Professor Robert Rennie: An appreciation

PROFESSOR Robert Rennie’s death at the age of 73 on January 6 has created in academic circles and the practice of law a void which will be difficult to fill. He was one of a sadly declining number of academics with a knowledge of practice. In fact, he continued to work in private practice while fulfilling the demanding duties of being the Professor of Conveyancing at the University of Glasgow.

Robert and I went to the University of Glasgow in 1964. He graduated 1967, but was awarded a prize in conveyancing—permitting him to pursue a Ph.D, graduating in 1972. He was an apprentice with Bishop, Milne and Boyd, where Jack Halliday, the then Professor of Conveyancing, another “character”, was the senior partner.

In 1972, Robert was persuaded by Iain Bonomy to move to Ballantyne & Copland, Motherwell, where he developed their conveyancing practice as well as being involved in more general matters. I am indebted to Iain for the following anecdote: Robert had a client who thought that her Alsatian should be in an identification parade, saying it had been wrongly identified as a child-biter. Robert, a great wit and mimicker, appeared above a partition, hands pointed like a dog’s ears and panting—all for Iain’s benefit.

The firm grew, and its members included Iain (later Lord Bonomy) a Court of Session judge, Lady (Valerie) Stacey, also a Judge) and Jock Brown, a partner and a well-known football commentator. Robert dealt with the firm’s financial affairs and he was a very popular staff partner: he was a good listener and treated the staff with respect.

His reputation as an expert in conveyancing and professional practice grew and he was invited by the Convenor of the Law Society’s Conveyancing Committee, Colin Miller, to join, having provided a learned paper on minerals. (Later, Robert himself became the Convenor).

At that time, there were residential Post-Qualifying Courses on Conveyancing. Eminent academics and practitioners including, George Gretton (Professor), John McNeil (former President of the Law Society), Colin Miller, later a sheriff, Kenneth Reid (Professor), and, of course, Robert, took part. These were demanding, not least because at the end, the speakers were asked questions by the audience of which there was no advance notice. From one event, Colin has a photograph which is a collector’s item as Robert is not wearing his customary three-piece suit.

I was privileged to act as a referee when he applied for the Chair of Conveyancing at Glasgow, and he became the Professor in 1994. The position was a part-time one, but Robert balanced the demands of practice with those of being a chair-holder with great distinction, calm and a sense of humour.

We had a very productive joint authorship and we were popular with book publishers as we kept to their deadlines. Robert collaborated with others, producing books on Leases, Minerals and, on his own, an impressive book on Solicitors’ Negligence — resulting from his opinions on that subject.

He had been an expert court witness, but often matters would be settled when the parties considered his erudite and practical pronouncements. In all of this, he was another Jack Halliday and there could not be any finer example to follow.

In 2002, he was headed-hunted by the then fledgling Harper Macleod where he was one of a number of specialists but again operated an “open door” policy. He was approachable, something that stemmed from his nature and which endeared him to his students and colleagues.

He retired from Harper Macleod in 2017 but remained a Consultant. At his farewell dinner, the Chairman of the Firm, Professor Lorne Crerar, said of him: “I absolutely defy anyone to name a more universally respected, admired, accomplished and in H.M., loved individual for your compassion and personality. You should be enormously proud of all your many achievements but most importantly for us … that you leave us individually and collectively the better for knowing you.”

His best students of the year were invited to a convivial dinner, a tradition of Halliday’s: there, students met others from academic life, judges, sheriffs, and other practitioners. On these occasions, he demonstrated his skills as a mimic and, as Lord Bonomy notes, not even Scotland’s senior judge escaped, but it was all good-hearted.

Robert’s distinguished contribution to academia and practice is evident from his books, articles and opinions (4,000 of them).

Like me, he was part of an Advisory Group set up by the Scottish Law Commission for its work on the abolition of the feudal system of land ownership. He and I were asked to give evidence to a Committee of the Scottish Parliament on these reforms. Both he and the Committee were greatly amused when I referred to him as “my father”—another jibe at the waistcoat. We were told that our contribution had been crystal-clear and they enjoyed the humour.

He made other contributions to law reform and to the work of the Law Society, unknown to others than those of us who witnessed them. In 2015, he was awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award by the Law Awards of Scotland.

He married Catherine in 1970 and had four children – David, Jennifer, Karen and Alison –and seven grandchildren. His death is a tragedy for his family, especially at this time. Hopefully, when things are better, there will be a memorial service to pay appropriate tributes to a man of great distinction, real quality, and humanity.

Douglas J. Cusine