Tribute to Oban solicitor and former procurator fiscal

Nearly everyone who encountered David MacNeill would agree that he was truly the greatest character they ever met. Generous, friendly, approachable, charming, lovable, modest, funny, entertaining, kindly, intelligent and often outrageous; sometimes exasperating. The last months of his life brought out another worthy aspect of his character, when he showed himself to be a man of extraordinary courage. It was very fitting that his obituary notice referred to “a long illness bravely and humorously borne”.

David MacNeill was born in Inverness. He was only 67 when he died. He was educated at Inverness Royal Academy, Edinburgh Academy and Trinity College, Dublin. He was admitted as a solicitor in Scotland in 1973 and was a depute fiscal in his home city of Inverness before coming to Oban in 1981, where he became the town’s first full time procurator fiscal. In 1989 he set up his own private practice in the town and quickly acquired a large number of loyal clients.

He specialised in court defence work, where his skills were both admired and envied by his colleagues. His entry into court was like the moment when a great actor goes on stage, and to hear him pleading with that distinctive and sonorous tone was akin to listening to one, except that David was creating his words as he went along. Spontaneity and improvisation were part of his skills.

He had a burning passion for justice, always ready to help those in need without judging, and his help often went beyond just the solicitor’s role – giving a prisoner in Barlinnie a toothbrush against all the rules, for example. He was determined to protect people from state oppression. A young nurse said of her problem: “It was probably a trivial matter but not for me. Far from dismissing me, David gave the impression that I was the only person he had to attend to and that I was his most important client.”

It was another part of the MacNeill charm and warmth that David was not in the least bit interested in making money. He loathed petty rules and regulations and frequently treated them with total disdain. He said he could not work unless he was under pressure, which meant that the submission of such forms as he thought necessary was frequently left to the very last minute. It was not unusual for him to handwrite the accounts demanded by the Legal Aid Board and then drive down to Edinburgh in the middle of the night to present his handiwork in person to the officials involved. David’s stamina was simply amazing; it was all part of his zest for life.

On one occasion David was smoking on a MacBraynes ferry, immediately below a “no smoking” sign, and was observed by a steward who had obviously received David’s help in the past. Knowing that there was no way of stopping him, the steward came up and said, “Hold on, David, while I fetch you an ashtray.”

Nothing seems to have changed in the MacNeill character. A lifelong friend tells of how David had “lemonade running straight out of the taps” at the family home by putting a year’s supply of his Mother’s cremola foam into the water tank. And, while studying in Dublin and becoming concerned that he was socialising too much, he decided to shave his hair which he hoped would make him want to stay in and study. But such was the adulation of his friends that many copied his new fashion.

It is hard to imagine David in the Army, but he was part of the Territorials for a time, which ultimately became something we here have much to be grateful for. The story goes that on one exercise he led a disastrous attack on the island of Coll, which was followed by a memorable ceilidh, and that it was that experience which created his great love for these parts, and so to Oban.

David married Liz in Inverness on 24 August 1974 and was idyllically happy in a marriage that lasted more than 34 years. Our thoughts go out to Liz, whose loss cannot be measured.

The gap that David leaves behind will never be filled. Some of the fun has gone out of life.

Duncan Durbin and Graeme Pagan

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