Obituary: Sir Fred O’Brien QC, MA, LLB, Sheriff Principal.
Sir Frederick O’Brien was a much respected member of the legal profession in Scotland and an outstanding Sheriff Principal for more than a decade for the Lothians and the Borders. Previous offices included Sheriff Principal at Caithness, Sutherland, Orkney and Shetland, and South Strathclyde. He was much involved in Scottish affairs, being chairman of the Sir Walter Scott Society (1989-92), chairman, Sheriff Court Rules Council 1975-81 and convener, business committee of general council of the EU (1980-84). He was also a most active Commissioner of Northern Lights (1983 -84) and visited by ship all the manned lighthouses in Scotland.
Frederick William Fitzgerald O’Brien was the only son of Dr Charles O’Brien, a doctor of music in Edinburgh. He was educated at the Royal High School in Edinburgh and in 1975 was president of the former pupils club. O’Brien studied for his MA and LLB at Edinburgh University and then saw valiant service during the war. He was a conscientious objector and joined the Friends’ Ambulance Unit.
After training as a medical orderly in Liverpool he served in London’s Blitz. He was with a blood transfusion unit in the Royal Army Medical Corps in Egypt (in the 15th Scottish General Hospital) and with the Allied advance through Sicily. During that operation, O’Brien witnessed an eruption of Vesuvius. “The volcano provided,” he recalled years later, “a spectacular diversion through those tough months.”
In Sicily, the blood unit worked under exacting conditions, often with fire from the eruption on both sides. O’Brien contracted jaundice and was sent to a hospital in Naples, but during his convalescence revisited Vesuvius. “For all men’s power with machines of destruction,” he wrote, “no-one could lift a finger to control the sluggish advance of that lava.”
O’Brien returned to duties and saw service at one of the toughest engagements in the war: the battle for Monte Cassino in May 1944. The following month O’Brien, along with a doctor from Glasgow, led their unit into Rome, ignoring the signs, “American troops only”.
After being demobbed, O’Brien spent two years working with the distinguished Edinburgh solicitors, Davidson & Syme. He was called to the Bar in 1947 and became a QC in 1960.
After various posts in the profession (commissioner for the Mental Welfare Commission, 1962-65 and Home Advocate Depute, 1964-65), O’Brien was appointed Sheriff Principal for Caithness, Sutherland, Orkney and Shetland. It was a post he was to hold with much distinction until 1975.
In all his posts as Sheriff Principal, O’Brien upheld the very highest traditions of the law in Scotland.
Lord Prosser knew him throughout his career and told The Scotsman yesterday: “Freddy was a wonderfully self-effacing and kind man. He was a man of the highest integrity and he raised the standards of anyone with whom he had dealings. His sense of fair-mindedness was infectious. Freddy was loved and respected by everyone.”
His time in the west as Sheriff Principal of South Strathclyde (1975-78) proved a most rewarding and enjoyable appointment, but he returned to Edinburgh when he became Sheriff Principal in the capital. One of his major achievements was to campaign for the building of the new courts in Chambers Street. Colleagues also remember O’Brien’s ability to support his sheriffs and his courtesy in court. His grace and patience with the most nervous witness was an object lesson in court procedure. Many of O’Brien’s observations were delivered with a twinkle in the eye.
On his retirement, O’Brien often joined the group of fellow senior members at Bruntsfield Golf Course – delightfully called the Amblers – on a Wednesday morning for as many holes as the weather permitted and lunch. He had been made an honorary member of the club, having been a member for 62 years. O’Brien also played regularly in the annual matches between the Bar and the Bench. He continued to play golf until he was 90 and retook, and passed, his Advanced Driving Test in his mid-nineties.
He and his wife were generous hosts in their home in Edinburgh’s Inverleith and were devoted to their family. Sheriff Muir Russell, who succeeded O’Brien as chairman of the Sheriff Court Rules Council, was a friend of many years.
“Freddy and Audrey were dear friends. When I was called to the Bar, very nervous and anxious, Freddy was so helpful and kind to me, with sensible and practical advice,” he said. “Then, when I became a Sheriff, Freddy performed the swearing-in ceremony in Aberdeen.
“He had a wonderfully agile legal brain and his kindness came straight from the heart. He was courtesy itself.”
Sheriff Principal Sir Frederick O’Brien was knighted in 1984. His wife, whom he married in 1950, died last year and he is survived by their two sons and a daughter.