Obituary, Prof AJ McDonald, Scottish lawyer and academic

Professor Emeritus Alexander John McDonald WS, Born: 15 March 1919. Died: 22 March 2018, aged 99.

Professor Emeritus Alexander John McDonald
Professor Emeritus Alexander John McDonald

Alexander (“Alastair”) John McDonald was brought up on a farm in Polmont, near Falkirk, son of a tea planter returned from India. He was the youngest of three, and had two sisters.

He was educated at Cargilfield and then Fettes College as an Open Scholar, where he won a number of prizes. From Fettes, he went on to Christ’s College, Cambridge on an open classics scholarship. At the end of his second year, he was called up and finally graduated only after six years’ service in the Army in India, Burma and Germany, with a “war emergency” BA. He was in anti-aircraft units during the Second World War, rising to lieutenant, and was posted to India and Burma, serving for a while in one of Wingate’s ‘boxes’ behind Japanese lines.

After the war, he embarked on an LLB at the University of Edinburgh, graduating with distinction in 1949. In that year he also qualified as a solicitor, was admitted to the WS Society and became a partner in the Edinburgh firm of Allan, Dawson, Simpson and Hampton WS. He lectured part-time at Edinburgh University before his appointment to the Chair of Conveyancing at Queens College, St Andrews in 1955, becoming a partner in Messrs WB Dickie & Sons in 1956. He was Dean of the Law Faculty for a number of years, and was the University solicitor at the time of the split from the University of St Andrews in 1967.

Though part-time, he was Dean of the Law Faculty in 1958-63 and again in 1965-66 all in addition to his responsibilities for the Chair, and his law firm. He became a member of University Court, and was deeply involved on behalf of Queen’s College in the numerous property transactions which were necessary in order to extend the College site on the Nethergate into a campus extending from the Perth Road to the (New) Hawkhill, and from Park Place to Miller’s Wynd, thus creating what is the current central campus of the University.

His Conveyancing lectures and tutorials were viewed by students with apprehension, on account of their rigour. He was widely referred to as simply “the Prof”. Rarely was anyone late or unprepared for one of his lectures or tutorials. His Conveyancing Manual is in its 7th Edition, and has been a recommended text for Conveyancing on the Diploma in Professional Legal Practice in all universities from its commencement.

In 1979 he retired from the University, but only nominally, in order to reduce Law Faculty expenditure –he continued teaching for some years thereafter, including on the then new practical Diploma in Legal Studies, which he tackled with his customary enthusiasm, unpaid, with much the same workload. Such was the character and dedication of the man. He remained, even after his retirement, a scholar of the law and someone who was as keen on the development of the future of conveyancing practice as much as the history and integrity of Scots Property law.

Throughout this time he, together with the late Dr J Stuart Fair, developed their legal practice of Dickie, Gray, McDonald and Fair, then Thorntons & Dickies WS (now Thorntons Law LLP) until retiring as a partner in 1984, and becoming a consultant – a role he assiduously carried out until 2000 or thereby.

He was widely regarded in both local and national legal circles as an intelligent, intellectual and unassuming man who had a comprehensive grasp of Scots Property law and Trust law. That knowledge was detailed, sharp and, at all times, focused on the needs of his clients and an unerring duty to do the right thing.

He was always approachable – although one always had to prepare in a comprehensive manner before entering his office – especially if the red light was on outside! He was uncompromising in his enthusiasm for the law and its development. He was highly respected in academic and commercial circles and a co-author of the first of only two Professorial Opinions on Conveyancing.

He was involved in a number of high-profile transactions including the formation of the National Bank of Dubai and the formation of the Trust Deed for what was to become Dundee Heritage Trust. He was always keen to see the academic study and practice of law develop in tandem.

His interest in academic matters fuelled and sustained his drive towards changing the practice of conveyancing. He sought out new and more cost-effective and transparent ways to do things in the future for the benefit of clients and conveyancers alike. He was responsible for the firm’s residential property offer which, in style and content, was a significant departure from the then norm. It became the basis for the move, initially in Tayside and then throughout Scotland, for the introduction of Standard Clauses in residential property offers. He was also the first solicitor to introduce standardised documentation into the conveyancing process in order to make transactions easier and more efficient for all. His suite of “boxed form” deeds were the basis for the modern standardised legal templates.

His styles were based on a sound understanding of the law and also formed the basis of the development of Electronic Registration of Title by the Registers of Scotland. Style documentation to him were an aid to more efficient practice, not a substitute for a thorough understanding of the underlying law.

His influence was felt by many and that continues to this day and will do for years to come. He was, quite simply, one of a rare breed of academic lawyers who are also practising solicitors using one skill to further the other. Those who trained under and worked with him can vouch for the quality of his teaching and depth and breadth of knowledge – as well as the red felt pen with which he marked up drafts presented to him for comment.

He was at the forefront of the introduction of IT into his law firm and worked with a national company assisted by his longtime secretary, Mrs Pat Dunn, in helping them develop an early form of case management software.

He married Doreen in 1951, and had four children, David, Sandy, Claire and Ginny (and in years to come, six grandchildren) living in the west end of Dundee (where it has been said he often carried out gardening under a floodlight due to the long office hours he kept) and latterly in Broughty Ferry and then Monikie. On another occasion, after the firm ceased opening on Saturday mornings, he nevertheless continued with his usual routine. It was not until many years later, when Doreen was speaking to the wife of another 
partner, that she realised the office was actually closed on Saturdays. He was a dedicated family man who enjoyed the music of the 1940s and 50s, such as Glenn Miller, and was an excellent squash player in his early days. He also had a bright sense of humour. He and Doreen enjoyed foreign travel with Stuart Fair and his wife. They travelled widely together and usually returned with ideas for other business developments.

Along with the late Jim Robertson from the University Law Faculty, he also carried out extensive research into the Sacra Romana Rota in Rome – for hundreds of years prior to the Reformation, appeals on Scots law were dealt with under the Rota to the Papal Courts in Rome.

Alastair McDonald enjoyed a long and fulfilling life, the only pity being that he did not live to enjoy his 100th birthday. Knowing the man, however, he would not have wanted a fuss to be made, preferring, instead, to spend the time with those he loved – no doubt asking about what they were up to that day and what they were to be doing tomorrow.

Stewart Brymer