THE heads of Donald Findlay QC's colleagues are spinning with deja-vu.

There were those who had him down as a chastened man. Having lost his vice-chairmanship of Rangers Football Club for singing sectarian songs after the cup win over Celtic in May 1999, he seemed to have gained a sense of caution, and gave the impression that lessons had been learned. He told The Herald: "What I failed to take into account is how people perceive you, and how one allows oneself to be perceived."

His most recent plunge into hot water is, therefore, a huge disappointment to acquaintances and friends, among whom he can inspire great loyalty, despite his behaviour.

This week he was forced to resign as chairman of the business wing in the Faculty of Advocates after telling a joke about the death of Pope John Paul II at a meeting in a Rangers social club in Northern Ireland.

In his defence, Findlay said that it wasn't a sectarian tirade and that he also told jokes about Ian Paisley, but the faculty's directors could no longer support his chairmanship.

His actions, if not described openly as being bigoted, were considered another failure on his part to consider how he might be perceived by others. Even colleagues who know him well find it difficult to pinpoint how he could allow such a situation to arise again, especially since his fall from grace six years ago was so devastating, that he confessed to feeling suicidal.

Findlay is widely regarded as the most talented criminal lawyer in Scotland. Those who rub shoulders with him have no end of respect for his professional skills, and can't help but be charmed by him, which only makes his slip-ups more infuriating.

They want to adore him, but the admiration can never be whole and unconditional.

They were pleased for him when he got the Rangers vice-chairmanship that he so cherished and sorry for him when he became the only St Andrews University rector to miss out on an honorary doctorate. They were, and still are in many cases, happy to defend him against accusations of sectarianism, arguing that the matter of who is and who isn't a bigot is as complex as Findlay himself.

This time, however, their patience has been pushed to the limits. "After all he achieves, he presses the selfdestruct button, " says one legal source. "He can't not tell the joke.

He's surrounded by these people who egg him on, and they are the very ones who will call the press and get him into trouble.

"His intellect and ability are not in question, but his judgment is. It's particularly baff ling since this came so soon after George Wood (the senior lawyer) was fined for telling racist jokes. Donald would have known that, yet he tells the joke all the same. It's a puzzle."

Even his peers at his school, Harris Academy in Dundee, must have felt torn when dealing with Findlay, the Cowdenbeath-born son of a church beadle. They couldn't help but be impressed by his aptitude for debate and quick thinking, but they also felt alienated by his brilliance, and took his belief in his own brain for arrogance. He conformed to the stereotype of the high achiever who, when defeated, can't help but be a very sore loser.

Findlay was admitted to the Faculty of Advocates in 1975, taking silk in 1988. It seemed to new entrants to the profession that he made a conscious decision to become known as a character, every bit as demanding of attention as the sartorially eccentric Sir Nicholas Fairbairn. Findlay admits to loving the theatre of the court, and says he was attracted to criminal law as a boy by the 1950s TV courtroom drama Boyd QC, starring Michael Denison. His interest in ancient Egypt would further suggest he is inspired by those who can leave a legacy. "Many thousands of years on, people are still talking about the pharaohs, " he once gushed. "That must be the nearest thing to immortality that you can have."

Several lawyers remark that Findlay's dismissal of the furore that follows his indiscretions is down to a general detachment demanded by his job. He works 12 hours a day, seven days a week. In the recent past, his briefs have included the defence of Ian Sutherland, jailed for the murder of the former history teacher Alan Wilson in Edinburgh ;

Stuart Leggate, the paedophile convicted of the murder of eight-yearold Mark Cummings; and Luke Mitchell, the schoolboy found guilty of murdering his girlfriend, Jodi Jones. Among the characters he has represented is Paul Ferris, whom he successfully defended after the killing of Arthur Thompson.

"If you do nothing for the rest of your life but rape and murder cases, you lose grip on reality, because your reality becomes a peculiar set of circumstances, " says one lawyer.

"Which is why it doesn't seem to register with Findlay when people suggest he is being inappropriate."

The f lipside of his constant exposure to the most gruesome wrongdoings, however, is that Findlay has developed an enormous compassion for those who fail.

Findlay's personal life appears to have been as eventful as his career.

He left his wife Jenny in the midnineties, amid much media fuss, to live with Paddy Christie, then a BBC TV reporter. An advocate escaped a fine after making a series of nuisance calls to Christie, which was cited as one of the reasons, along with the filmed sectarian sing-song incident, for the disintegration of Findlay and Christie's relationship.

A Tory since childhood, Findlay intended to stand as a Conservative candidate in the Cunninghame North seat in 1992, but stood down, fearing he would find it impossible to combine his work as a criminal advocate with the time needed in the constituency in the run-up to a general election. His commitment to the party is almost as strong as his suspicion of socialism, socialists and the Labour Party (at least back in Neil Kinnock's day). "The Labour Party treats people with absolute contempt. Even as a child I couldn't understand why people were labelled as working-class, middleclass, or whatever. We didn't look upon ourselves as working-class, or any kind of class. We were just us, " he once said.

His colleagues only wish that he could be as detached when it came to football. Such was his rivalry that, before Parkhead's refurbishment, he would delight in putting his feet up on the mahogany fascia in the directors' box. Last year, Findlay said that his days of winding up the opposition like that were over. His Pope joke tells a different story. "If he is not bigoted, " says one acquaintance, "he comes into the grey area of people who are not bigoted but who revel in being provocative about the subject."

This week, some legal experts were speculating that Findlay could even face suspension from the Faculty of Advocates, and if there are any who believe he could hold public office in the future, then they can't be found.

Maybe now he doesn't find his Pope joke quite so funny.