Appreciation: Professor Emeritus Alexander John ("Alastair") McDonald
The full appreciation of the much respected solicitor and Professor of Conveyancing at the University of Dundee: born 15 March 1919; died 22 March 2018
Alexander (“Alastair”) John McDonald was brought up on a farm in Polmont, near Falkirk, son of a tea planter returned from India. He was the youngest of three, and had two sisters.
He was educated at Cargilfield and then Fettes College as an open scholar, where he won a number of prizes. From Fettes, he went on to Christ’s College, Cambridge on an open classics scholarship to study classics. At the end of his second year, he was called up and finally graduated with a “war emergency” BA only after six years’ army service. He was in anti-aircraft units during the war, rising to lieutenant, and was posted to India and Burma, serving for a while in one of Wingate’s “boxes” behind Japanese lines, and Germany.
After the war, he embarked on an LLB at the University of Edinburgh, obtaining the first prize in conveyancing, the Thow Scholarship and John Robertson Prize, graduating with distinction in 1949. In that year, he also qualified as a solicitor, was admitted to the WS Society, and became a partner in the Edinburgh firm of Allan, Dawson, Simpson & Hampton WS. He lectured part-time in Edinburgh University before his appointment to the Chair of Conveyancing at Queen's College, St Andrews in 1955, becoming a partner in Messrs WB Dickie & Sons in 1956. He was the university solicitor at the time of the split from the University of St Andrews in 1967.
Though part-time, he was Dean of the Law Faculty in 1958-63 and again in 1965-66, all in addition to his responsibilities for the chair, and his law firm. He became a member of University Court (as well as Senate, ex officio as a professor), and was deeply involved on behalf of Queen’s College in the numerous property transactions which were necessary in order to extend the college site on the Nethergate into a campus extending from the Perth Road to the (New) Hawkhill, and from Park Place to Miller’s Wynd, thus creating what is the current central campus of the university. It would not be inaccurate to say that without his dedication to this task as university solicitor, the university precinct would not be what it is today.
His conveyancing lectures and, more particularly, tutorials were viewed by students with apprehension, on account of their rigour. He was widely referred to as simply “the Prof”. Rarely was anyone late or unprepared for one of his lectures or tutorials. His Conveyancing Manual, now in its seventh edition, has been a recommended text for Conveyancing on the Diploma in Professional Legal Practice in all universities from its commencement. He also published a Registration of Title Manual to accompany the enactment of the Land Registration (Scotland) Act 1979. His lecture notes were later published for Diploma students as Conveyancing Notes (2nd ed, 1984), and his opinions compiled and published as Professor McDonald’s Conveyancing Opinions (1998). He delivered hundreds of opinions to fellow members of the profession, often within a very short timescale. This he saw as his duty to his professional colleagues.
In 1979, he retired from the university, but only nominally, in order to reduce Law Faculty expenditure, and continued teaching for some years thereafter, including on the then new practical Diploma in Legal Practice, which he tackled with his customary enthusiasm, unpaid, with much the same workload. Such was the character and dedication of the man. He remained, even after his retirement, a scholar of the law and someone who was as keen on the development of the future of conveyancing practice as much as the history and integrity of Scots property law.
Throughout this time, he, together with the late Dr J Stuart Fair, developed their legal practice of Dickie, Gray, McDonald and Fair, then Thorntons & Dickies WS (now known as Thorntons Law LLP), until retiring as a partner in 1984 and becoming a consultant – a role which he assiduously carried out until 2000 or thereby. He was widely regarded in both local and national legal circles as an intelligent, intellectual and unassuming man who had a comprehensive grasp of Scots property law and trust law. That knowledge was detailed, sharp and, at all times, focused on the needs of his clients and an unerring duty to do the right thing. Contrary to what some might have thought as a result of his dedicated work ethic and drive, he was always approachable – although one always had to prepare in a comprehensive manner before entering his office – especially if the red light was on outside! Like others of a similar disposition, he was uncompromising in his enthusiasm for the law and its development. He was highly respected in academic and commercial circles and was a co-author of the first of only two professorial opinions on conveyancing.
He was involved in a number of high profile transactions, including the formation of the National Bank of Dubai and the formation of the trust deed for what was to become Dundee Heritage Trust. He was always keen to see the academic study and the practice of law develop in tandem. This he did in the early 1980s when he persuaded Registers of Scotland and the Nationwide Building Society to have a new residential housing development classified as a distinct operational area for the purposes of registration of title, so that students and practitioners could get used to the changes in conveyancing practice as a result of the introduction of registration of title. Latterly, he was also very supportive of the Law School’s Diploma in Legal Practice Unit’s initiative with Dundee Rep to develop a module designed to improve advocacy and client handling techniques. He always saw the opportunity for ongoing learning.
His interest in academic matters fuelled and sustained his drive towards changing the practice of conveyancing. To him, the argument that things had always been done one way was not an answer. On the contrary, such a position prompted him to seek out new and more cost-effective and transparent ways to do things in the future for the benefit of clients and conveyancers alike. He was responsible for the firm’s residential property offer which, in style and content, was a significant departure from the then norm. Its testament was that it became the basis for the move, initially in Tayside and then throughout Scotland, for the introduction of standard clauses in residential property offers.
He was also the first solicitor to introduce standardised documentation into the conveyancing process in order to make transactions easier and more efficient for all. His suite of “boxed form” deeds were introduced to less than critical acclaim by many in the legal profession outside his firm (which was described, somewhat unfairly, as the “conveyancing factory”), but were soon adopted by many and later became the basis for the modern desire to have standardised legal templates. His styles were based on a sound understanding of the law and also formed the basis of the development of electronic registration of title by Registers of Scotland. Style documentation to him was an aid to more efficient practice and was never a substitute for a thorough understanding of the underlying law.
His influence was felt by many, and that continues to this day and will do for years to come. He was, quite simply, one of a rare breed of academic lawyers who are also practising solicitors using one skill to further the other. Those who trained under and worked with him can vouch for the quality of his teaching and depth and breadth of knowledge – as well as the red felt pen with which he marked up drafts presented to him for comment. All of this was achieved in a quiet, efficient manner in a way which, in some respects, is sadly missing from the modern legal profession with its unstinting desire to further the art of time recording.
He knew the value of his time and did not need a computer to record it for him. Nevertheless, he was at the forefront of the introduction of IT into his law firm and worked with a national company, assisted by his long time secretary, Mrs Pat Dunn, in helping them develop an early form of case management software. To him, it was a natural step – just as he supported the move towards electronic conveyancing. His were challenging shoes to fill if one was covering his work while he was on holiday. To some, this would be classified as fear but, in reality, it was fear born out of respect and a desire not to disappoint him in any way. He was a model of professional integrity and ethical standards.
The foregoing is a description of Alastair McDonald the professor of law and solicitor. There was much more to him than that, however. He married Doreen in 1951, and had four children, David, Sandy, Claire and Ginny (and in years to come six grandchildren), living in the West End of Dundee, where it has been said he often carried out gardening under a floodlight due to the long office hours he kept, and latterly in Broughty Ferry and then Monikie. After his firm ceased opening on Saturday mornings, he nevertheless continued with his usual routine. It was not until many years later, after Doreen was speaking to the wife of another partner in the firm, that she realised that the office was actually closed on Saturdays.
He was a dedicated family man who enjoyed the music of the 1940s and 50s, such as Glenn Millar, and was an excellent squash player in his early days. He also had a bright sense of humour. He took an interest in the families of those with whom he worked and would always want to know what they were doing. He had a love of foreign travel which he and his wife enjoyed with Stuart Fair and his wife. They travelled widely together and usually returned with ideas for other business developments – one of the most notable being to encourage the firm to develop into the field of intellectual property law, many years before that discipline became fashionable in Scotland.
Along with the late Jim Robertson from the university Law Faculty, he also carried out extensive research in to the Sacra Romana Rota in Rome – for hundreds of years prior to the Reformation, appeals on Scots law were dealt with under the Rota to the papal courts in Rome. Theirs was unique research which had considerable significance to a better understanding of the historical development of Scots law – mixed with highly entertaining lunches in their favourite restaurants in the Holy City. There are many practising and retired solicitors who have reason to be grateful for his life and work.
Alastair McDonald enjoyed a long and fulfilling life, the only pity being that he did not live to enjoy his 100th birthday. Knowing the man, however, he would not have wanted any fuss to be made preferring, instead, to spend the time with those he loved – no doubt asking about what they were up to that day and what they were to be doing tomorrow.