18 February 2016

In praise of a man

My alma mater, the University of Edinburgh, wants to do a bonny thing.  Seven years after his death, their School of Law wish to mark the life of former SNP MEP, Professor Sir Neil MacCormick, with a brace of busts to set at the entrance of the School, and two more, in the Royal Society of Edinburgh, and in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery.

They are seeking donations to make this tribute a reality. And as anyone who encountered Professor MacCormick will understand, as a scholar, as a teacher, and as a man, this handsome tribute is well merited. My old Obligations lecturer, Hector MacQueen, offers this lovely wee vignette from MacCormick's classroom, which speaks for itself.

"One story to illustrate the manner and style of Neil's teaching, which also shows the nature of the man. In the 1975-76 session he arrived in Room 270 Old College to deliver a lecture to the class of Jurisprudence. As he took to the podium he removed from his wrist with a characteristic flourish what was evidently a lady's watch. This produced catcalls from members of his audience. Neil smiled, explained that having broken his own watchstrap that morning he had borrowed his wife's watch so that he could keep to his allotted 50 minutes with the class, and then used the class reaction to analyse the difference between social rules (men's watches aren't the same as women's ones, lectures last for 50 minutes not the hour in the timetable) and legal rules.
All that had been abstract and difficult for jurisprudence novitiates suddenly became pellucidly clear. Either Neil had thought it all out before, in which case the expansive gesture with which he removed the watch was perfectly timed to get the reaction he wanted; or, more likely, it was unplanned but he could react with instant humour to an unexpected situation, engage with his audience, and turn the whole thing intellectually to support what he had anyway wanted to say. Whichever, it was a brilliant moment of theatre that remains vivid in the memory nearly 35 years later."

I took the same inspiration for my Times column this morning, reflecting on my own nervy undergraduate encounter with this formidable but kindly character.

Professors can sometimes seem remote, dragonish spirits. It is not the done thing for callow, anonymous undergraduates to disturb their slumbers uninvited. They are the solitary figure on stage, the centre of everyone’s attention; you are just another face, in a cast of a thousand. But full of diffidence I knitted my courage and chapped on his door. I had manufactured a feeble story about my mad auld Nationalist granny sending her best regards. It was a half truth which I rattled off nervously as Professor MacCormick’s door swept open and his big, expressive, owlish face peered out.

Neil had unsuccessfully fought my granny’s Argyll constituency for the SNP in 1992 and 1997. (One tale from the political battlefield: asked what he would do if he won election to the Commons in one of these races, MacCormick reportedly quipped: “Demand a recount.”) The world is not awash with Tickells and mid-Argyll even less so. But whether or not Professor MacCormick actually remembered her or the family from his political campaigns, he had the good grace to pretend, asking solicitously how my studies were faring, talking about his stint in the European parliament, sending me away with a kind word. It was a characteristically decent gesture.

You can read the whole thing here.  If you would like to make a contribution towards Edinburgh's admirable campaign, you can find details and a fuller account of Neil's life by those who knew him far better here.


  1. I met Neil, a few times, on the campaign trail and at conference. He seemed, to me a least, a gentle kind man, with an extremely keen intellect. He would always listen and observe, giving weight to either side of the ongoing conversation, as he saw fit, never deriding either side.

    I recently found his old business card, in my wallet; and smiled to my self at his memory.
    I glad I knew him, and could call him a friend.

    1. A few folk have sent in memories along these lines in response to this piece. Even taking into account the de mortuis nil nisi bonum principle, remarkable, really how few folk have a bad word to say about Professor MacCormick.

  2. In Leith library, on the floor in a back office surrounded by piles of withdrawn books sits a marble bust. There is an empty granite plinth in the lobby. Health and safety.

    Nobody knows who he was.

    Sic transit gloria mundi