Lecturer in Scots private law, Malcolm Combe, tells us about his passion for land law reform, as well as his love of music and the Dons. 

Tell us about your role at the University

I joined the School in 2011 after a period in private practice as a solicitor. Since then I have taught a variety of undergraduate courses on our law degree (such as the Law of Property and Commercial and Consumer Contracts) and have had some involvement with our postgraduate programmes. I sit on the School’s marketing committee and as a result hold the keys for our social media accounts, so I suppose that also makes me the Law School tweeter, and I curate our blog.

The law students also keep me on my toes with the great work they do through the Aberdeen Law Project, a student initiative which aims to address access to justice issues in the north east of Scotland in a number of ways, up to and including legal advice and representation. I assist and supervise when required, although to be honest the students normally do a grand job without me sticking my oar in.

As for research, I have a keen interest in property law (particularly land reform) and clinical legal education, which is a teaching method that seeks to harness and refine the learning experiences students obtain from law “clinics” (like Aberdeen Law Project).

How do you usually start your day?

I usually switch on the radio and groggily listen to either BBC Radio Scotland or Radio nan Gàidheal as I summon the energy to get up.

I also have an awful habit of reaching for my smartphone and checking social media as I am gaining consciousness. This means I usually get my news from a combination of half-heard radio stories and internet memes, which probably is not healthy.

Speaking of health, I do try to get to the local park run (a 5K run organised by volunteers) on a Saturday morning, and on weekdays I walk into the office (a journey of about a mile), so I am not all about bad habits in the morning.

What brought you to the University of Aberdeen?

My father is from Aberdeen and his side of the family are based in and around the city, so I have always had an affinity with the place – and indeed the football team – even though I grew up in Renfrewshire.

After studying for my law degree at Strathclyde, I moved to Aberdeen for my postgraduate Diploma in Legal Practice roughly ten years ago (that being the skills-based course law graduates needed to complete before practising law, now known as the Diploma in Professional Legal Practice, which I simplistically describe as “teacher training for lawyers”).

Even though I undertook that vocational qualification with a view to practising, and worked for a time as a trainee solicitor then a solicitor in Edinburgh, I always enjoyed the academic side of the law. I was fortunate to work as a research student and a tutor for the likes of Professor Roddy Paisley and the late Professor David Carey Miller when I was a Diploma student.

When I finished that course, I did not completely escape academia – for example, I tutored property law at the University of Edinburgh and did a little bit of writing on legal issues – but that clearly was not enough for me. I felt like an academic role could be for me. Towards the end of 2010 the University of Aberdeen announced it was recruiting a number of lecturers. I applied, and here I am.

What’s your favourite thing about your job?

I have just started a period of research leave, which will allow me to get my teeth into some difficult questions about land law reform and property law more generally. That being the case, even though I am stepping away from teaching duties for a little while I do enjoy the teaching aspect of my job and find it particularly rewarding. Indeed, when I took up my post at the University I attended a training course for some pointers and refreshers on teaching, and I enjoyed that so much I undertook a Postgraduate Certificate in Higher Education Learning and Teaching under the guidance of colleagues at the Centre for Academic Development. I hope that course, and my own enthusiasm for law as a subject, makes my classes enjoyable for my students as well.

As for my research, whilst this is a bit of a simplification, when compared to legal practice an academic lawyer can be proactive rather than reactive. This means I have a bit more autonomy to research what I want to research rather than wait for a client’s instruction. Of course, that can lead to related instructions and consultancy work: for example, I was involved with the Scottish Government’s Land Reform Review Group in 2013.

Meanwhile, I enjoy my involvement with the Aberdeen Law Project and an extra-curricular student activity called the Client Consultation Competition. Both of these keep me fresh and, I hope, allow me to juggle law in theory and law in action.

What are your work priorities at the moment?

It would be fair to say research is my priority right now. Mind you, even getting to the stage of being ready for research leave has taken a little while, as I had a few tasks to finish, such as finalising a chapter for an Oxford University Press collection on community property rights, organising an event with the Chair of the new Scottish Land Commission for our forthcoming May Festival, and co-ordinating the internal Client Consultation Competition Final at the University. As regards the latter, I accompanied the winners of that competition to the Scottish competition at Strathclyde, and I am delighted to note that the Aberdeen students won

Now that my desk is a little bit clearer, I am looking forward to delving into a particularly topical issue in Scottish land law. I was fortunate to obtain some funding from the The Carnegie Trust for the Universities of Scotland, which will allow me (and a research assistant) to look into aspects of the land reform process that is taking place in Scotland at the moment. A particular focus of that research will relate to abandonment of land and what happens when owners decide to take little or no action with land they own, or actively seek to have nothing else to do with it.

How do you like to relax outside work?

I enjoy music, both listening to and participating in. I am a passable bagpiper and bass guitarist, although not at the same time. I also sing bass in, and am vice-president of, Aberdeen Gaelic Choir. That keeps me busy in terms of local performances and also with preparation for the Royal National Mòd (an annual music festival).

I also enjoy running and hillwalking (my knowledge of the law in relation to access to the outdoors sometimes comes in handy in relation to those pursuits), and I can occasionally be spotted at Pittodrie or Hampden cheering on Aberdeen FC or the Scottish international football team, with mixed results.