Sun, sand, sea and a solicitor for St Helena

IT'S A PROUD boast of Scots law that those practising it can be found in places all around the world. You might hear the accent in boardrooms from the States to Sydney, from South Africa to Singapore... and in a former school building at the top of a hill on a volcanic island in the South Atlantic.

"There is a stairway of 699 steps up to my office," says Colin Forbes, our man on St Helena. "I can look down on Jamestown, the island's capital, and it is a glorious view, by far the prettiest I have ever had from a legal office. I have been known to use the steps when the car is playing up, but it renders me useless for the rest of the day. It is not something I choose to do."

It is purely by choice, however, that the Forbes family has found itself "marooned" on the island where Napoleon spent his final years in exile and which lies some 1,200 miles from Africa and 1,800 miles from South America. The nearest land, around 700 miles away, is Ascension Island, and there is no airport. Having seen an advert for the post of Public Solicitor on St Helena, a British territory, Colin Forbes, 41, replied more out of curiosity. After more than four years as the "Jack of all trades" solicitor to a population of 4,000-5,000, he has no regrets.

Born in Aberdeen and brought up in Inverness, Forbes had no family connections with the law when he decided it would be his subject at Aberdeen University back in the early 1980s.

A traineeship with the Aberdeen firm of Esslemont and Cameron led to a position as an assistant, and then as a partner for ten years until St Helena came calling.

"I was not actually looking for a change. I was not unhappy where I was, but I saw the advert and sent away for the details," he says.

After discussing the pros and cons, his wife, Alison, 41, a primary school teacher and piano tutor, supported the idea, even if it meant uprooting their children, Kieran, now 14, Andrew, 11, and Eve, ten. "We saw it as an opportunity to do something different, but when we got the phone call saying I had got the job, we were both numb, stunned. We were not sure what we had let ourselves in for. We came out in February 2001 and we have both really enjoyed being here, and the kids have enjoyed it as well.

"I did not find it a wrench in a professional sense, more of an adventure. It was a wrench for friends and family because St Helena is isolated, and you see people only once a year when you get leave and go back. It is very difficult for people to visit because of the time it takes to get to and from St Helena.

"If you are dead lucky and the ship is in the right place, the quickest you can get from St Helena to the UK is about four days. There are times when the ship is not here for weeks on end. It's called the mail ship (it was the last ship built by Hall Russell in Aberdeen) but it takes all cargo on and off the island - food, building materials, cars and everything.

"There are only two or three places on the island to land, most of it is sheer cliffs. When you arrive in James Bay, where Jamestown is, you have 600ft-700ft cliffs on either side and it does not look particularly welcoming. The interior is very lush and is beautiful, a fantastic place for walking."

Forbes is employed by the UK's Department for International Development and describes his job as being like a one-man legal aid system. St Helena has local laws, otherwise English law is applied.

"The government of St Helena has a legal department and gives advice to various organs of government. If anyone else wants qualified legal advice, unless they go to an off-shore lawyer, then I am their only option. There are also lay advocates, the ex-chief of police for instance, who do some court work.

"In terms of what you are doing, it is general practice, although I have spent more of my time doing criminal work on St Helena than in Scotland. Most of it is at a fairly minor level, but I have dealt with a rape case, sexual assault, drugs importation and firearms. I do not want to give the impression the place is a hot-bed of criminal activity, far from it, but there is a wide range.

"I have also drafted wills for old ladies, and done conveyancing, like in Scotland. It really is a mixed bag of work.

"Most cases are dealt with by local magistrates, like a Scottish district court. There's a supreme court which sits once or twice a year for the more serious criminal and the bigger civil cases. It has a judge from England, and once in a blue moon there is an appeal court and three English judges come out for it."

Forbes was involved recently in the defence of one of two youths who were accused or murdering another teenager in Jamestown. It is the first homicide case in St Helena for more than 20 years, and he called in Scottish QC, Edgar Prais.

He does not expect to still be there for the next one. He has decided that he will be returning to Scotland next year.

"One of the things that strikes you when you go back is: 'Why are people running about like that all the time?' It is much more relaxed here."