Sheriff Gordon Shiach (b 1935), lawyer, nominated
James Dalrymple: Viscount Stair (1619-95)
Sorley MacLean (1911-96)
The anonymous letter in 'Twelfth Night,' Act 2 Scene 5, tells Malvolio:
'Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and
some have greatness thrust upon 'em.'
Sadly for Malvolio, the letter did not help him to understand greatness. The editor, similarly, gave his readers no help to define 'greatest Scot.' Is it someone whose contribution has been internationally recognised; or perhaps who has done most to mould Scottish nationhood?
In opting for the latter, I have nominated Scots whose names may mean little outside Scotland, or indeed to many fellow Scots. The selection reflects my own view of those who have made the greatest contribution to important facets of Scottish life and letters.
Dr G M Hutton described James Dalrymple, 1st Viscount Stair (1619-95) as 'one of Scotland's most eminent scholars and statesmen…universally acknowledged as the genius who first established Scots law as a complete and coherent rational system, and the most complete master of jurisprudence that Scotland has ever produced.' It is this aspect, rather than his political importance, which prompted my nomination.
Stair, the jurist, is best remembered for his great synthesis of Scots law entitled 'Institutions of the Law of Scotland.' While there were other institutional writers, he has been assessed as standing 'pre-eminent'. Forbes writing in 1714, says of Stair: 'His excellent Writings will carry down his Memory to the latest Posterity. His "Institutions of the Law of Scotland," wherein that is compared with the Canon and the Civic laws, and the Customs of neighbouring Nations, are so useful, that few considerable Families in Scotland, not to mention professed Lawyers, do want them.' Even today, a lawyer, seeking to elucidate an otherwise intractable problem by reverting to first principles, would often be well advised to start with Stair's 'Institutions'.
The poet Tom Scott wrote in 1970 of Somhairle MacGill-Eain: 'That (he) is a great poet in the Gaelic tradition, a man not merely for time, but for eternity, I have no doubt whatever, and commit myself to this view without hesitation.' Time surely has bolstered this opinion. Sorley (to use the English version of his forename) dedicated his life to the education of young people; to the creation of great Gaelic verse; and to the preservation of the Gaelic language. While many of his audience at poetry readings had no Gaelic, the sonorities as he read in his mother tongue brought an excitement which was never quite there in the English translation. Although we can no longer wait in anticipation for his modest introduction – 'And now I’ll read it in the Gaelic' – the memory of greatness remains. The proof
of greatness is in his collected works.
Iain Crichton Smith said of Sorley's work: 'The miracle of the poetry is difficult to define. It consists, of course, in mastery of language; but more than that there is a strangeness and eeriness at the heart of some of this poetry which is quite simply beyond most of the practitioners of the art this century.'
Why then did I make the nominations? Irvine Smith says of Stair's 'Institutions' that they 'presented Scots law as a complete and coherent system, Scots law as we have since known it.' Without this synthesis and consolidation, our legal system would be the less, and our identity as a nation would surely be enfeebled. Similarly the Gaelic language remains a precious and living preserve of national identity. Its survival must depend both on education and enthusiasm. These are the very elements which underpin the life and work of Sorley MacLean.