitehead, a teacher from Stirling whom he met in Edinburgh at a Royal Dick Veterinary College dance and the couple went on to enjoy 54 happy and fulfilling years together. They had six children – Alison, Diana, Simon, Guy, Julia and Donald. Noel was a devoted family man who doted on his eight grandchildren, his ‘pride and joy’.
Despite the occasionally sensitive nature of his position, he interacted on an equal footing with everyone and integrated well into community life in Elgin where he was a member of the golf club, honorary member of the Burns Club and had recently been appointed president of the Moray branch of the University of the Third Age. As well as sporting pursuits, he was very interested in literature and poetry. He and his wife enjoyed cruises and owned a property in Confolens, near Limoges in France, where a mass was celebrated in his honour.
Elgin Sheriff Court closed as a mark of respect on the day of his funeral, which attracted a massive attendance as befitted a universally popular and much loved figure. He is survived by his wife, children, sister and grandchildren,Samuel, James, Gemma, Martin, Gracie, Elsa, Elliot and Helena.