J J (Hamish) Gow 1918-23 February 2009

Ross Macdonald of Dundee Law School has alerted Scots Law News to an announcement of the death a year ago of J J Gow, one of the leading figures of the post-war Scottish legal renaissance.

As the announcement makes clear, James John Gow (always known as Hamish) began his law studies at Aberdeen in 1938 before commencing military service the following year.  He spent five years of the Second World War as a prisoner of war in a Japanese camp, before returning to Aberdeen to complete his BL in 1946.  He then began a PhD under the supervision of the then Professor of Scots Law at Aberdeen, T M Taylor, who subsequently became Principal of the University in 1947.  The thesis, entitled "The introduction of the theory of justice in Scots law", was completed in 1952 and contains a detailed discussion of the influence of Grotius on Stair.  Gow was appointed to an Aberdeen lectureship in 1951, under T B Smith who had succeeded Taylor in the Scots Law Chair in 1947.  But Gow did not continue long in this position and in 1954 he was appointed to an academic post in Tasmania.  So far as Scots Law News is aware, he never held any further academic post in Scotland.  By 1964, when his magnum opus The Mercantile and Industrial Law of Scotland was published, he was a Professor of Law in McGill University in Quebec.  And the death announcement explains, he was eventually appointed a judge of the County Court in Vancouver, whence he was promoted to the Supreme Court of British Columbia.  When he left the bench at the statutory age of 75, he went back into practice for another ten years.

During the 1950s and early 1960s Gow wrote prolifically, critically and often entertainingly about Scots private and commercial law.  He celebrated the qualities of Scots common law but lambasted the courts and practitioners who from the nineteenth century on had allowed, indeed strongly supported, an uncritical anglicisation of that common law.  His articles could be mind-bendingly difficult – see for example his three parter on error in contract (see (1952) 1 ICLQ 472; (1953) 65 JR 221; (1954) 66 JR 253) and his blast of the trumpet on constitution and proof of voluntary obligations (1961 JR 1, 119, 124) – but he could also produce marvellous titles – e.g. "Humpty Dumpty and the Whole Court" 1961 SLT (News) 105.  He could be quixotic, for example in his argument that, because the Sale of Goods Act was so bad, "the task of the Scots courts is … to seek to bring the statutory provisions into harmony with the principles of our common law" (Mercantile Law, p.76).  But, he added in an important caveat, the common law had to be developed to meet the needs of the community.  The introduction to Mercantile Law perhaps best sums up his approach:

Law, as Stair more than fully recognised, is a means of social control, one of the most important. … In this exceedingly complex society of ours what the lawyer dare not be without is a knowledge of the economic, political, and social facts of his civilisation.  He needs this knowledge not as a dilettante, not even as a matter of personal cultivation, important though that may be, but as a matter of professional competence. … [T]he inability of successive generations of Scots lawyers to master their contemporary social facts and hazard intelligent conjecture of future facts has done much to impair the efficiency of our legal system.

It is a sadness that this was in essence Gow's valediction to the Scottish legal system.  He did attempt a return in 1972 when he applied for the new Lord President Reid Chair in Law at Edinburgh University; but perhaps the enthusiasm and passion for law which is mentioned in his death announcement cost him dear.  The successful candidate for the Chair, the late W A (Bill) Wilson, used to tell the story of how, shortly after the appointment had been announced, he found himself in a social group with the University Principal, Sir Michael Swann, at the bar of the Staff Club in Chambers Street.  Swann told the company in entertaining style about how a few weeks before a candidate for a Law chair had talked himself out of the job during interview, so that the appointment committee had felt compelled to appoint the other candidate, whose name the Principal could not now recall.  It was at this point that Bill stepped forward from the ranks and, catching the Principal's eye, silently pointed towards himself.  Swann apparently was not in the least embarrassed, although he left the University shortly afterwards to head up the BBC instead.