A lasting legacy to Professor Sir Neil MacCormick
Edinburgh Law School sought to produce a collection of four busts, created by Kenny Hunter, generating a lasting tribute to Sir Neil MacCormick's outstanding contribution to intellectual life in Scotland.
Thanks to the kind contributions of so many friends and alumni, the School was able to fund the sculptures, two of which will frame the refurbished Law School main entrance in Old College. The first sculpture is currently on display in the Law School's temporary home in the David Hume Tower. It was unveiled in a small ceremony with Neil's family and Law School colleagues in November 2016. You can read a news article about the unveiling here.
The remaining sculptures will be displayed at the Royal Society of Edinburgh and the Scottish National Portrait Gallery.
Casts of the sculptures by Kenny Hunter.
Artist's impression of the sculptures in situ at the new main entrance to the Law School in Old College.
Professor Sir Neil MacCormick: A life in and beyond Old College
Neil MacCormick was a great colleague and friend to many at Edinburgh Law School. Appointed to the Regius Chair of Public Law and the Law of Nature and Nations in 1972, he held this position until his retirement in January 2008 - more than half of his life.
An eminent figure in academia and beyond, he made a significant contribution to legal philosophy and public affairs over 30 years.
The author of nine books and countless articles, his body of work is richly versatile. From his earliest publications, he forged a strong link between the ‘positivist’ emphasis on law’s social foundations and his commitment to a philosophy grounded in the democratic right of collective self-government.
Neil was adept at illustrating theory by practical example. He wrote with flair and insight about matters as diverse as statutory interpretation, judicial precedent, children’s rights, the right to die, official secrecy, obscenity, intellectual property and the relationship between domestic and international law. His style was engaging yet challenging, his tone conversational yet precise, his temper sometimes critical but always constructive.
“With the death of Neil MacCormick, the World loses one of those great minds and fantastic persons that make Humankind so precious. Scotland loses its best thinker since the Enlightened Philosophers and Europe loses a powerful intellectual vision of peace, solidarity and self-determination.”
Neil’s intellectual curiosity and the depth of his involvement in public affairs meant that his legal philosophy was always a work in progress. Of the four later books produced under the rubric of Law, State and Practical Reason that provide an eloquent and lasting statement of his mature thought, Questioning Sovereignty (1999) is the most obvious link to his active political philosophy. It makes a path-breaking contribution to understanding the overlapping character of contemporary state, supranational (European Union) and sub-state (Scottish) law and politics, challenging the adequacy of a traditional conception of sovereignty and national citizenship.
Neil’s academic accomplishment, and great service to the University and Law school (including two stints as Dean), was matched outside of Old College. He learned many lessons of liberal nationalism and active citizenship from his father, the founder of the modern Scottish nationalist movement. His subsequent contribution to the nationalist cause was immense. He was a leading SNP visionary for many years, playing a key part in reconciling the gradualist and fundamentalist wings of the Party. He penned a draft constitution for an independent Scotland, and made a persuasive case for a new state’s automatic membership of the European Union. He served with distinction as an Member of the European Parliament in Brussels from 1999-2004. In 2007 he was appointed special adviser on European and External Affairs to Alex Salmond, the first SNP First Minister. This was a position he held until his death.
The two separate strands in Neil’s life ran in close harmony. This was as much about sensibility as substance.
As thinker and teacher he was always closely engaged with practical questions. In Edinburgh and internationally he did much to improve the standing of legal philosophy as an active component of a professional legal education rather than a niche field of interest. As a politician and public speaker, he retained the best of the academic tradition. His approach was inclusive rather than divisive, reasoned rather than emotive, open-minded rather than partisan, long-sighted rather than seeking immediate advantage.
“One story to illustrate the manner and style of Neil's teaching, which also shows the nature of the man. In the 1975-76 session he arrived in Room 270 Old College to deliver a lecture to the class of Jurisprudence. As he took to the podium he removed from his wrist with a characteristic flourish what was evidently a lady's watch. This produced catcalls from members of his audience. Neil smiled, explained that having broken his own watchstrap that morning he had borrowed his wife's watch so that he could keep to his allotted 50 minutes with the class, and then used the class reaction to analyse the difference between social rules (men's watches aren't the same as women's ones, lectures last for 50 minutes not the hour in the timetable) and legal rules. All that had been abstract and difficult for jurisprudence novitiates suddenly became pellucidly clear. Either Neil had thought it all out before, in which case the expansive gesture with which he removed the watch was perfectly timed to get the reaction he wanted; or, more likely, it was unplanned but he could react with instant humour to an unexpected situation, engage with his audience, and turn the whole thing intellectually to support what he had anyway wanted to say. Whichever, it was a brilliant moment of theatre that remains vivid in the memory nearly 35 years later. “
Professor Hector MacQueen
Neil won many of the glittering prizes. He was awarded a number of honorary degrees; he was three time recognized as the Scottish ‘MEP of the Year’; he was knighted in 2001 for his services to scholarship in law , and in 2004 he received the Royal Society of Edinburgh’s Royal Gold Medal for Outstanding Achievement. Yet he remained an essentially modest, kind and generous man - someone who treated his many talents as their own reward and used them as best he could to enhance the many lives he touched.
Neil died on 5th April 2009. He was survived by his three children and by his second wife Flora, who remains a cherished friend of the Law School.