James Watt, LL.D., W.S., F.F.A.

RSE Obituary

by E M Wedderburn

Obituaries Index

Dr James Watt was one of the outstanding personalities of Edinburgh life for nearly half a century. He died on December 3, 1945, in his eighty-third year, after a long illness against which he struggled gallantly. One of the most remarkable things about this notable man was the variety of his interests and the keenness with which he entered into all his activities. His professional engagements were numerous and onerous, and would have engaged the whole of the energies of a lesser man, but, apart from law, his interests covered science, the university, finance and commerce. And there was a side of his life which was perhaps less well known his interest in social betterment, particularly of young people. He gave lavishly of his time and money to many good causes.

His early education was at the Royal High School, in which he always retained pride and interest. It was largely due to his initiative that the school became the owners of Jock's Lodge. On leaving school he entered the office of Messrs Mill & Bonar, where he qualified as a solicitor. In 1889 he left that office to become personal clerk to Mr John Blair, of Messrs Davidson & Syme, W.S., to whom two years later he was apprenticed as a Writer to the Signet, and was admitted to the Society of Writers to the Signet in 1896. Shortly before that year he had qualified as a Fellow of the Faculty of Actuaries - a rare attainment for a lawyer. He became senior partner of his firm in 1912.

In 1899 he married a daughter of the Rev. W C E Jamieson of the Tron Church, Edinburgh, by whom he is survived. There were one daughter and four sons of the marriage.

Dr Watt was pre-eminently successful in his own profession. For many years he combined a large commercial connection with family business; he was the trusted legal adviser of many leading companies and merchants in the city, and his Directorships were numerous. It was natural, therefore, that he should become a prominent member of the W.S. Society. He acted as the Treasurer and senior office-bearer of the Society from 1925 to 1935, and his interest in the affairs of the Society did not end with the completion of his term of office, but continued throughout his life.

Outside his professional life his help was sought by many and seldom refused, though he never advertised his good works. One of his major interests was the University of Edinburgh, and possibly his greatest service to it was in connection with the University Settlement. For many years he was Chairman of its Executive Committee and took an active share in its work. He also acted as President of the Graduates Association from 1940 to the date of his death. In recognition of his distinction as a lawyer and his services to the community he received the degree of LL.D. in 1925.

Another of his major interests was the Edinburgh Hospital for Diseases of Women. He was for many years a member of the Committee of Management, was appointed Vice-Chairman in 1925 and had been its Chairman since 1939. During his long connection with the Hospital he devoted much time to its affairs.

Dr Watt also showed his sympathy with and interest in science in many ways. He subscribed generously to the Scottish Meteorological Society until it became merged in the Royal Meteorological Society. He became a member of the Royal Scottish Geographical Society in 1896 and a Trustee for the Society in 1922. From 1930 to 1933 he was Chairman of the Committee, and in the latter year he became a Vice-President. He was admitted to the Fellowship of the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 1911. He served as a member of Council from 1924 to 1926, was Treasurer from 1926 to 1937, and served two periods as a Vice-President, 1937-40, 1941-44. During all these years he took the greatest interest in the Society's affairs. His counsel was of the highest value, and he was assiduous in his attendance at meetings of the Council and of the Society.

This short catalogue of Dr Watt's interests does, not give a complete picture of the man. He started life with little in the way of influence to help him and reached the top of his profession. It was not surprising, therefore, that he was always jealous lest barriers should be erected which would make the path of the "lad o' pairts" difficult. His success in business was due partly to his extraordinary industry but even more to the quickness and ingenuity of his mind.

Dr Watt will for a long time be missed, not only by professional and business associates and clients, but also by the numerous societies and charitable organisations which had so long relied on his wise counsel and generous support.

James Watt was elected to the Royal Society of Edinburgh on 20 February 1911, his proposers being James Campbell Dewar, Charles Scott Dickson (Lord Dickson), Sir James Dewar, A Crum Brown. This obituary, written by E M Wedderburn, appears in the Royal Society of Edinburgh Year Book 1947, page 36-37.