Born: June 12 1929

Died: July 20 2017

Lord McCluskey of Churchill in the District of the City of Edinburgh was one of the most distinguished Scots lawyers of his generation and widely regarded as one of the country’s foremost legal minds of the late 20th and early 21st century.

As an advocate he defended Paul McCartney on charges of cultivating cannabis before becoming Sheriff Principal of Dumfries and Galloway, Solicitor-General for Scotland during the Labour government of 1974-79 and then a Senator of the College of Justice, a judge of the Court of Session and the High Court of Justiciary.

He was instrumental in at least two major issues in Scots law. The first was his success, during the passage of the Scotland Act through the House of Lords in 1997, in arguing that the new parliament should not have the power to remove judges by a simple majority, but that any such decisions should be made by an independent body.

The other was after the separate cases of Cadder and Fraser in which the UK Supreme Court overturned rulings by the Scottish Courts. McCluskey was asked to chair an inquiry, which eventually proposed that the Supreme Court should be limited to ruling on cases of “general public importance”, rather than on individual appeals. “The UK and Scottish governments accepted entirely what we had decided,” he later said, “which was very satisfactory.”

In retirement he was still outspoken on legal issues; in one newspaper article he strongly criticised the Scottish government’s plans (later dropped) to abolish the requirement for corroboration.

Not all his positions were as successful. He was notably sceptical about the incorporation of a human rights bill into the legal system, arguing that it undermined the authority of the UK and Scottish parliaments, and allowed for legislation to be effectively created by unelected officials. The recommendations he drew up for a Scottish version of the Leveson report on press regulation were criticised for threatening press freedom (an allegation he vehemently contested) and nothing came of them.

John Herbert McCluskey was born on June 12 1929 in Glasgow, the son of Francis McCluskey, a solicitor, and his wife Margaret, a schoolteacher. Part of his childhood was spent in Manchester, where he attended St Bede’s Grammar School, before the family returned to Scotland and John continued his schooling at Holy Cross Academy in Edinburgh.

He won a bursary (later supplemented by two further scholarships) to proceed to Edinburgh University, from which he graduated MA (1950), LLB (1952). His National Service was as a pilot officer, stationed first on the Isle of Man and then at RAF Spitalgate in Lincolnshire, where he received the Sword of Honour for 1953.

He was admitted to the Faculty of Advocates in 1955. The following year he married Ruth Friedland, whom he had met during his National Service, and set about building his career with, at first, humdrum cases. “Uncontested divorces on a Saturday morning, that sort of thing” as one colleague described his bread and butter.

A staunch Labour man, he also made several bids for election, until he was appointed as an advisor to the Ministry of Power in Scotland as Standing Junior Counsel in 1963. The following year, he began a seven-year stint as Advocate-Depute. He was an effective prosecutor, gaining a reputation for being scrupulously fair, and took silk in 1967. From 1972 to 1974 he was Chairman of the Medical Appeals Tribunal for Scotland, and in 1973-4 Sheriff Principal of Dumfries and Galloway.

The trial, in 1973, of Paul McCartney for cultivation and possession of cannabis at his farm on the Mull of Kintyre caused predictable media excitement. The former Beatle, McCluskey recalled, turned up in a private plane which was met by three Rolls-Royces which were intended as decoys for the press.

All but one of the charges was dropped on technical grounds, and the former Beatle then pleaded guilty to growing cannabis, though McCluskey argued in court that McCartney had “a longstanding interest in horticulture” and had been sent the seeds by a fan, with no notion of what might plants might emerge.

When sentence, a £30 fine, was handed down, Len Murray, McCartney’s solicitor, got McCluskey, an old friend, to ask for time to pay – leading to general hilarity in the courtroom. At the press conference afterwards, when ITN’s Martyn Lewis asked why three months’ grace had been requested, Murray replied that it sounded better than 50p a week.

On Harold Wilson’s election, McCluskey then became Solicitor-General for Scotland, a government post which he held until the Conservatives came to power in 1979, and he was replaced by Nicky Fairbairn. From 1976 he operated from the House of Lords, where he continued for five years as the Opposition spokesman on Scottish legal affairs. He became a strong defender of the Upper House.

In 1984, he became a Senator of the College of Justice, a judge of the Court of Session and the High Court of Justiciary. From 1985 until 1994, he was chairman of the Scottish Association for Mental Health and in 1986 he became the first sitting judge to present the BBC’s Reith Lectures.

From 1988, he was chairman of the Scottish Football League’s Compensation Tribunal; two years later, he added the chairmanship of the SFA’s Appeals Tribunal. From 1988-95, he edited Butterworth’s Scottish Criminal Law and Practice series. From 1997-2004, he chaired the memorial trust of the former Labour leader John Smith, who had been a close friend.

Away from the law, he was good company, and a naturally warm figure. He was a keen tennis player who continued to play regularly well into his 80s, enjoyed good food and wine, and was an accomplished pianist. The death in 2014 of his wife, with whom he adopted two sons and a daughter, and whom he nursed through her final illness, came as a great blow, but he continued to work and to attend the Lords, until his retirement in March of this year.

Andrew McKie