To few men is it given to become "the authority" on a given subject. One of the few is Harvey McGregor QC, esteemed Warden of New College Oxford from 1985 to 1996, and author of McGregor on Damages, now in its 19th edition. Members of Parliament in their surgeries receive many ill-tempered constituents highly indignant that they have been wronged. If their case seemed sensible, my reply was almost always the same: "You must go to a lawyer, but before you spill out too much of your money in legal fees, for heaven's sake go to the library and try to understand the relevant section of McGregor on Damages." Not since Moses has there been such an authoritative tablet.
Harvey McGregor was born in the then railway town of Inverurie, where the locomotives for the whole of the north of Scotland were maintained and repaired. His father worked as an engineer, while his grandfather was a stationmaster serving many of the small stations in rural Aberdeenshire. McGregor told me that he was a great character who took his job extremely seriously and influenced him in his lifelong belief that you must do a job as properly as it can be done.
McGregor himself, however, dispensed with his grandfather's pomposity, and as the students of New College, Oxford were to find later, he was the most approachable and kindest of mentors. Full of praise for his teachers at Inverurie, in wartime conditions, and subsequently for a two-year period at Scarborough Boys' School, before returning with his father to Inverurie, McGregor reflected that there were great advantages in going to one secondary school in Scotland and another secondary school in England.
It was the English experience which prompted this Scottish "lad o'pairts" to apply for entry to The Queen's College, Oxford. The College, rightly in McGregor's opinion, required him to do his National Service before coming up to Oxford and he served as a Flying Officer in the RAF, an experience in later life which he said he would not have missed for the proverbial world.
Capable of grindingly hard work, he won the prestigious Hastings Scholarship (founded in memory of the great QC Sir Patrick Hastings) in 1951. This took him to a junior teaching fellowship at the University of Chicago, the beginning of an important and continuous American experience which was to involve going from time to time to New York University and Rutgers University.
When I asked McGregor how he had become interested in the subject of damages he was disarmingly frank. "As a young lawyer I was looking around for a subject on which I could establish my reputation by writing a book. I quickly discovered that almost every subject had been covered by some legal luminary or another and my first attempt at suggesting a study of compensation was rejected by the publishers. So I had to look around elsewhere."
McGregor then discovered that the text on the subject of damages was rather out of date, a volume called Mayne on Damages, which had reached its 11th edition. He went to the publishers, Sweet and Maxwell, suggesting that he should update Mayne's work.
He added that in fact so much had happened since Mayne's first edition that the whole work had to be rewritten. So he suggested that the new work be called McGregor on Damages. With a chuckle he told me of Sweet and Maxwell's response: "We can't sell it as McGregor on Damages. Who has ever heard of you?" Ever quick on the uptake, he responded with a compromise. If the 12th edition could be called Mayne and McGregor on Damages, any subsequent edition, if successful, could be called McGregor on Damages. Sweet and Maxwell, to their enormous prestige and financial advantage, agreed – and hence we have McGregor on Damages.
As a tutor in law and Fellow of New College from 1972 he was popular with dons and undergraduates alike – especially after he occupied the lodgings, the home of distinguished predecessors such as HAL Fisher. He initiated musical evenings, enormously enjoyed by the students. All his life McGregor created many initiatives for the musical education of the young, not least since he retired back to Scotland and Edinburgh in 1996.
His contribution to law lasted over four decades: he was consultant to the Law Commission from 1966 to 1973 and for 20 years President of the Harvard Law School Association of the United Kingdom (1981-2001). He was very funny on the subject of being admitted to the Scottish Faculty of Advocates in 1995, when the authorities were adamant that he should enter as the most lowly junior.
Only legal Edinburgh could have treated a world authority lawyer in such a cavalier way. He had made important contributions to the International Encyclopaedia Of Comparative Law and to the Modern Law Review and to the whole law of contract, but that mattered little to legal Edinburgh.
What did matter to artistic Edinburgh was that he had been Chairman of the London Theatre Council and was a huge champion of the arts. In fact, McGregor was superbly gifted in two different spheres of activity, the law and the performing arts. What is difficult to convey is how brilliant he was in conversation - but then he rubbed shoulders for decades with many of the greatest intellects of the 20th century such as Sir Maurice Bowra and Sir Isaiah Berlin.
When he became Warden of New College in 1985, Harvey McGregor needed a hostess. Oxford was not then sufficiently enlightened for this function to be performed by his partner, John Davy, so he appointed Pippa Irwin, the beautiful, talented woman who, following Harvey's retirement, shared the splendid house in Edinburgh with him and John. "The Gang of Three" were among Edinburgh's most sought-after guests, and no invitation from them was ever refused without serious reason.
At New College Pippa remade the Warden's Garden while Harvey made some much-needed improvements (some at his own expense) to the Warden's lodgings. Pippa was officially billeted as "housekeeper", but no one lucky enough to have known Harvey in this period will ever forget how she charmed the procession of musicians, friends and undergraduates Harvey entertained.
Though he always claimed to be tone deaf, Harvey was an accomplished pianist, and there were many evenings at New College, with two grand pianos back-to-back, when he executed four-hand pieces with celebrated performers. His speciality was Francis Poulenc's Histoire de Babar, le petit éléphant, which he recited in French, accompanying himself. To mark his retirement there was a grand recital in the Sheldonian at which he duetted with Claus Moser, who had been Warden of Wadham College until 1993. Harvey vigorously encouraged the young musicians studying at New College, and many an opera singer, as well as instrumentalists, profited greatly from his time as Warden.
Harvey's parties were legend and always splendid, sometimes filling the dining hall of the Inner Temple. But he worked his magic best on undergraduates. Who else could possibly have given a lunch for undergrads to "introduce them to the wider world" and have thought I was a suitable person to discharge this function? The other guest of honour was a little delayed, and when he arrived my wife and I were equally astonished to be presented to my fellow Mr Worldly Wise – Claus von Bulow.
Harvey McGregor, lawyer and author: born Inverurie, Aberdeenshire 25 February 1926; Fellow and Tutor, New College, Oxford 1972-1985, Warden 1985-1996; Fellow, Winchester College 1985-1996; partner to John Davy; died 27 June 2015.Reuse content