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Appreciation: Professor Emeritus Alexander John ("Alastair") McDonald WS

15 April 18

The edited version of the obituary for the solicitor and Professor of Conveyancing at the University of Dundee

by Stewart Brymer

15 March 1919 - 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 as an open scholar at Fettes College, where he won a number of prizes. He went on to Christ’s College, Cambridge on an open classics scholarship. 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 in India, Burma and Germany, serving for a while in one of Wingate’s “boxes” behind Japanese lines and rising to lieutenant.

After the war, he embarked on an LLB at the University of Edinburgh, obtaining the first prize in Conveyancing, and graduating with distinction in 1949. 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.

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 was the university solicitor at the time of the split of the University of Dundee from the University of St Andrews in 1967. 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 that were necessary in order to create the current central campus of Dundee University.

His conveyancing lectures and, more particularly, tutorials were viewed by students with apprehension, on account of their rigour. He was widely referred to simply as “the Prof”. Rarely was anyone late or unprepared for one of his classes. His Conveyancing Manual, now in its seventh edition, has been a recommended text on the Diploma in Professional Legal Practice in all universities from its commencement. He 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 solicitors, 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 Diploma, which he tackled with his customary enthusiasm, unpaid. Such was the character and dedication of the man. He remained, even after retirement, a scholar of the law and someone who was as keen on the development of the future of conveyancing practice as on the history and integrity of Scots property law.

Throughout this time he, together with the late Dr J Stuart Fair, developed their practice of Dickie, Gray, McDonald & Fair, then Thorntons & Dickies WS (now Thorntons Law LLP), until retiring as a partner in 1984 and becoming a consultant – a role 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 and trust law, focused on the needs of his clients and an unerring duty to do the right thing. Contrary to what some might have thought, he was always approachable – although one always had to prepare before entering his office! Like others of a similar disposition, he was uncompromising in his enthusiasm for the law and its development.

He was always keen to see the academic study and the practice of law develop in tandem. In the early 1980s 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 practice due to land registration. Latterly, he was also very supportive of the 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.

The argument that things had always been done one way only prompted him to seek out new and more cost-effective, transparent ways 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 but which became the basis for the move, ultimately throughout Scotland, for the introduction of standard clauses in offers. He was also the first solicitor to introduce standardised documentation in order to make transactions easier and more efficient for all. His styles also formed the basis of the development of electronic registration of title by Registers of Scotland – but to him were an aid to more efficient practice and never a substitute for a thorough understanding of the underlying law.

His influence will continue 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. All was achieved in a quiet, efficient manner in a way which, in some respects, is sadly missing from the modern profession. 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 firm and helped a national company develop an early form of case management software. 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. He married Doreen in 1951, and had four children, living in the West End of Dundee, where it has been said he often carried out gardening under a floodlight due to his long office hours. After the firm ceased opening on Saturday mornings, he continued with his usual routine. It was not until many years later that Doreen learned by chance 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 Miller, and 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. He had a love of foreign travel, which he and Doreen enjoyed with Stuart Fair and his wife. They usually returned with ideas for business developments – one of the most notable being to move 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 into the Sacra Romana Rota in Rome – appeals to the Papal courts prior to the Reformation. Their unique research had considerable significance to a better understanding of the historical development of Scots law.

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 to spend the time with those he loved.  

Stewart Brymer, Brymer Legal Ltd and the University of Dundee.
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