Neil MacCormick

Scots Law News is sad to report the death of Sir Neil MacCormick, formerly Regius Professor of Public Law and the Law of Nature and Nations in the University of Edinburgh, on 5 April 2009.

width=240The facts of Neil's public career are recorded here.  The Edinburgh Law School tribute is here, the SNP one here, and his son-in-law's here.  There was also a nice tribute on the BBC's Reporting Scotland programme on 6 April, highlighting his political rather more than his academic career, and there are further comments on the BBC Scotland websiteThe Scotsman and The Herald for 7 April.  The Scotsman, TelegraphTimes and Guardian obituaries (the last by David Edward) appeared on 7 April also.  The Herald obituary, by George Reid, appeared about the same time.

Scots Law News can only confirm the good things that all these tributes highlight: especially the genius for friendship, the charismatic teaching and lecturing, the encyclopaedic knowledge lightly borne, and the evident good will to all which especially made him an inspiring and successful leader in the Edinburgh Law School and university, and indeed in the wider academic community.  Scots Law News long ago lost count of the number of people from all over the world and many different backgrounds who, once the news of Neil's illness became widely known, asked after him as soon as an Edinburgh link was realised.  Many of us will also long remember the fortitude and humour with which he faced up to his final illness, and hope that we will be able to do half so well when our time comes.

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 purely 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 (legal rules are a special kind of social rule).  All that had been abstract and difficult for jurisprudence novitiates was pellucidly explained and suddenly obvious (if only for the duration of the lecture!).  Either Neil had thought it all out before, in which case the expansive gesture with which he removed the watch was perfectly judged 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 at least one person's memory nearly 35 years later.

Scots Law News sends its condolences to Neil's lovely wife Flora, who has supported him heroically over the last year.

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