The Macneil of Barra

Ian Macneil of Barra died in Edinburgh at the age of 80 on 16 February 2010.

Ian had featured in these pages as Chief of the Macneils of Barra handing over the ancestral lands to the island community in 2004, and it was this aspect of his life which was also most highlighted in the Herald, Scotsman, Telegraph and Times obituaries, alongside his spotting of the presidential potential of the young Barack Obama while teaching at Harvard.  Less noticed, however, was the fact that he was one of the great US contract scholars of the twentieth century – the sort of scholar about whose work other scholars hold symposia and conferences to discuss it in depth.  The "relational contract" was one of the great pieces of theoretical insight in contract law, and its impact continues in US law schools down to the present.

Your correspondent recalls Ian arriving in Edinburgh around 1980 to give a seminar on relational contract theory which was also attended by T B Smith.  Ian expounded his thesis in characteristically witty style but did use quite a lot of rather abstract terminology in the process of demolishing what he called the "classical theory of contract".  At the end of the presentation the chairman called for questions and silience fell for a few moments, to be broken at last by T B booming, "Well, I at least remain an unrepentant classicist."  Consensus in idem did not follow.

Another recollection from a few years later is Ian coming to address the Contract Honours class at Edinburgh (then jointly taught by Stephen (now Lord) Woolman and your correspondent).  It was the last seminar of the course, and we had invited Iain to consider the topic of "The Death of Contract".  We introduced him to the expectant class, and then Iain began with a dismissive wave in our direction – "Forget everything these guys have told you!"  Just what the troops needed with the exam only weeks away.

A final memory is of Ian just over a year ago chairing with his usual wit and charm a session at the annual gathering of the Scottish Medievalists devoted to the subject of medieval ships and maritime ventures, and showing amazing knowledge of the relational contracts of the middle ages.  But luckily by then he was using shorter words to put his message over, and any classicists present would probably not have realised the medicine with which they were being dosed.