Obituary: Professor W. A. Wilson

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The Independent Online
William Adam Wilson, lawyer: born Glasgow 28 July 1928; Lord President Reid Professor of Law, Edinburgh University 1972-94; died Edinburgh 14 March 1994.

IF W. A. WILSON ever had any doubts about the affection and respect which his teaching had inspired amongst law students and colleagues in Edinburgh University over the last 34 years, they must have been dispelled by the warmth and depth of feeling which reached out to him from all quarters after news of his final illness broke in November 1993.

Bill Wilson was a memorable lecturer and tutor whose unique style of delivery earned the compliment of innumerable 'take-offs', none of which ever quite managed to recapture the amazing original. The admiring audience may not always have realised the care and conscientious preparation lying behind performances that rendered comprehensible and accessible even the most technical of the many branches of law of which Wilson was a master. The humour almost always underlined the central point, as when he startled the first- year family-law class by beginning a lecture with an emphatically delivered 'Goodbye, bastards]'; it was the day when the statutory abolition of the status of illegitimacy in Scotland came into force. He always took students seriously, and the result was that there was no more popular and sought-after figure at law student events in Edinburgh.

Wilson's legal scholarship will be evident to posterity in textbooks on trusts and debt, and the skilled editorship over three editions of Gloag & Henderson, the standard introductory work on Scots private law. But the flavour of the man and the sheer range of his interests is perhaps best sought in his journal articles and the second edition of Introductory Essays on Scots Law (1984). All the honours which academic law can command in Scotland came his way after his chair appointment, and he was twice a forceful and effective Dean of his Faculty.

Very much the Scots lawyer, Wilson also involved himself in international comparative projects on trusts and contract, and was one of the law assessors in the last UFC research exercise. Many overseas students came under his guidance, particularly as postgraduates extending his reputation still further and leading to academic visits abroad. One such tour of Japan led to photographs of a shirt-sleeved Wilson singing in a karaoke session.

In no sense a conservative, he was moved to genuine anger in his later years by three things: the unreasoning erosion of Scots law by Whitehall, changes in university governance, and the reforms of the legal profession. All prompted memorable public performances in print and speech, and university principals and government ministers alike felt the force of Wilsonian rhetoric. Yet he was essentially a shy and private person who shunned the spotlight. The dignity and strength with which he faced a horrible cancer will not be forgotten by those who witnessed it; but memory will dwell more happily on the laconic wit, the raised eyebrows, and the quiet smile and chuckle which were the trade marks of a kindly and altogether remarkable man.

(Photograph omitted)

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