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The History of the Edinburgh Centre

Following the establishment of Centres in London (1909) and Glasgow (1930) the Edinburgh Centre was formed on 3rd February 1932. Nigel Watt has documented a history of the Centre down the years.
3 Apr 2021
Written by Nigel Watt

The Centre was formed in the North British Hotel on 3 February 1932 in a meeting chaired by the Honourable Lord Mackay, a senator of the Court of Justice. The Right Honourable Lord Alness, another judge and James Abernethy were elected as the first President and Honorary Secretary and Treasurer respectively. This followed on from the London Centre (1909) and Glasgow Centre (1930).

Also on the initial committee were two individuals who Nigel Watt came across in his early days in Edinburgh (early 1970s). Firstly he caught sight and made the very convivial company of E Ros Birkett, resplendent in AGSFP blazer (magenta and green), on the touchline at Goldenacre cheering on FPs in a match against Heriots.  He was the Centre’s Honorary Auditor for over forty years.   At his first Edinburgh Centre Annual  Dinner he befriended the nonagenarian Sheriff Jake Lillie and afterwards escorted him back to his flat in the new town as he was in indifferent health.

A successful inaugural Annual Dinner was held in the autumn of 1932 but a proposed golf outing did not come to fruition. The Centre issued a challenge to the Glasgow Centre to have a golf match but it was over twenty years before this would eventually take place. An early initiative of the Centre was to hold informal luncheons on a fairly regular basis.

Lord Alness departed Edinburgh in early 1933 and was succeeded as President by Lord Mackay who held that position till 1947 albeit the Centre did not function throughout the duration of the Second World War. James Abernethy retired as Honorary Secretary and Treasurer in 1934 and was replaced by J L Duncan who served for three years and was then succeeded by Allan Cameron Frazer, WS, who held the post for thirty years.

In the 1930s the Centre held a dinner every year with attendances of around three dozen and the company comprised many in the Capital’s legal fraternity as was the case for the next thirty or forty years. Nigel Watt’s grandfather, Theodore,  attended and spoke at many of these dinners in his capacity as Honorary Secretary and Treasurer of the Parent Club.   Informal Luncheons continued to be held.

The Centre’s activities were suspended for the duration of the Second World War and the next Annual Dinner to be held was in 1947 and was the first time that the new Rector, J J Robertson attended.

Throughout the late 1940s, the 1950s and the 1960s the Annual Dinner was very popular and regularly had attendances in excess of fifty. Very full accounts of these dinners are reported in the Magazine and make for fascinating reading.  The success of these dinners was in no small way due to the expert stewardship of Centre Secretary Allan Frazer.  There were a variety of venues used  including The North British Hotel, the Balmoral Restaurant, the Caledonian Hotel, the George Hotel, Lyceum Rooms, the Roxburghe Hotel, the Carlton Hotel,  Edinburgh University Staff Club and  the Caledonian Club.

The dinner was invariably held on the eve of a rugby international at Murrayfield and this encouraged FPs from furth of Edinburgh to attend particularly from Aberdeen.

From the mid-sixties those attending the dinner were invited to partake of post dinner hospitality in the New Town house of Bellamy Cay and his delightful wife Liz, who was a consultant psychiatrist. These were fun evenings.

Successful informal cocktail parties were held for several years in the Caledonian Club and members of the local Aberdeen High School FP Club also attended.

In 1954 the first challenge golf match was played between the Centres of Glasgow and Edinburgh at Carnwath Golf Club situated roughly halfway between the two cities and bordering - on several holes - the heavily fortified Carstairs “Hospital”.  Apparently if inmates do break out the first place they enjoy freedom is on the golf course!! These matches continued for several years but lapsed in the early sixties only to be revived in the 1980s more of which anon.

In the early seventies the numbers at the Annual Dinner started to decline during the secretaryship of David Brittain, who had succeeded Allan Frazer in 1967. Allan put it upon himself to persuade David to step aside and a young Nigel Watt took over in his mid-twenties. His first dinner in charge was in 1976 with a very low attendance of twenty-six. Over the next three or four years the numbers gradually rose again reaching over fifty.

In 1980 Mor Brown was elected President and over the next eight or nine years when he retained office, by popular demand, the attendance was regularly over eighty and reached an all-time high of one hundred and two in 1986. Mor and Nigel worked very hard in making these evenings successful and secured top quality guest speakers including Steve Robertson, Buff Hardie, Jimmy Spankie, Denys Henderson and Professor David Purdie. Jimmy Spankie, although living in Edinburgh, made a special trip to Aberdeen to visit the School and chat with the Rector as well as meeting with Nigel Watt as part of his preparation and delivered one of the best speeches in the history of the Centre.

A group of eight or nine young female FPs came regularly to the dinner during the 1980s and instead of attending the rugby international the next day they would go shopping. In 1991 the Head Girl and Head Boy were invited for the first time to accompany the Rector and were asked to speak of their experiences at the School which they did most eloquently. This became a regular feature and without exception these young guests have been a credit to themselves and the School. For many years Nigel Watt arranged for the Rector, the Head Girl and Head Boy to be his guests at the rugby international the following afternoon.

During the 1990s the dinners continued to be very popular and the attendance was rarely below sixty. For almost twenty years the venue was the Carlton Highland Hotel and it served the most delicious roast beef. They continued to be held on the eve of rugby internationals at Murrayfield and many FPs came down from Aberdeen.  However with the advent of professional rugby and the demands of the broadcasters the matches began to be played on both Saturdays and Sundays as well as the occasional Friday evening. Planning the dinner became more problematic and eventually it was decided to move the venue out of the centre of town to the clubhouse of Bruntsfield Links Golfing Society and hold the dinner in late April/early May.  Although the numbers coming from Aberdeen decreased the overall attendances remained in the high forties and comprised local FPs.

A Golf outing was resuscitated in the mid-1970s and although the numbers were relatively small the afternoon’s golf and evening meal were enjoyed. Initially the outing was held at Bruntsfield and remained there for over twenty years before the rising costs necessitated a move to Tulliallan for several years and then Harburn.

Mor Brown donated the most hideous trophy which became the trophy no one wanted to win! The secretary managed to be runner up six times!

The annual match between Glasgow and Edinburgh Centres was reintroduced as a separate event but after a few years it was decided to combine the two and that format was very successful for many years until 2010 when interest declined and the outing has not been held since.

Past Centre President Ronnie Smith donated a beautiful glass cut trophy which was played for every year. Initially Edinburgh won most years but latterly it mainly remained in the west.

From the mid-seventies till the mid-eighties a Cheese and Wine Party was held in the Caledonian Club attracting attendances of up to forty but gradually the numbers decreased and it was discontinued.  A couple of Wine Tastings were held a few years later but were only moderately successful.

Over the last ten years the numbers at the Annual Dinner declined quite alarmingly and in 2018 the dinner had to be cancelled due to lack of interest for the first time in the ninety year history of the Centre. Again no dinner was held in 2019 and there have been no functions for the last year due to Covid 19.  An informal dinner had been arranged in March 2020 with an encouraging number of younger FPs due to attend but it had to be cancelled.

Hopefully the Centre can come to life again once some normality returns.

To end there are appended obituaries of five of the most influential members in the history of the Centre which make for interesting reading.

The Right Hon.Lord Alness – Robert Munro (1884-85), P.C., G.B.E., LL.D. was born at Alness, Ross-shire in 1868 and came to the Grammar in 1884 for a year to finish his schooling, before going on to Edinburgh University where he had an academic career of great distinction in Arts and Law. Admitted to the Scottish Bar in 1893, he later admitted that his first year’s work yielded the handsome sum of three guineas (by 1909 he had increased it a hundredfold). He entered Parliament as a Liberal member for Wick in 1910 and in 1913 he was appointed Lord Advocate, this appointment being the occasion of a complimentary dinner to him by the FP Club. Between 1913 and 1916 he assisted the movement which eventually secured the Rubislaw Playing Field for the School.  In 1922 he became Lord Justice Clerk; and in 1923 he unveiled the War Memorial to those who fell in the 1914-18 war, his speech on that occasion being hailed as “a noble and moving oration”. He was President of the Parent Club in 1928-29, and in 1934 a Barony was conferred upon him in recognition of his parliamentary and judicial services, after which he assisted in the work of the House of Lords’ Appeal Committee. On his retiral he was given a complimentary dinner by the Club in acknowledgement of his services to the Club and the Edinburgh Centre which he helped to found and was the inaugural President.

When in 1935 he was given the LL.D. by St Andrews University – Edinburgh and Aberdeen had so honoured him in 1919 and1921 respectively- he was hailed as one who had ”upheld the noblest traditions of Scottish Jurisprudence and Scottish civic spirit”; and in 1940 he was appointed to a position which made the passage of Scottish legislation through the Upper House his responsibility. Appointed Chairman of the Scottish Savings Committee in 1940, he and his committee by the end of the war raised the huge sum of £715,000,000, and for this he was awarded the G.B.E..

Twenty seven years after having unveiled the Memorial to the fallen of the first war, Lord Alness in May 1950 performed the same sad task for those who had fallen in the Second World War. The Rector, J. J. Robertson remarked of this occasion “his simple, eloquent words charged with the wisdom and sincerity of a long life, finely spent, gave to the service of dedication a moving quality which will remain in the memory of all who heard him”.

He took a vigorous part in the activities of the FP Club, particularly in Edinburgh and later in London: and his speeches at many School and FP occasions (as recorded in the Magazines of the time) show him to have had a gift of eloquence, a fine sense of humour and a cheerful philosophy. For him his deep attachment to the School was “not a mere sentimental pondering over the schooldays of the past”.

He looked upon a friend’s speeches (he once said) ”with admiration and envy, for their polish and profoundity and edge”, but these very qualities shine out from his own speeches.  Sheriff J A Lillie, speaking at the Edinburgh Dinner in February 1951 – and in a speech which was itself a gem in the art of clear, beautifully phrased speaking - complimented Lord Alness on his outstanding gift of “clarity and grace of speech and presentation”, and gave him the title of “The School’s Public Orator”. As an illustration of this gift, and of what The Grammar meant to Lord Alness, it is felt a fitting tribute to close this appreciation with a quotation from Lord Alness’ reply to Sheriff Lillie’s toast.

“I cannot look back without a sigh on these simple, safe and sheltered days of years ago. The age of syncopation and speed had not yet arrived. The road of life lay before us, glittering in the morning sunshine. Care and responsibility were strangers. Today some are bowed down by responsibilities of life: many have drunk the cup of sorrow to the lees. Today many of the travellers who have trodden the road of life have aching feet because of its rough places. For all of us behind is lengthening out and the road before is drawing in. But the gift of memory is still ours, and as we face the unchartered future, be it short or long, we can draw inspiration and strength from our recollections of the days spent in the Granite City and its ancient Grammar School. When you and I lie beneath the sod, when all the little things which we have done and strived to do are forgotten, I am confident that The Old School will continue to flourish, proud in ambition and proud also in achievement.”

The Hon. Lord Mackay (Alexander Morrice Mackay) (1882 – 91), QC, M.A., LLD. had a life of extraordinary achievement not only in the intellectual sphere, but also in the realm of sport. After leaving the School he obtained double “firsts” in Classics and Philosophy at Aberdeen, and thereafter at Cambridge he had brilliant success in the Moral Science Tripos. He then came to Edinburgh University, where he graduated in Law with special distinction in 1902 and in that year he was admitted to the Faculty of Advocates. His sport achievements were likewise outstanding. He played rugby and cricket for School and, later, cricket for ‘Varsity and ‘Shire. At Cambridge he was President of the Cambridge University Tennis Club and after his return to Scotland he was for three consecutive years (1905-7) the Scottish Singles Champion. And – as if this was not already far too much by ordinary standards – he was also a mountaineer of repute, an able golfer, a curler, and a violinist of distinction; mention should also be made of his being joint author of a booklet on Roof Climbing in Cambridge! It will be seen, therefore there were adequate grounds for the Rector in 1928 (D. M Andrew) describing Lord Mackay as “the best all-round pupil the School has ever had”.

In 1928 he was appointed a Court of Session judge, and in 1929 he received an honorary LL.D. from Aberdeen University; and when, in 1953, he completed twenty five years as a High Court judge he had then had the longest service of any of the High Court judges then sitting.  He retired as a judge in February 1954.

He took a vigorous interest in FP affairs and was President of the Parent Club in 1931-32. With Lord Alness and others he was instrumental in founding the Edinburgh Centre in early 1932 and was its President (1934-47).

Lords Alness and Mackay died within a month of each other in 1955.

Sheriff Principal John Adam Lillie (1893-1903), Q.C., LL.D.

After attending the School Sheriff Lillie, to give him the designation by which he was so generally known, went to Aberdeen University where he took an Arts degree and then Edinburgh where, in the Faculty of Law, he laid the foundation of his wide knowledge of the general principles of Scots Law and the importance of their systematic exposition. His professional training he received in the offices of Baillie &Gifford, WS and Davidson & Syme WS and as devil to Charles E Lippe.

He was admitted advocate in 1912 and called to the English Bar in 1921 but did not practise there.  At the Scots Bar he steadily acquired, in unusual measure, the confidence of the bench.  His opinion was frequently sought on questions of company law and many other matters. He took silk in 1931 and retired from practice in 1971.

In 1941 he was appointed Sheriff Principal of Fife and Kinross.  Just as he had at the Bar the confidence and regard of the Bench, so on the Bench he had the confidence of the Bar, demonstrating in appeals in civil causes and in charges to juries in criminal trials the accuracy of the observation made of him by Lord Reid of Drem – “Sheriff Lillie has one of the finest legal minds in Scotland.” He retired in 1971 being the longest serving Sheriff of any Sheriffdom.  From 1928 to 1947 he was a lecturer in Mercantile Law in Edinburgh University.  He greatly enjoyed his work and nothing gave him greater pleasure than when former students spoke to him of their happy recollections of the class. During this time he declined an invitation from another University in Scotland to be Professor of Scots Law.

He was also an author and prepared, with Alan McNeil, the book which became the standard textbook on the Mercantile Law of Scotland. He also contributed to the Encyclopedia of the Laws of Scotland and after his retiral he wrote Tradition and Environment, an autobiographical social history of our time; Speech Literacy, an original investigation of the art of oral communication and Ninety Years a Golfer described by a golfer as remarkable and delightful.  His general aim in writing was to describe real life in accordance with basic principles and to communicate useful techniques discovered by the study of practice.

When not engaged in the work of the law and public service, Sheriff Lillie spent much of his time out of doors with his principal means of keeping fit being golf. He holed out in one on no less than five occasions, the last being at Muirfield on a stormy day when he was 91 years of age!

Sheriff Lillie’s eminence in the legal profession was recognised by the University of Aberdeen in 1967 when it conferred upon him the Honorary Degree of Doctor of Laws, an occasion which he described as the crowning event of his career.  Throughout his long life he regarded the School with proud devotion, noted the rise to eminence of former pupils and regarded his election as President of the Club in 1950 as one of the most outstanding events in his life.

The following tribute was written by long time Edinburgh Centre Secretary Allan Frazer,

“I knew Sheriff Lillie as a founder member of the Edinburgh Centre for nearly fifty years. Next to his Church, the Grammar School and its FP Club had the highest place in his affections and he had a 100% attendance at Centre Dinners from 1932 till 1979, when he was well into his 90s. One of his proudest achievements was to be elected President of the Parent Club.

By nature he was a shy man – brought about at least in part by the deafness which afflicted him and for which there was no remedy. He was a stickler for punctilio. It is the practice at the Bar for all advocates, whatever their rank and standing, to address each other by their surnames – the prefix “Mr” being banished. In current informal days the rule more and more gives way to Christian names. Sheriff Lillie, however, was of the old school. Not being a member of the Bar I graduated from Mr Frazer later relaxed to Frazer and after some forty years he would even address me in letters as “Dear Allan Frazer”.  Needless to say I never ventured any intimacy beyond “My dear Sheriff…”

The obituary above sets forth his very distinguished career in the Law and otherwise. The opening chapters of Tradition and Environment should be required reading by anyone who seeks to know what Aberdeen and its School were like at the end of the Nineteenth Century. As to the Sheriff himself he was sui generis. We shall not look upon his like again.”

Allan Cameron Frazer (1925-30) MA, LL.B., WS

A son of the manse, his father being the celebrated Highland preacher Frazer of Tain, he graduated at Aberdeen University in Arts (with First Class Honours in English Language and Literature) in 1934 and Law in 1937. He served his apprenticeship as a solicitor in Aberdeen but spent the rest of his professional career in Edinburgh. After a short spell with Buchan and Buchan SSC he entered war service in 1939, eventually being commissioned in the RAOC. In 1948 he was admitted as a Writer to the Signet and became a partner in Hagart & Burn-Murdoch WS, of which firm he was Senior Partner for some years before his retiral in 1984. In addition to his busy legal practice, he served with distinction in many public spheres, notably as honorary consul for the Netherlands from 1965, Dean of the Consular Corps in Edinburgh and Leith in 1976-77, Secretary for many years of the Sir Walter Scott Club, of which he was president in 1975, and Rectors Assessor on the Court of Edinburgh University during the short but stormy Rectorship of Malcolm Muggeridge, with whom he had become friendly through the Scott Club. It is interesting to note that he was the third former President of the Parent Club to be so honoured, the others being Lord Alness in 1921 and Eric Linklater in 1952. Allan was made a Chevalier in the Orange Nassau in 1972 in recognition of his consular work.

Allan’s election as President of the Parent Club in 1970-71 crowned a lifetime of loyal and enthusiastic service to the Club and in particular to the Edinburgh Centre. He became Honorary Secretary and Treasurer in 1937 and when he resigned in 1967 it was remarked by his successor that what Allan didn’t know about the affairs of the Centre was known to mortal man. He steered the Centre, which had been founded in 1932, through its fledgling days and had the quiet satisfaction seeing it mature like a good malt. He went on to become its President in 1969-70, but in the quarter of a century that has elapsed since then his enthusiasm for the Centre and for all things Grammarian remained undiminished.

William Morrison Brown (1932-46)

Mor, as he was always known, was Captain of the School 1st XV in the season 1945-46, and was awarded a cap. He was also House Captain of Byron and its Captain of Athletics. He had what was the rare distinction of playing for FPs while still at school. He was called up for military service in May 1946 and during his basic training he played for Scottish Command. He served with the Gordon Highlanders in Malaya, Tripoli and Egypt and was demobilised in 1953.

It has been said that Mor had three main interests – scouting, rugby and Aberdeen Grammar School. He was a member of the 38th Aberdeen Scout Troup and was awarded the King’s Scout Badge. He played rugby for FPs and diverse representative teams – London Scottish, North and Midlands and others. When his playing days were over he took up refereeing to which he brought both his wide knowledge of the game and his unbridled enthusiasm.

Mor’s lifelong affection for his old school found an outlet in the FPs Edinburgh Centre.  He served as President in 1980-88, standing down to be Parent Club President in 1988-89.  He served for a second time in 1998 and after a break he was again elected in for a third term in 2010. He was still in office at the time of his death.

Mor offered his own distinctive and personal style to FP Dinners. In the chair he conducted proceedings with a lively and infectious spontaneity which old hands at the game know very well doesn’t happen by accident. He was a gifted Grammarian with qualities of heart and mind which are the fine flower of a dedicated son of the School.

Conversation with Mor – and he was the most approachable of men – immediately let loose a floodtide of geniality and laughter which nonetheless did not conceal the shrewd mind which lay behind the light-hearted banter.

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