Obituary: Sheriff Peter McNeill, MA, LLB, PhD, QC, sheriff and legal author

Outstanding legal thinker committed to the principles of Scots law who wrote definitive guide to adoption legislation

Sheriff Peter McNeill, MA, LLB, PhD, QC, sheriff and legal author.

Born: 3 March, 1929, in Glasgow.

Died: 22 April, 2011, in Edinburgh, aged 82.

SHERIFF Peter McNeill had a formidable legal brain that he marshalled to considerable effect throughout his career. He also wrote learned books and articles about various aspects of Scots law and history.

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As a sheriff, McNeill was a good listener and allowed both lawyers and witnesses to express themselves without pressure. He was known for his ability to never disclose how his mind was working as any case before him proceeded. McNeill was concerned that his actions must be, and be seen to be, impartial. His fundamental belief in the due processes of the law remained, for him, paramount throughout his career.

Peter Grant Brass McNeill was educated at Hillhead High School in Glasgow and, for a year during the war when pupils were evacuated from the big cities to escape German bombing, at Morrison's Academy in Crieff, Perthshire.

McNeill went on to read law at the University of Glasgow and was awarded a Carnegie Fellowship and subsequently a Faulds Fellowship to enable him to write his doctoral thesis on the Judicial Aspect of the Scots Privy Council.

He was called to the Scottish Bar in 1956 and firstly acted as Honorary Sheriff Substitute of Lanarkshire from 1962 before returning as full sheriff for Lanarkshire. McNeill became Advocate Depute in 1964.

In 1965, he became Sheriff of Glasgow and Strathkelvin and, from 1982, was made Sheriff of Edinburgh and the Borders, a post he held until he retired in 1998.

McNeill was also involved in several public enquiries - most notably chairing the Review Board into the Chinook Helicopter Accident in 1988.

McNeill specialised in adoption law and wrote the acclaimed Adoption of Children in Scotland in 1982. Such is its renown that it is in its fourth edition. Last year's edition was co-authored with Sheriff McNeill's daughter Morag Jack.

McNeill's career was distinguished by his remarkable knowledge of the law and its interpretation. His patience and calm nature in court and lucid summings-up ensured he was respected by his colleagues and the court officials. His interest in Scotland's legal history remained a passion all his life. This was primarily evidenced when he republished the original 18th century legal document, Balfour's Practicks.

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It had been originally published in 1754 by Sir James Balfour of Pittendreich and in his introduction to the Stair Society's publication in 1963 McNeill wrote that Balfour ranks "amongst the dodgier characters of Scottish legal history but it is evident that he was a pretty good lawyer".The completed work reflected McNeill's legal scholarship and was much praised throughout the profession.

Sheriff David Smith (a former sheriff of Strathclyde) was a friend of McNeill's for more than 50 years. He said: "Peter was a stimulating and quiet man with a first-rate intellect.

"But despite Peter's formidable brain and knowledge of history he was a very unassuming man. He did not seek publicity or honours for himself. He never used the title doctor to which his PhD entitled him.

"Although he was the obvious choice when a vacancy arose for the post of President of the Sheriffs' Association in 1982, he had to be persuaded to put himself forward for election. Peter, of course, distinguished himself."

McNeill believed fervently in the educational value of maps in historical study. In 1973 and 1996 he co-edited with Professor Hector MacQueen (Professor of Private Law at Edinburgh University) An Historical Atlas of Scotland 400-1600. It was a mammoth undertaking and Professor MacQueen got to know McNeill well over the years. He recalled: "There was a group of Scottish medievalists who had an annual gathering at Pitlochry and Peter and I drove up together. It was always a most entertaining journey - conversation varied from serious matters of history to gossip interspersed with many delightful yarns from Peter.

"The Historical Atlas was a hugely stimulating project and we were greatly assisted by Professor David Watt of St Andrews University.

"Peter co-ordinated the project and was a tower of strength throughout.

"I was extremely fond of him and he was a joy to be with."

McNeill was involved in many historical societies in Scotland: chairman of the Stair Society (1990-98) and elected its Literary Editor and was on the council of the Scottish National Dictionary Association (1997-2001). He was a much admired lecturer at a variety of events. In 2005, for example, he gave a most stimulating talk in the Presbytery Hall, Edinburgh which asked: Was the Reformation Legislation of 1560 Valid?

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Peter McNeill married Matilda Rose (Tilly) in 1959. She and their son and three daughters survive him.