Obituary: Peter Millar OBE, solicitor and Deputy Keeper of the Signet

Peter Carmichael Millar OBE, MA, LLB, WS, solicitor, Deputy Keeper of the Signet and noted public servant. Born: 19 February 1927 in Glasgow. Died: 16 March 2020 in Edinburgh, aged 93
Peter Millar, obituary in paper 22/04/20Peter Millar, obituary in paper 22/04/20
Peter Millar, obituary in paper 22/04/20

Peter Millar was one of the best known and respected Scottish solicitors of his generation. He had a wide private client practice; for 27 years he was closely associated with the Society of Writers to the Signet, the leading body of Edinburgh solicitors and owners of Edinburgh’s Signet Library, and for eight of those years he was its head, as Deputy Keeper of the Signet. During his career he also held a number of other important positions in public life and he organised one of the largest international conferences of lawyers ever to be held in Scotland

Peter was born in Glasgow, the older of two children of the Reverend Peter (“Pat”) Carmichael Millar, OBE, DD, Minister of Balshagray Church in Glasgow’s west end, and his wife, Ailsa. In 1933 the family moved to Aberdeen on his father’s appointment as Minister of the West Kirk of St Nicholas. The wider family were close; Peter’s younger cousin, later the distinguished corporate lawyer Sir Charles Fraser, has commented that Peter was the oldest of them and “was quite bossy” (that was at the age of six).

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He was educated at Aberdeen Grammar School and although he claimed not to be very clever, he studied Latin and Greek to sixth form level and was active in the literary and debating society. He was also captain of the 1st hockey XI for his last two years.

By the time he left school in 1944 the end of war was in sight but Peter wanted to join the Royal Navy. He enrolled for a special scheme involving two terms at university before military training, gaining credits in English and History at the University of Glasgow, which counted towards his later degree. In March 1945 he undertook officer training at HMS Raleigh in Devonport. With the end of the war, the commissioning of officers was greatly reduced, so he volunteered as an ordinary seaman and saw service on the eastern seaboard of the United States and in the Far East and Australia.

On being demobbed, Peter enrolled at the University of St Andrews, graduating MA in 1949. There he met his future wife, fellow student Kirsteen Carnegie. They married in September 1953, a happy union which lasted for more than 66 years until his death. They had four children, Anne, who predeceased him, Alison, Neil and Alastair. Kirsteen and these three survive him, along with three grandsons.

Peter considered studying theology and joining the Church but he settled for the law, graduating LLB from the University of Edinburgh in 1952. He did however maintain close church connections for the rest of his life, he and Kirsteen being committed members of St Giles Cathedral, of which they were both elders for many years, though in recent years they lifted their lines and worshipped at Cramond Kirk, close to their home. He served his legal apprenticeship with the leading Edinburgh firm of Davidson & Syme and qualified as a solicitor in 1954, being admitted as a Writer to the Signet that same year. There were no openings at Davidson & Syme at that time but he was offered, and took, a partnership in the firm of W & T P Manuel, which later became, through amalgamation, Aitken Kinnear & Co and then Aitken Nairn. He remained there throughout his career, until his retirement in 1992 as senior partner.

In 1964 Peter was elected Clerk of the WS Society, a post he held until 1983, when he became Deputy Keeper of the Signet, an appointment he held until 1991. He is the only person in the history of the Society, stretching back over 400 years, to have held both these offices. During his 27 years of service to the Society he directed, influenced or supervised the many important events and changes which marked that period of its history: the updating of its admission regulations; the admission of women members; the reform of the procedures for stamping the royal seal, or Signet, on court documents, which by 1975 numbered some 13,000 per annum and until then was the direct responsibility of the Clerk; significant book sales in the Signet Library in the early 1970s; the increased use of the Library as one of Edinburgh’s most prestigious venues for a wide range of functions by other bodies; and the development of an active programme of social events for members and their guests. He was also influential in the founding of the Edinburgh Solicitors’ Property Centre, jointly underwritten by the WS and SSC Societies, which became a dominant force in the residential property market in Edinburgh and the east of Scotland in the last quarter of the 20th century.

One of the most challenging and fulfilling experiences of Peter’s career was when he was asked by the Law Society of Scotland to organise the fifth Commonwealth Law Conference, held in Edinburgh in 1977 and attended by some 2,000 delegates. It was to have been held in Uganda but had been postponed because of Idi Amin’s dictatorship there. It was an outstanding success in Edinburgh, as a result of which he was awarded the OBE in The Queen’s birthday honours in 1978.

Despite his commitment to his practice and to the WS Society, Peter found time for several other senior public appointments. From 1973 to 1985 he was Chairman of the General Trustees of the Church of Scotland, the body which has responsibility for holding the properties and investments of the Church and overseeing their management. From 1983 to 1991 he was Chairman of the Mental Welfare Commission for Scotland, an appointment dear to his heart since his older daughter, Anne, suffered lifelong mental disability.

In 1991 he was appointed as a Chairman of Tribunals, first of Medical Appeals – the first Scottish solicitor to be so appointed – and later of Pension and Disability Appeals. He continued these tribunal commitments until 1999.

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Peter’s recreational interests included golf hill walking and travelling extensively, which he and Kirsteen enjoyed after his retirement. His enthusiasm for golf went back at least to his time as a student at St Andrews and he was a long-term member of the Bruntsfield Links Golfing Society, of which he was Honorary Secretary for six years from 1983, and of Muirfield (the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers). In autobiographical notes he left behind he listed his career and leisure interests and added: “Apart from the above I have never been asked to do anything”. He was a master of understatement.

Tom Drysdale

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