Born: April 1, 1926;

Died: February 14, 2021.


SIR William Macpherson of Cluny, who has died aged 94, led from the front throughout his long life. In doing so – as clan chief, soldier, lawyer, judge and passionate rugby player – he exemplified his noted Jacobite ancestor, Cluny Macpherson, and it was no surprise when he was invited to become one of four patrons of the 1745 Association.

Sir William’s trademarks proved to be personal courage and independent judgement. He needed both when in 1997 the Lord Chancellor, Lord Irvine of Lairg, asked him to lead the inquiry into the racially motivated murder of Stephen Lawrence in April 1993.

The investigation took evidence for a year, yet Sir William produced his report inside an astonishing six weeks. His findings that “institutional racism” existed within the Metropolitan Police saw him subject to death threats. However Jack Straw, the Home Secretary, promised action on all 70 recommendations.

The undertaking proved a personal commitment to justice of colossal proportions. Indeed, his conclusion that the police investigation had been “marred by a combination of professional incompetence, institutional racism and failure of leadership” put him under personal attack from those who found their implications uncomfortable.

But his recommendations led to reforms that have ameliorated problems he identified, and ultimately resulted in a measure of posthumous justice for Stephen Lawrence.

William Alan Macpherson was born in 1926, the year of the general strike, in Ealing, Middlesex. Educated at Wellington College and Trinity College, Oxford, his capacity for leadership showed when he was commissioned into the Scots Guards in 1944, then training with 21 SAS. Years later, he was appointed to honorary colonelcy of each.

As hooker on the rugby field, he captained London Scottish in 1954. In a select game, he was one of only three non-internationalists of the XV. He entered the showers after a game to be greeted by a voice through the steam: “Ah, you must be the other Macpherson!”. This was redoubtable Tommy Macpherson. Both would later be knighted.

The two become firm friends, with Bill best man at Tommy’s wedding. But even Sir William’s aptitude for the ready remark was tested when, as guests were entering the dining room for the Golden Wedding of Tommy and Jean, he was asked to deliver the toast – on the grounds that he had done the same 50 years previously.

Away from a distinguished career – he was a judge of the High Court of England and Wales (Queen’s Bench Division), served as presiding judge of the Northern Circuit, and had practised as Queen’s Counsel in London and abroad – the life of William Alan Macpherson of Cluny and Blairgowrie was ardently tied up with Scotland.

Genealogist, historian and heraldist besides a patron of the 1745 Association, he was “a committed member of the Royal Celtic Society for half-a-century”, said Dr Alan Hay, chairman of the society.

As only son to his father, Brigadier Alan Macpherson, who had been made DSO for his exploits in the Great War, Sir William succeeded as 27th chief of Macpherson in 1969. ”Cluny” to his clansfolk, he led the annual march of his clan at the Newtonmore Games, entering the field to the strains of Macpherson’s Rant. Keen on pipe music, he had been played out on retirement from the Royal Courts of Justice to the tune, Mrs Macpherson of Inveran.

Chief for over half-a-century, he led the celebrations in 2016 on the 70th anniversary of the founding of Clan Macpherson Association, one of the world’s most active clan societies.

Macphersons certainly know how to party, for there’s a dinner and ball the evening before the games, and a ceilidh after the games. Surviving the near-infamous After-Ceilidh Ceilidh required front-line courage, with Cluny leading the singing, his party pieces being “Blaydon Races”, then a somewhat risqué song about an RAF parachutist who didn’t quite make it. At breakfast the morning after, a weary clansman, in admiration of his chief’s tenacity, enquired: “Cluny, what are you going to do when you grow up?” Cluny was 91 at the time.

As fastidious in genealogy and heraldry as he was in law, Sir William kept clan papers filed at home in acid-free boxes in a purpose-built study and gallery, the walls of which are covered in heraldry – his own and that of his clansfolk.

In a corner, his bonnet with three chiefly feathers, when not in action on the chief’s head, rested on a stuffed wildcat in rampant pose, the Macpherson crest.

His Blairgowrie castle has been home to Macphersons since it was purchased in 1787 by James “Ossian” Macpherson as agent for Cluny’s ancestor. Sir William travelled the world to represent the house of Macpherson, and was at ease alike with presidents and prime ministers, cleaners and clansfolk.

He was no token chief: he studiously attended to clan matters personally, and played an active role in Clan Chattan, the federation of some half-dozen kindred families. Sir William eschewed being a patriarchal figure to his clan, referring to his position simply as “first among equals”. Leading 150 clansfolk on to Edinburgh Castle Esplanade at the Tattoo in August 2017, he turned down an invitation to sit in the Royal box, saying “Thank you, but I shall sit among my people”.

A lifelong golfer, he was once playing nine holes on Rosemount when his opponent asked if Sir William had played the course before. “For about 80 years” came the reply. Legend is that his rival lost every hole thereafter.

Sir William was predeceased by Sheila née Brodie, his wife of over 40 years, and his elder son, Alan. He is survived by his daughter Annie, son Jamie, and five grandchildren.

After the death of Lady Macpherson, he met Hilary, Lady Burnham, daughter of Perth lawyer Alan Hunter. They had first met in Meikleour village hall when she was 16. Together, Cluny and Lady Burnham formed a close and loving partnership.

Sir William is succeeded by his son Jamie as 28th chief to the clan Macpherson.