Alistair McGregor: An appreciation

I FIRST met Alistair McGregor in the 1970s at a public enquiry in Portkill, Ireland. His cross-examinations revealed a sharp, forensic mind clothed in a self-deprecating good humour which made him a hugely effective advocate: I knew, instantly, that this was the person to whom I wanted to devil. So there began not only a professional relationship, but a true friendship which lasted until his death on June 13 this year.

The more I came to know Alistair, the more I appreciated the concern for people at the heart of all he did in his life, his calling to the law and then, when his legal career seemed to be set fair to lead him to the very top of the profession, his eschewing of the glittering prizes to turn, instead, to the Church of Scotland ministry. For Alistair, it was a characteristic choice. As he said at the time, “I did not come into the law to help government departments, but to help people.”

Alistair Gerald Crichton McGregor was born on October 15, 1937, to James and Dorothy McGregor in Sevenoaks, Kent, where he shared a happy childhood with his sister, Fiona. Upon leaving Charterhouse School, his National Service in Germany gave him the opportunity to use his German and explore the country. He spent a year with family friends in Vancouver. Sailing over the Atlantic, travelling across Canada by train, and returning through the US by Greyhound – all of this bequeathed him a lifelong love of travel and adventure.

He graduated BA in Jurisprudence from Pembroke College, Oxford, in 1961, and LLB from Edinburgh University in 1964. The ensuing period as a solicitor in his uncle’s law firm was notable not only for the start of his legal career, but also for his meeting Margaret, to whom he was married in August, 1965.

Called to the Bar in 1967, he had a highly successful career, attracting a number of devils who, inspired by his teaching and example, went on themselves to achieve prominence in the law.

Indeed, it was Alistair who shaped my own formation as an Advocate, yet, looking back on that time, the moments which come affectionately to mind are when Alistair’s sense of fun shone through: leaving Ayr Sheriff Court and building sandcastles together on the beach; Alistair, caparisoned in wig and gown, coming down the narrow staircase in the Logierait Hotel (the unlikely setting for Perthshire Highland District Licensing Court) declaiming: “Here’s Batman!”

It was this sense of fun, combined with his considerable forensic abilities, which made him such an effective advocate, earning him the affection and respect of his colleagues, leading to his being appointed Standing Junior Counsel to several Government departments and to his taking silk in 1982, only a year before he changed career to take up his studies at New College from which he graduated BD in 1985. However, his legal background enabled to him to take up a classier student job than his fellow students could aspire to: Temporary Sheriff.

Called as Minister of North Leith Parish Church, he remained there until his retirement in 2002, a time which is fondly remembered by his former parishioners who recall the genuine warmth of his friendship, the way that he stood by them in their hard times, bringing comfort and support. This, of course, was the natural outworking of his concern for others and his calling to serve them.

He served as a member of the Kirk’s Board of Social Responsibility, the Board of Practice and Procedure, the Church and Nation Committee, and the World Mission Middle East Committee. He was Convenor of the Legal Questions Sub-committee and of the Judicial Commission of the General Assembly, and served as a General Trustee of the Church of Scotland. To all of these roles, he brought his gentle sense of humour. Colleagues on the General Trustees recall a serious discussion about a Glasgow church subsiding into sandy soil. One member commented that there was something somewhere about building one’s house on sand. There was a chilling silence until Alistair broke it by laughing loudly.

A Church visit to the Holy Land and, then, in 1993, a three-month Sabbatical in St. George’s College, Jerusalem fuelled in Alistair a passion to help the Palestinian people. In 1994, he went olive-picking with Margaret in Israel/Palestine, where they were to visit on another six occasions, seeking to help both there and back in Edinburgh, where he worked with the Palcrafts/Hadeel operation, becoming its Chair in 2018.

Yet this serious purpose was leavened by his sense of humour. Margaret recalls his confident unflappability when they arrived in Jordan at a really cheap and, as Alistair claimed, good hotel, which he had booked on the internet, but which turned out to be the sort of establishment which more usually rents out its rooms by the hour.

With such a remarkable and energetic public life, he was, yet, very much a man devoted to his family. He was a loving brother, husband, father and grandfather. His personal life was touched by the tragedy of outliving two of his three children, yet still, he lived his life for all of those others, the people in Scotland and in Palestine and elsewhere, whom he felt called upon to love and to serve.

He passed peacefully away at home in the presence of his immediate family, mourned by Margaret, Fiona, his son Euan, and his three grandsons, Connor, Kieran and Alexander; and by all of us whose lives he touched.

In Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, there’s an old monk, Jorge de Burgos, who refuses to believe that Christ ever laughed. One needs only to look at the joyous life of Alistair McGregor to see that could never be true.

Iain G. Mitchell QC