COURTROOM three of the High Court in Edinburgh is panelled in light wood and draped in the heavy memories of a thousand murder trials. Peter Tobin, accused of killing the Polish student Angelika Kluk, sits between two prison officers as Donald Findlay QC questions a hostile witness. The 60 year old prisoner keeps his head bowed and does not appear to be listening; the rest of the courtroom is rapt as his lawyer lays into the man in the witness box.
Findlay is wearing the white wig and black gown of his profession, a brightly checked shirt peeping out beneath this sombre attire. He speaks without notes in the belief that it looks better to the jury, and because it forces him to really listen to what the witness says and adapt moment by moment. It is an improvisational technique similar to that of a certain sort of actor, but were he to falter, the consequences would be rather more serious than a scene falling flat. Findlay knows he must appear confident and in control, and get the witness to say what he expects. It can be frightening to stand in court and rely on his wits, but adrenaline gets him through, and the flux of his mind does not show on his face.
At 56, Findlay is an old hand at this. An advocate since 1975, he is widely regarded as Scotland’s best defence lawyer. Today he is doing his best for Tobin, which means doing his worst to the witness. He speaks gently at first, asking questions politely and seeming grateful for the answers. But later, angered, he accuses the witness of being involved in the death of Kluk. It is a bravura performance, an aria of insinuation, which after almost an hour reaches a crescendo with the following exchange.
Findlay: “You sound like a soul in torment to me.”
Witness: “My soul’s been in torment for years.”
Findlay pauses, seemingly struck by the force of this remark. It’s tempting to believe that he identifies with the sentiment. Since 1999, when he was filmed singing sectarian songs at a Rangers Football Club party, a scandal which precipitated his resignation as vice- chairman of Rangers and caused him to consider suicide, Findlay has been widely regarded as a soul in torment – lonely, bitter and haunted. But is that true?
When the trial is over for the day, I phone his mobile. He is courteous but says he hasn’t read a Scottish newspaper since the media storm eight years ago. “The press used me when it suited them and treated me like shit when it suited them.” So, no, he won’t be giving me an interview.
A few weeks later, however, he agrees to meet in a hotel in Glasgow, partly, he says, because he wants to show that advocates are not some kind of elitist club: “It is right that people who may be interested in following in my footsteps know that if you are the grandson of a miner from Cowdenbeath you have exactly the same chance as somebody who was educated at an English public school.”
To a large extent, Findlay’s work is his life. Although this audience was granted on the condition that he wouldn’t discuss romantic relationships (he has been married three times), Findlay admits that he has sacrificed his personal life to his professional life. He works seven days a week, beginning in the early morning, never finishing before 11 at night, and often continuing until the small hours. This explains the bags beneath his eyes bulging like tobacco pouches packed with rough shag. He usually has 20 to 30 cases on the go at once, and is forever zipping between crime scenes and prisons, breakfasting at Barlinnie and taking supper at Saughton, meeting clients and examining evidence.
Findlay has acted as defence counsel in some of the most notorious cases in modern Scottish history – Angelika Kluk, Jodi Jones and Kriss Donald, to name but three murders – and explains that this is simply because solicitors keep instructing him to represent their clients. Unless there is a clear conflict of interest, Findlay cannot decline, and his reputation ensures he is always busy. “I have,” he says, “represented more people charged with murder than any lawyer who has ever lived or is likely to live.”
It is sometimes written that Findlay only gets the hopeless cases, but he denies being some Houdini-for-hire helping criminals escape justice. He says his role in the justice system is to ensure guilty people are convicted. In other words, he uses his considerable skills to test the evidence against his clients, and if they are sent to prison, then that must mean they really did commit the crime. His most successful defence was that of former gangster Paul Ferris, who in 1992 was found not guilty of all seven charges against him, including that of murdering Arthur Thompson Jr.
Findlay believes in the presumption of inno-cence, and does not directly demand that his clients tell him whether they committed the crime. He might ask: “What do you have to tell me about this?” In certain cases, when the evidence seems overwhelming, he will try to persuade the accused to confess to him and then plead guilty. “The notion that a client can tell me any old shite and I’ll accept it at face value is nonsense,” he says.
He is equally bullish when asked whether his strategy during the Tobin trial was to sling mud at witnesses in order to suggest that his client was not the only person who could have been involved in Kluk’s death. “That is complete and utter nonsense.”
And with that our initial meeting is over. Findlay leaves the bar, gets into his Jag, lights his pipe, and goes back to work. He has to prepare for the next day’s trial – “a murder most ordinary”.
JULY 4, same hotel bar, same seats. Findlay drinks black coffee and nervously shoogles a sachet of sugar. We talk a little about Tony Hancock. Findlay is an admirer of the late comedian, partly because he identifies strongly with the way Hancock presented his comic mask to the public while being a more tragic figure behind closed doors.
There is an equally clear distinction between Donald Findlay QC and Donald Findlay the private individual. The former is a bombastic exhibitionist, a star in the courtroom and a court jester on the after-dinner circuit. The latter is terribly shy, anx-ious, sentimental and utterly lacking in self-confidence. Donald Findlay QC is Donald Findlay’s envoy to the world.
It makes sense to interview the two separately. Today’s meeting is with the lawyer and we will talk about his work. I get to meet the man next time.
In the weeks since we last met, Findlay has been front-page news. The papers have been reporting his appearance before a professional tribunal over accusations that Findlay, an atheist, had brought the Faculty of Advocates into disrepute by telling allegedly anti-Catholic jokes as part of an after-dinner speech in Northern Ireland in 2005. Two days before we meet, the tribunal ruled that the complaints against him should be rejected.
He has promised himself that he will not talk publicly about this verdict, but says he gave serious thought to giving up after-dinner speaking altogether. Having decided to continue doing it, has he had to reconsider the sort of material he uses? Are religious gags now out of the question?
“I suppose it has affected what I do, yes,” he replies. “And I’m angry at myself for letting that happen. But there has to be an element of self-preservation in this. I regard that as a base motive because it flies in the face of everything I believe in, but I’ve been driven to this position.”
He was bound to find himself in hot water again. Just can’t keep his mouth shut. It’s ironic that he is so very familiar with the reckless behaviour of those he represents, and yet he cannot control or explain his own impulsiveness. “I’ve never sat and done the psychoanalysis bit, because I would drive myself nuts if I tried,” he says. “But I think the conclusion I would come to is: I don’t understand me. Half the time I don’t understand myself at all.”
He finds himself inexplicably compelled to challenge authority and received wisdom, and admits that this may be one reason why he is a defence advocate; working as a prosecutor would mean allying himself with the establishment. “It’s perhaps the stubborn, thrawn side of my nature that I’m more drawn to fighting against something than fighting for something.”
I tell him I’ve been reading press reports of his old murder trials and it has been very depressing. He looks blank when the names of former clients are mentioned until I remind him of their crimes – stabbed his own grandmother, strangled a money-collector, bludgeoned a retired policeman with his own truncheon. It’s interesting that he gives so much of himself to a case, and yet when it is over instantly junks it from his memory. He is rather like a method actor who stays in character during filming and then plunges into the next role as soon as the movie wraps.
What must it be like, though, to spend your life representing murderers, steeped in proxy gore? “I suppose by now I have probably seen everything bad that one human being can do to another,” he explains. “Over the years it has made me more and more anxious to understand why. I have what many people would say is a naïve view: I don’t believe that anybody is beyond redemption.
“If I have a client who is uptight about what they are charged with then I will make a point of saying, ‘Look, I don’t judge. I have seen dozens of people charged with doing the same thing. If you have killed a baby you will get the same effort from me as if it was your mother or a total stranger’.”
What sort of relationship does he develop with his clients? “If you are involved in a big case with a lot of preparation and a trial that goes on for a long time you get very close to your client. You get to know them, you’re seeing them going through the stresses and strains. But it’s never personal. My clients call me Mr Findlay and I do not call them by their first name … but if you have any human feeling at all you can see what this individual is going through.”
I ask about Luke Mitchell, who in 2005 was sentenced to life imprisonment for murdering his 14-year-old girlfriend, Jodi Jones. Mitchell’s appeal is scheduled for January 8 next year. It is thought that Findlay takes the case very personally.
“Of course it’s an important case,” he says. “There was an appalling loss of life. That young girl had done nobody any harm and had her whole life ahead of her. But equally, he’s a young boy who had his whole life ahead of him, and you want to be pretty sure that guilt was proved beyond reasonable doubt before you convict on that evidence. I get the sense that there is an air of disquiet about the verdict that wasn’t there at the time of the trial, and with some justification.”
Did he have a closer relationship with Mitchell than with most of his clients? “Closer is the wrong word. We spent a lot of time in each other’s company. I mean, the trial went on for three months. I’ve got to sit down and deal with a kid who’s 16. Can you imagine being 16 and someone who’s 40 years older comes in and says, ‘I’m now taking charge of your life’? You’re a different generation and a perfect stranger and have to work at trying to win this boy’s trust.”
How? “Spend time with him, listen to what he says about things that interest him. You ask him about music, you go and buy CDs and listen to them and think, ‘What the fuck’s all that about?’ I listened to Nirvana and all sorts of things. Because you are trying to look after him.”
Findlay has no children of his own. Did he feel paternal towards Mitchell? “No. I mean, I did tell his mother that I would look after him as if he was my own son and I meant it.”
What was it like when the verdict was announced? “It was very difficult, mainly because I knew I had to go and see a kid whose life had just been taken away from him.”
When one of Findlay’s clients is convicted, he makes a point of going down to their cell beneath the court, expressing regret and giving them the opportunity to say what they like. If they wish to curse his name, so be it. But what does he himself feel in those circumstances – defeated, perhaps, or guilty? “No. I worry. Could I have done it different? Did I miss something? Is it my fault? Many a night when a case is concluded you sit and stare at a wall.”
Does it concern him that the sectarian scandals might affect the way juries think about him and therefore his clients? “Of course. Everything concerns me about the job. You could spend your life riven by self-doubt. You get concerned about having been doing this for so long. Are you really as good as you used to be?”
How long has that been a concern? “Thirty-two years.”
What’s the serious answer? “Thirty-two years.”
That’s the length of his entire career. There must have been a moment, surely, when he allowed himself to believe that he was good at his job?
“No. Not yet. If you want the honest answer, not yet.”
“Riven by self-doubt. Always have been. Not just in this. Biggest critic. All sorts of aspects of my life, going back to school.”
He’s speaking from the heart now, unconsciously dropping the personal pronoun by way of compensation. At least, I assume he is speaking from the heart. Findlay is, of course, a consummate performer, skilled in persuasion, so it is possible that he may be projecting a Donald Findlay he knows will be more sympathetic than his usual public image. But assuming he is not dissembling, why is he like this? Why does he care so much about his clients and believe so little in himself? For that, we have to bid farewell to the lawyer and sit down with the man.
Later in July, back for a third time in the hotel bar. It’s a sunny day, and rush-hour traffic thundering over the nearby Kingston Bridge identifies this as the 21st century, yet Findlay is dressed, as usual, for a Conan Doyle pea-souper. Smiling through his grey muttonchop beard, he explains that he is a fan of men’s fashion from the Victorian and Edwardian eras, and that he simply does not suit casual clothes.
But why does a very shy person dress in a way that draws attention? “It’s all part of the distancing of the self from the public,” he says. “The more you stand out, the more you can hide. That was what lay behind the conscious decision to adopt this style. Partly because I quite liked it, but also because I realised early on that I was useless at what is now called networking … It was easier to hide behind this style than either try to improve my social skills or be constantly apologising for them.”
There is a sense in which he is making his appearance eccentric in the hope that no-one will peer closely and judge the man beneath. He is concerned with how the world sees him. Findlay regards himself as a good man and is troubled that a lot of people would say otherwise. It’s clear that he feels besieged.
Is he happy? “No, I don’t suppose I have been for a long time. Certainly not since 1999. That changed my whole world, and since then, no. That’s not to say I go around in misery. But it was inevitable that the kind of thing that happened two years ago and led to the tribunal would happen again. At some point in time I would do or say something and it would be pounced on.
“And that again takes you into that area where you are presented as one thing and you know it’s not true, the people who know you know it’s not true, and there is absolutely fuck-all you can do about it. If I go somewhere out of the country where I can actually walk down the street and sit and have a cup of coffee, and nobody knows me and nobody cares, that is when I am genuinely happy.”
Is he out of the country a lot? “Not as much as I would like. I have certain interests in Asia. Nothing fancy. I am a partner in a pub in Singapore. On Orchard Road, the famous street in Singapore, there’s a café in the corner in the Marriott Hotel and you can sit there, and you can still smoke, and you will see the whole world coming past – every size, shape, colour, creed, all mixing together quite happily. I should certainly say I am happy then.”
But not in Scotland, where people still denounce him in the street. Eight years ago, at the height of the bigotry scandal, he planned to end his own life, going so far as obtaining the pills with which he would overdose. However, he decided his suicide would be hurtful for the people who cared about him, and instead of killing himself showered, shaved and went to work.
What was it like, working on the day he chose to live? “Having decided that there would be another day for me, that meant there was another day in court, and therefore I gave it 100%.”
Findlay has always lived his life in boxes and doesn’t like to get them mixed up. That day he was in the box marked QC; the suicidal Donald Findlay was in his box back home.
It’s more than that, though. For Findlay work is a refuge. I ask what he has experienced in the last eight years that made it worth staying alive. He says a renewed focus on his “first love” – being a full-time defence lawyer. “I was back to what I loved doing. Suicide would have been foolish. It would have been a very foolish thing to have missed the chance of going back to doing what I wanted to do all my life.”
He traces his ambition to 1956, when the legal drama QC was first broadcast. Watching at home in Cowdenbeath, five-year-old Findlay was hooked. Then in 1958 the murder trial of Peter Manuel began in Glasgow. “It was so spectacular and so absorbing – every word was reported – that it was the first time I had any notion of what crime and the criminal law was all about,” he recalls. “In a childish way I wished I was his lawyer. My father was appalled. I was six years old. The fact that I was reading a newspaper at all took him by surprise. Reading reports of a mass murderer? He thought this very odd.”
His childhood was adjourned at around the age of six and never resumed. “Partly because I was never treated as a child in any way. We moved house quite a bit. It was always explained to me what the pros and cons were, and I was always asked my opinion. I spent much more time in the company of adults than I did with other children. We lived quite a distance away from my primary school so I wasn’t mixing with the other kids after school. My life was always much more adult, and I preferred adult company.”
He was an only child. His parents, James and Mabel, died some years ago. His mother was “soft and gentle”, his father extremely clever. James Findlay understood economic theory, Latin, algebra and geometry; his parents had wanted him to go to university but he decided instead to work with cars. It was the first of a number of decisions that meant he never achieved much financial success.
James was ambitious for his son, keen that he didn’t repeat his mistake of not getting a proper education. He didn’t praise much. Neither was he critical. But it was made clear that young Donald could always do better at school and university. Findlay thinks that may be why he has so much self-doubt now, and recognises that it is this lack of confidence in his own abilities that fuels his workaholism.
It’s important, however, not to overstate the negative influence of his father. “He was honest, hard-working and as decent a man as you would ever want to meet – and that is no failure. He inspired me to make the most of myself because of the encouragement I received from him and Mum. I have always felt that the best way I could show them how much I appreciated that was to try my very best at everything I did. Also, I suspect, because he helped me and he died before I could really help him and Mum in a material way, I have devoted my energies to trying to help others.”
There are other reasons. In a previous interview, Findlay said that he was insular and kept his real self hidden because he felt he had hurt the people close to him. He mentioned his father, mother and grandmother, all of whom died or became ill when he wasn’t around to look after them. Now he says: “The few people who really mattered to me in this life, one way or another I’ve contrived to let them all down … and maybe that is part of the reason why I do what I do.” In other words, he compensates for being bad for people personally by being good for them professionally.
Findlay’s work also allows him to make intense human connections of the sort his shyness makes difficult in private life. His after-dinner speaking is the same. It forces him to engage with others, even though he is essentially doing so in character. Both contexts also allow him to experience confrontation – examining hostile witnesses and handling hecklers – which he says he hates, but which is, on some level, psychologically necessary.
Donald Findlay is a fascinatingly complex individual whose turbulent mind, paradoxically, achieves a powerful focus on individual cases. Yet it seems that being forced to concentrate on the murderous drives of others brings relief from his own baffling psychology; he’d rather be in court than in his own head.
I ask, finally, what it would take to make him truly happy. Rangers winning the Champions League, he says at first. Then he tells the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth: “Seriously, being allowed to get on with my life in peace. I have never intentionally done harm to another being. I care about my role in the legal system. And from time to time I can make people laugh. What is wrong with that?”