Sheriff J Irvine Smith, 1926-2016

With the passing of Sheriff Irvine Smith on 11 January 2016 the Society has lost one of its longest serving members, one of its greatest characters and an important contributor to its publications programme. His direct involvement in that programme spanned nearly sixty years, starting in 1958 with his significant contributions to the Society’s 20th volume, An Introduction to Scottish Legal History, and ending only a few months before his death at the age of 89 with the publication in the 62nd volume, Miscellany VII, of the text of the Annual Lecture, which he delivered in 1998, The Trial of Captain Thomas Green for Piracy.

Irvine Smith was born into a working class family in Falkirk in 1926 and was always proud of his modest roots. After attending Falkirk High School he graduated MA with honours in history and then LLB with distinction (in 1951), both from the University of Glasgow, before being called to the Bar in 1953. He established a successful criminal practice and was appointed to the shrieval bench in Glasgow in 1963. In 1982 he became Sheriff of North Strathclyde at Greenock, Dunoon and Rothesay and filled that role until his retiral in 1992, continuing to sit as a temporary sheriff for some time thereafter. He was a brilliant after-dinner speaker and was much in demand at Burns and St Andrews dinners on both sides of the Atlantic and elsewhere around the world. He joined the Society in 1955. In later years he would say that his interest in its work dated from 1950, when as a student he purchased a complete set of its publications (then 13 in number) from a second-hand bookshop for 5 shillings (25p) per volume.

Smith’s first known direct involvement in the Society’s activities was with the preparation of the Introduction to Scottish Legal History, a major work initiated by Lord Cooper in 1950, when he was Lord President of the Court of Session and chairman of the Society’s council. It was conceived as covering the period from the earliest times until 1829 and when it finally reached the light of day with publication in 1959 it ran to over 450 pages in 34 chapters, written by 21 contributors. The largest number (five) were written by Irvine Smith at a time when he was already busy at the Bar and covered such diverse topics as the transition to modern law, 1532-1707, criminal law and procedure and succession.

Smith’s other great contribution to the Society’s publications was his editing of the second and third of the three-volume series Selected Justiciary Cases 1624-50. The first volume, edited by Sheriff Stair A Gillon, had been published in 1953. Gillon died the following year and the remaining work lay dormant until 1966, when it was resumed by Smith, by this time a Sheriff at Glasgow. He brought what became a twenty year project to a successful conclusion with the publication of the second and third volumes in 1972 and 1974 respectively. His introduction to the first of these volumes, running to over 60 pages, is itself a work of considerable scholarship.

Smith served as the Society’s literary director in 1961 and 1962. He sat on its council 1983-91 and was vice-president 1997-2006. At the 2006 AGM he was afforded the very rare but richly deserved recognition of being awarded honorary life membership, in the words of the citation 'in recognition of his exceptional service to the Society over many years'. At that time he wrote to Professor John Cairns, chairman of council, in the following terms - 'The Stair Society has been a significant and rewarding entity throughout my adult life. In it I have met with friendship which was combined with distinguished and congenial scholarship. It was for me a privileged experience and an honour to be allowed to hold the offices I did'. The Society is equally honoured to have been so closely associated with Irvine Smith. In his autobiography, published in 2011, he devoted a whole chapter to the Society. He is remembered with affection and gratitude and our thoughts are with his wife Diana and their family at this time.