James Adair: Lord Protector of Scottish Morality

Few names will stir the emotions amongst LGBT Scots, who were alive during the deliberations of the Wolfenden Committee, than James Adair OBE. Adair wasn’t the only Scot to sit alongside John Wolfenden, but he is probably the most in/famous. He was to disagree fundamentally with the recommendations of the committee regarding homosexual offences and produced a minority report that questioned the moral reasoning of decriminalising homosexual acts between men.

James Adair

James Adair c.1957

In the 2007 BBC 4 drama, Consenting Adults, Adair was played as a somewhat disagreeable and pompous man, by the actor Sean Scanlan. Just how pompous and disagreeable he was is difficult to ascertain as we know so very little about this former procurator-fiscal, who had a long and successful career as a prosecutor. What we do know is that he was an elder of the Church of Scotland who grabbed many column inches through his unwavering opposition to homosexual law reform. He lived to see the change in law in England and Wales in 1967, and in Scotland in 1980, as he died in January 1982 at the ripe old age of 95 (this is despite being ‘killed off’ by Lord Ferrier – Victor Noel Paton – in a debate regarding homosexual law reform in Scotland, in 1977). Adair outlived his wife Isabel, by 32 years.

The purpose of this blog post is to flesh out the rather one dimensional view we have of Adair, whose portrait above does little to add personality or vigour to the name. Born in Barrhead in 1886, Adair was the eldest son of William, an iron turner and Catherine, and he grew up in George Street and Barnes Street, Barrhead. On leaving school at 13, young Adair took employment as a clerk in a local legal office. Adair was obviously motivated by this early exposure to the legal profession, as he studied law at Glasgow University, eventually qualifying as a solicitor in 1909, and entering private practice in criminal defence, serving his apprenticeship with Glasgow solicitors Brownlie, Watson & Beckett. In 1919, at the instruction of J. D. Strathern, he was appointed procurator-fiscal depute, with his first case, the George Square Riots of 1919. In 1933, a year after he transferred to Edinburgh,  he was involved in the Kosmo Club trial regarding ‘immoral earnings’. In 1937, he succeeded Strathern as procurator-fiscal at Glasgow.

Adair had a particular interest in morality, perhaps fostered by his membership of the Church of Scotland, and was associated with the National Vigilance Association of Scotland, particularly during the period of WWII, when he was delighted to announce to the NVAS that in Scotland the war had resulted in very few ‘fallen women’. Away from his legal and moral duties, Adair was to build a reputation as an entertaining public speaker on topics such as; Old Glasgow Streets, Old Glasgow Characters, and Edinburgh Life. He also had a long association with the Scottish Burns Federation (I wonder what he made of Burns’ ‘interesting’ sexual life), and with the Young Men’s Christian Association (he was the chairman of the Scottish National Council & from 1962, World President).

But it was Wolfenden that pushed Adair onto the public stage. Adair’s greatest fear was that law reform would have a devastating effect on the young in Scotland (Lord Arran appears to have picked up this particular baton recently). He stated that: “The presence in a district of…adult male lovers living openly and notoriously…is bound to have a pernicious effect on the young people of that community”. Adair’s proclamations of doom were seized upon by the Scottish press, with The Bulletin & Scots Pictorial lauding his input: “We should be glad if the things discussed…could be wiped out altogether…There is not much doubt that this disgusting vice has been becoming…more ‘fashionable’…”. The Scotsman took a similar editorial stance, and the Daily Record could barely conceal its outrage. Speaking at the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland in 1958, Adair caused panic in the cloisters by claiming that within weeks of the publication of the Wolfenden Report, a homosexual ‘club’ in London, offering information on meeting places including public lavatories, had received nearly 50 applications for membership, and in one square mile of London there were over 100 male prostitutes offering depraved services. Adair’s fear was that any change in law would enable ‘perverts to practice sin for the sake of sinning’ in Scotland.

Yet, there was an element of mendacity about Adair’s claims. He would have known, first hand, that homosexual prostitution was already thriving in Scotland by the turn of the 20th century and by the 1920s there were organised groups of male prostitutes operating in Glasgow – a city, he had previously hinted, with a a greater attraction for gay men. In reality Adair was upset that the previous policy of ‘silence’ regarding same-sex desire in Scotland was under threat, and by emphasising the potential for moral turpitude, he hoped to consign homosexual law reform in Scotland to the dustbin. In any event this was what effectively happened due to the peculiarities of Scots Law. Adair became a representative, a figurehead, for moral objections to homosexual law reform in Scotland, and would have been quietly satisfied that within a few months of the publication of the Wolfenden Report, Scottish silence had been restored (albeit to be resurrected in the mid 1960s, but with a similar result). Adair, his job done, could retire into relative obscurity, appearing now and again from his home in Pollokshields to offer a talk on old Glasgow, or to attend meetings of The Galloway Association of Glasgow.

Copyright © Jeff Meek 2013

All Rights Reserved.

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