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Book reviews

15 September 14

Reviews of The Law of Succession: Origins and Background of The Law of Succession to Arms and Dignities in Scotland (Moncrieffe of that Ilk); The Mother Court (Zirin)

by George Way, David J Dickson (book review editor)

The Law of Succession

Origins and Background of The Law of Succession to Arms and Dignities in Scotland

Sir Iain Moncrieffe of that Ilk Bt, QC (edited by Jackson W Armstrong)


ISBN: 978-1904607861

PRICE: £64

I had the distinct honour of counting the late Sir Iain as one of my professional mentors. In 1980 I was a callow young lawyer with a smattering of knowledge on matters chivalric and recently appointed as clerk to the Standing Council of Scottish Chiefs; he was a baronet, Queen's Counsel, a distinguished soldier, a clan chief and one of the world’s leading experts on heraldry and genealogy.

I was taken aback to discover that Sir Iain had not been content to bask in the reflected glory of heredity but was the holder of degrees from the Universities of Oxford and Edinburgh, including a Doctorate. This work is his doctoral thesis, carefully and thoughtfully edited into an important resource for modern scholars and anyone with an interest in genealogy. It has also been embellished by a contemporary rendition of the author’s heraldic achievement, painted by his fellow advocate, Mark Dennis Ormond Pursuivant.

This is not a work for the fainthearted: the learned author develops his thesis by steering the reader from the mists of ancient Pictland through to the better charted waters of 16th century Scotland, but it cannot be dismissed as a mere narrative of aristocratic greasy pole climbing. Sir Iain described himself as “the world's greatest snob”, but in truth, early disputes over succession only broke out amongst those kinship groups that had something to pass on worth squabbling over.

This work sheds light on how a sophisticated legal system emerged throughout Europe, and although modern legal scholarship has challenged our traditional blood based bias, the laws of succession still, as yet, owe much to the historical analysis which the author sets out in magisterial manner but with the presentational flair one might expect from a prominent member of the bar. He cites statute and case law, supported by a myriad of more obscure sources which only someone with his background could access and only a scholar with a true polymath brain could assimilate.

Anyone interested in the evolution of our laws of succession, or just the history of Scotland, will find this work fascinating. Sir Iain was also one of this nation's literary treasures, and anyone who wants to know more about this remarkable man should read Lord of the Dance – a Moncrieffe Miscellany (Debretts (1986); ISBN 978-0905649818), a collection of his more humorous writings. This will, inter alia, explain why the grass outside a gentleman’s diningroom, in a house with 40 rooms but only two lavatories, is invariably dead…

Sheriff George A Way

The Mother Court

Tales of Cases that Mattered in America's Greatest Trial Court

James Zirin


ISBN: 978-1627223225

PRICE: $29.95

"The Mother Court" is the US District Court for the Southern District of New York, and derives its name as its inception predates the United States Supreme Court by several weeks, having been established by the Judiciary Act 1789. In this readable and revealing book, James Zirin, a former assistant United States attorney at the court, recounts with wit and a sharp, shrewd eye, some of the most memorable cases heard before the court, before some of the United States' most celebrated judges.

To those unfamiliar with the United States system of justice, this book is revelatory. Of judges Zirin writes: "Judges often surprise us with how they react on the bench as contrasted with our perception of their pre-appointment dispositions." Quite! He goes on: "Hugo Black, a Dixiecrat Senator from Alabama and member of the Ku Klux Klan, turned out to be one of the most libertarian justices of the Supreme Court." Doubt he'd get far with the Judicial Appointments Board! He was nominated by Roosevelt and was part of the Supreme Court Bench in US v Price, which overturned the decision of the lower court to dismiss charges of murder against 18 members of the Klan and which ultimately saw seven – including three Klan members – convicted of murder.

The book roams over a variety of topics which were before the court – libel, pornography, the trials against the Mob, press freedom, corruption and the accountants. In the latter category, Mr Zirin tells us that while acting for Arthur Andersen in the De Lorean motor car case, he took a statement from Margaret Thatcher, then Prime Minister, about the financing and failure of the company. Given Mr Zirin's trial record, he observes (wistfully/with grace?): "I felt that to have gone Mano a Mano with Margaret Thatcher and come up with a draw was a singular accomplishment."

We learn too of the outcome of McCarthyism that gripped post-war America, and the author recounts three significant trials, the most notable of which was that of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, convicted of espionage and sentenced to death. Mr Zirin takes us deftly through charges, trial and appeals process, assessing the fairness of the procedure of which Judge Friendly, in dismissing a habeas application by a co-defendant, observed: "We must admit that on a direct appeal today we would reverse not only as to Ethel but almost certainly as to Julius and very likely as to Sobell as well." This is a thoroughly enjoyable book.

David J Dickson

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