A Christmas treat from Bute

Readers of Scots Law News with Christmas book tokens burning holes in their wallets could do no better than repair to a good bookshop or (if possible) Amazon and get themselves a copy of the autobiography of Sheriff Irvine Smith QC, Law, Life and Laughter: A Personal Verdict, published earlier this year.

The dust jacket carries characteristic portraits of the author, standing outside the portico-ed exterior of (your correspondent thinks) the former Justiciary buildings in Glasgow, within which he began to make his name as an advocate in the late 1950s.  When your correspondent was an Edinburgh law student back in the mid-1970s, he made an outing to the Glasgow sheriff court (then in the County Buildings in Wilson Street) to see in action the by now formidable judge whose scintillating prose and wit had incomparably brightened up the study of criminal law and procedure, notably in the great case of Heron v Diack and Newlands 1973 SLT (Sh Ct) 27 (the coffins and the corpse that would not sink in the waters of the Firth of Clyde).  Our lecturer had also regaled his class with tales of Irvine Smith’s judicious put-downs of the bar and Glasgow’s criminal classes (one of which is retold here at pp 166-167), so it was clear that a train journey would likely be worth the slight drain on the student wallet.  The experience did not disappoint: in the chaotic conditions seething behind the classical facade of the court building, Sheriff Smith was indeed presiding over a cramped court-room in which the almost equally famous Len Murray was appearing on behalf of the accused.  The interaction of these two quick wits (and friends) was something both to hear and behold, if now impossible to recapture in detail or in words.  Even the accused seemed almost to enjoy the show.

Neither does the dip into this book disappoint.  The most vivid chapters are those about life on the bench in Glasgow sheriff court, where Irvine sat from 1963 to 1983, and the five capital murder trials in which he acted for the accused before beginning his time as a judge.  It is not all crime: there is a chapter on the (unreported) civil claim that arose from the Ibrox Disaster of 1971, and part of another on the controversial verbal injury case, Steele v The Scottish Daily Record and Sunday Mail Ltd, reported at 1970 SLT 53.  Scarcely less interesting, although for quite different reasons, are the chapters on Irvine’s early life as the late and only child of a working class family from Falkirk, but one with many aunts and a formidable maternal grandmother through whom the boy’s horizons were extended to both the Gorbals and rural Ayrshire.  There were to be further sharp contrasts when he went on, first to Glasgow University, and then to the Faculty of Advocates in Edinburgh. 

All of this is described in rich detail which is, however, never overdone or rendered in the “tall tales from the courts” fashion which mars too many lawyers’ autobiographical efforts.  What we get is reflective both on the self of the author and the times and places in which he has lived.  Along the way we gain insight into what shaped the inimitable Irvine: the sonorous and eloquent voice, the lover of Burns, food and wine, and what combined these qualities to make one of Scotland’s greatest after-dinner speakers.  There is plenty of observation about the characters he has met along the way: the fishing, sailing and cormorant-eating Free Church minister from St Kilda; Barney Noon, Glasgow conman, alcoholic and poet; and “Lui”, the Italian prisoner-of-war who became a labourer paid only in kind on a farm near Falkirk and never went back to Italy, are only three of the colourful figures to each of whom the book devotes a number of pages.

Another facet of Irvine’s contribution has been his engagement with the study of the history of Scots law.  He has been a prominent member of the Stair Society (ultimately its Vice-President and first honorary member) and a contributor to the Society’s publications, especially on criminal law and procedure.  A whole chapter is devoted to his engagement with the Society, from which we learn more about the work done for it by Hector McKechnie and Campbell Paton in the 1950s than about the modest author’s own significant efforts (for which see vols 20, 27 and 28).  We read as well about unpublished projects on Nicolson’s Practicks and the Justiciary records, as well as (too little) about his famous class on Scottish legal history at Glasgow University, taught at 5 pm on Mondays and Thursdays from 1957 to 1983.  One of your correspondent’s disappointments as the present Literary Director of the Society was his failure to persuade Irvine to publish in a Miscellany volume his 1998 Stair Society Lecture, “The Trial of Captain Thomas Green for Piracy in 1705”, with its analysis of a key event in the run-up to the 1707 Union.  On the other hand, a memory which even the day after the event was a little indistinct at the edges was Irvine’s impromptu speech at a well-oiled Stair Society lunch early in the 1980s, held in the slightly improbable venue of the then newly-opened restaurant in the crypt of St Giles Cathedral: John Knox would have approved of neither event nor speech.

A book full of joy and vigour ends perhaps slightly sadly with Irvine’s account of his life since leaving Glasgow sheriff court in 1983, with words and phrases such as “mistake”, “disillusionment” and “social and geographical isolation” peppering his prose despite his continuing activity as sheriff at Greenock and residence in the aptly named island of Bute in the Firth of Clyde, where he still lives.  It is good to see his wife Diana disagreeing with him at p 288, and certainly there is much globe-trotting activity in pursuit of his avocation as after-dinner speaker at Burns Night and St Andrew’s Day events.  One quotation from p 265 will perhaps give the flavour: “For me, the opportunity of being able to say I had sung solo ‘Oh gin I were a Baron’s heir’ and Stevenson’s words, ‘Sing me a song of a lad that is gone’, to the tune of ‘Over the sea to Skye’, on the main deck of a Chinese junk, on a Sunday evening going round the harbour of Singapore was too great to be resisted.”  It is good that the temptation to spend some time writing this surely classic memoir has also been too great to be resisted.  Read and enjoy.