BORN at the quaint old mansion-house of Culhorn, near
Stranraer, in 1835, William Guthrie came of a stock of yeomen settled in Kyle
since the seventeenth century. One of the race, Alexander Guthrie of Mount, grew
rich as a coal-master, and handed his estates, through his only daughter, to
Lord Oranmore and Brown; and Sheriff Guthrie's grandfather and uncle, William
and Robert Guthrie of Crossburn, were leading agriculturists in Ayrshire for
eighty years. His father, George Guthrie, of Appleby and Ernambrie, was bred as
a lawyer, and besides farming his own lands, and showing an example in the
reclamation of moor and moss on the farms of Glenhowl near Glenluce, and of Aird,
near Stranraer, of which he was tenant, was from 1830 till 1868 chamberlain of
the great estates in Ayrshire and Wigtownshire of the Earldom of Stair. It was
largely through his exertions and management that Wigtown County and Burghs were
wrested from the Tories in 1841, and he took a prominent part in establishing
the Portpatrick railway. Sheriff Guthrie was eldest of the family, and after a
childhood spent in the woods and fields, received his education from private
tutors, at Stranraer Academy, and at Glasgow University. Here he distinguished
himself in the classes of Professors Ramsay and Lushington, but for two years
was laid aside by a malady supposed to be phthisis. The skill and care however,
of Dr. Gully of Malvern, father of the late Speaker, restored him to health, and
he resumed his legal studies in 1856, and was admitted to the Scottish Bar in
1861. In the same year he married, and began the practice of his profession in
To begin with he devoted himself to the literary aspect of Scottish Law. From 1866 to 1871 he acted as law reporter for the Scotsman and Glasgow Herald. From 1867 to 1873 he edited the Journal of Jurisprudence, then the only law journal in Scotland. In 1868 appeared his translation of Savigny's "Private International Law," of which an enlarged edition was published in 1886. Editions of "Erskine's Principles" appeared from his pen in 1870 and 1874, and between 1871 and 1899 he edited no fewer than five editions of "Bell's Principles," which he made "the most useful and authoritative modern text-book of the law of Scotland." He was also editor of "Hunter on Landlord and Tenant," and author of a large number of legal articles in various journals, as well as a work on "The Law of Trades Unions," and a volume on Court of Session cases; and he championed the cause of the Established Church in a pamphlet "The Democratic View of the Church Question."
As a first official recognition of these services he was appointed one of the authorised reporters of the Court of Session in 1871, a position which he held for three years. In 1871 also he was appointed a Commissioner under the Truck Act. and made an elaborate report on the fishing and knitting industries of Shetland. And in 1872, appointed Registrar of Friendly Societies in Scotland, he had the task of rearranging the records and restarting the office, which had fallen into disorder.
So far he had carried on only a moderate practice at the Bar, being somewhat handicapped by want of physical strength, but in 1874 Sheriff Glassford Bell died, and on Mr. Gillespie Dickson's appointment to his place in Glasgow, Mr. Guthrie was offered a Sheriff-Substituteship there. In this new position his legal learning and other high qualifications rapidly became manifest, to the full appreciation of the profession and the public. On quitting Edinburgh in 1874 he was entertained at dinner by a company who bore ample testimony to his qualities and acquirements; and in 1881 the merits of his legal work in the literary field were recognised by Edinburgh University, which conferred on him the degree of LL.D.
He received a disappointment in 1885, when, on the death of Sheriff Clark, Lord Advocate Macdonald appointed Professor Berry to the Sheriff-Principalship of Lanarkshire on personal and political grounds. A writer in the Times a few months later pointed out that Professor Berry did not possess the statutory qualifications for the office, and a Bill had to be introduced into Parliament to validate the appointment. Sheriff Guthrie thereupon wrote a letter denouncing the Bill as an offence to public order, and exposing the motives of the nomination. This letter was referred to in Parliament, and the Lord Advocate found some difficulty in making reply. Time, however, made amends, and on the death of Sheriff Berry in 1903 Dr. Guthrie received the appointment of Sheriff Principal, his nomination proving highly popular in Lanarkshire.
Sheriff Guthrie was a member of the Established Church, and a member of the University Councils both of Edinburgh and Glasgow. He died in Glasgow on 30th August, 1908.
Index of Glasgow Men (1909)