Neil Macvicar: Soldier, lawyer, public servant and writer with a passion for Greece and its history

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The Independent Online

Up to Oxford in Michaelmas term 1938 came a golden youth, a Scot, a scholar from Loretto, a classical scholar of Oriel College, to read Mods (Latin and Greek) and Greats (Ancient History and Philosophy), destined undoubtedly for a double first and, maybe, Secretary of State for Scotland.

But then came the War. Neil Macvicar was was called up to train with 25-pounders at the 125 Officer Cadet Training Unit RA at Ilkley, Yorkshire, and endure gun drill on the frozen heights of Blubberhouses Moor in that bitter winter of 1940-41. He was posted to the 30th Field Regiment, RA, and within that to the 112th/117th Battery, crack regular units which had distinguished themselves in defending the retreating infantry at Dunkirk. He was destined to be with that regiment and that battery for four and a half years. They became a real family, with friendships that lasted for life.

In 1941 the Regiment was deployed near Chichester, equipped with First World War 75mm guns, and pikes in place of rifles. "With these it was hoped that the might of the Wehrmacht might be repelled," Macvicar wrote in his excellent account of his war, A Mixed Bag. However, new 25-pounders came through and Hitler's invasion of England was diverted to Russia. The regiment was moved to Macvicar's native Scotland (much to his pleasure) and then in 1943 shipped as part of the 1st Army to Tunisia. There, 112/117 Battery were engaged in heavy fighting until the Germans were driven out of North Africa. Later the 30th Field Regiment, now part of the 4th Division, sailed for Italy. There, they were involved in the battle for Monte Cassino and the long push up Italy. Macvicar came through unscathed.

Then Fourth Division was shipped to Greece to aid General Plastiras' government ("General Plasterarse" as Churchill rejoiced in calling him on the BBC). Churchill was determined that the ELAS Communist freedom fighters should not win the civil war and allow Greece to fall to the Soviets. He came to Athens, and by chance to Macvicar's observation post in the Athens Observatory, from which most of Athens can be seen. Having puffed his way up over 100 steps, the Prime Minister, who was supposed to be incognito, went out on to the balcony, against all the rules, enquiring "where are all the enemy?" This was rather a facer as in that labyrinth of houses Macvicar had no idea where the ELAS fighters were. The great man grunted and was off, having satisfied himself no doubt with what he termed "the martial sound of musketry".

British units, including 112/117 Battery, had been received in Athens with rapture, with much throwing of flowers over guns and dancing in the streets. Macvicar was hauled out of his jeep to dance with a group of girls. Little did he know what would come of it. What did come of it was a friendship with the Bulgari family of Corfu. The grandfather, Count Spiridon, had massive properties in Corfu and her mother a house in Athens, whence her daughter, Marily, had gone to school. She had also taken the risk of hiding copies of BBC transcripts tucked in her knickers round the neighbourhood – an activity punishable by death under the Germans – and acted as an interpreter for the incoming British troops. This was not Marily's only flirtation with death; as a government supporter she was on the ELAS blacklist.

Shortly after the war, when Macvicar had resumed his studies at Oxford – in law, not the classics – the Countess Bulgari and Marily came to London and the Macvicar family invited them to come to the first Edinburgh Festival in 1947. It was the year of Benjamin Britten, Peter Pears, the Sitwells, Kathleen Ferrier and the Vienna Philharmonic under Bruno Walter. Neil and Marily were married in 1949 in St Spiridon church in Corfu in midsummer, Neil sweating in his kilt, with full rig of dress jacket and lace jabot and sporran. As the heat mounted, as he put it in another of his delightful books, Heart's Odyssey, "I began to think that the desire to create a romantic Scottish-Hellenic effect had been too much of a good thing".

This was the beginning of a Scots-Hellenic love affair. Macvicar was climbing up the legal ladder in Edinburgh: advocate, then QC, then Sheriff of Lothian and the Borders. But they found time to go to Corfu, and built two houses there. With Marily's background they were well known in the community and among expatriate society – the Leigh-Fermors, the Durrells and so on. This is all chronicled in Macvicar's third book, Grace Notes. In this and in Heart's Odyssey he displayed his masterly scholarship of ancient Greece and its sites. He and Marily travelled widely to visit them – just as in Scotland they loved walking and climbing in the Cairngorms, the Grampians and the Trossacks.

He was the son of another Neil Macvicar, a Writer to the Signet, rather austere, and his wife Winifred, warm and motherly. He was educated first at an esoteric prep school "on the muddy shores of the Forth estuary". He learnt Greek from the age of 10 and fell in love with Homer: he was reading Homer, Thucydides and Demosthenes until shortly before his death.

Highly regarded, reliable and astute, he was in demand for public and charity appointments before and after his service as Sheriff of Lothian and the Borders. He was also a man of wide interests. Apart from his three delightful books, he was a gifted pianist and a knowledgeable bird-watcher and naturalist. He hosted a fancy dress party every February with himself as a variety of characters ranging from the Mad Hatter to Rudolph Nureyev.

His religion was deeply ingrained – whether in his Scottish puritanical upbringing or in his prayers in the Greek Orthodox churches of Corfu. As the Bishop of Edinburgh said at his funeral "There was a lightness and joy in Neil's faith that purged it of the strain that is often a characteristic of northern religions. His was a very southern, Mediterranean piety".

Neil Macvicar, lawyer, soldier and writer: born Edinburgh 16 May 1920; Chairman, Scottish Medical Appeals Tribunal 1961-67, 1987-94; Chancellor, Diocese of Edinburgh 1962-74; Sheriff of Lothian and the Borders 1968-85; married Maria Bulgari (one son, one daughter, and one daughter deceased); died Edinburgh 3 May 2011.