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- Donald R. Findlay
Beltrami, Joseph (Joe) (1932–2015), solicitor advocate, was born at 1 Menzies Place, Rutherglen, Lanarkshire, on 15 May 1932, the son of Egidio Beltrami, restaurateur, and his wife Isabella, née Battison, sales assistant. His father, from Italian-speaking Switzerland, had come to Scotland to open a fish and chip shop. His mother was Scottish. His early life was spent in Glasgow’s Bridgegate, which was then one of the less salubrious parts of the ‘Second City of Empire’. His parents were determined that he should have the best possible start in life. Doubtless with a deal of sacrifice, they were able to have him educated privately at the prestigious St Aloysius’ College. Thereafter he read law at the University of Glasgow, graduating in 1953.
When he sought to begin his legal training Beltrami was confronted by one of the first of the many challenges in his life. In those days, being a Roman Catholic could be a considerable drawback. He later recalled, not with rancour but with a degree of sadness, the many rejections he experienced at interview with firms of solicitors before he finally secured an apprenticeship. After national service in the Intelligence Corps between 1954 and 1956 he qualified as a solicitor in the latter year and, a further two years after that, set up his own business, Beltrami & Co., in Glasgow’s Buchanan Street.
On 14 January 1958, at St Andrew’s Cathedral, Glasgow, Beltrami married Brigid Dolores (Delia) Fallon (b. 1934), a state registered nurse, and daughter of Edward Fallon, railway engine wheel repairer, and his wife Annie, née Mullen. He and Delia had three sons, Edwin, Adrian, and Jason. That each of them followed him into the legal profession and forged their own distinguished careers was a source of enormous pride to him.
From early, faltering steps Beltrami went on to build a reputation as a criminal defence lawyer which was as unique as it was formidable. This was by no means easy to achieve. Even in the 1970s criminal lawyers were looked down upon by their civil colleagues. That this markedly changed, in Scotland, was in no small measure due to Beltrami. To succeed required hard work and persistence; it also required stubbornness. He had this in abundance, and as Scots say, he could be ‘thrawn’. He possessed an implacable belief in his client’s innocence in some cases, and regarded every conviction as a personal slight.
Based on hard work and total commitment to his clients, Beltrami’s business and reputation grew and he took on the most serious cases. He represented twelve men charged with capital murder and, as he was known to say, not one of them ‘troubled the hangman’. Throughout his career, he acted for many high-profile clients. Each was treated professionally and with mutual respect. Perhaps his most famous (or infamous) client was Glasgow’s ‘godfather’, Arthur Thompson, a man with a considerable reputation for violence against those who dared oppose him. The two men knew each other for many years and their relationship was never other than Mr Thompson and Mr Beltrami. However, Beltrami did once ask a favour of Thompson and as a result he met with Muhammad Ali before he and his wife took ringside seats in Las Vegas for the fight against Joe Bugner.
If, even after a conviction, Beltrami was convinced of his client’s innocence, he was prepared to go to inordinate lengths to right what he perceived as a wrong. He secured a royal pardon for Maurice Swanson, who had been wrongly convicted of bank robbery, and most famously he also secured a royal pardon for Patrick Meehan, who was convicted of the murder of Rachel Ross in 1969. The evidence against Meehan had been extremely thin and Beltrami was convinced that there had been a miscarriage of justice. Aided by Ludovic Kennedy, he fought for a number of years, until Meehan was eventually freed in 1976. For many of those years Beltrami had carried with him the burden of knowing that Meehan was innocent because another of his clients, William (Tank) McGuiness, had confessed his guilt. Only when McGuiness was himself murdered in 1976 was Beltrami released from his bond of client confidentiality.
For all that, Beltrami’s most celebrated client was Hercules the Bear. Hercules, a trained grizzly bear who featured in a James Bond film and various television advertisements, went missing on the Hebridean island of Benbecula during the filming of an advertisement for Kleenex tissues. More than three weeks passed before the bear was recovered and his owner, Andy Robin, was prosecuted for failing to control a wild animal. Beltrami successfully ran the defence that Hercules was a working bear and not a wild animal. Hercules walked free or, at least, back to his former celebrity lifestyle.
When the rules as to rights of audience in the Scottish courts changed, Beltrami became a solicitor advocate and in 1993 was the first such to appear in the country’s highest court, the Justiciary Appeal Court. After a period of time as a consultant with Beltrami & Co., he retired in 2008 and was recognized with a lifetime achievement award at the Law Awards of Scotland. He was also made an honorary life member of the Law Society of Scotland. He wrote two books, The Defender (1980), revised as The Defender: Tales of the Suspected (1988), with an introduction by Sir Nicholas Fairbairn, and A Deadly Innocence: The Meehan File (1989).
Throughout his working life Joe Beltrami was a towering presence in the Scottish legal system. He was a man of great stature and character. To those who were fortunate enough to know him, he was always ‘Big Joe’. A lifelong Celtic fan, he would delight in telling anyone who would listen (especially if they inclined to the team from the other half of the city, Rangers) that Celtic was the first British team to win the European Cup, in 1967. He died at his home in Bothwell of vascular dementia on 23 February 2015, and was survived by Delia and his three sons. His funeral service and requiem mass took place on 2 March at St Aloysius’ Roman Catholic Church in Garnethill, Glasgow. As he embarked upon his final journey to Dalnottar Crematorium in Clydebank, all those who had attended his funeral knew that the Scottish legal system had witnessed the end of an era.
- J. Beltrami, The defender (1980)
- J. Beltrami, Tales of the suspected (1988)
- J. Beltrami, A deadly innocence (1989)
- The Scotsman (25 Feb 2015)
- Daily Record (25 Feb 2015)
- Scottish Daily Mail (25 Feb 2015)
- The National [Scotland] (25 Feb 2015)
- The Times (25 Feb 2015); (6 April 2015); (22 April 2015)
- Daily Telegraph (25 Feb 2015); (26 Feb 2015)
- The Herald [Glasgow] (2 March 2015); (13 June 2015)
- The Independent (9 March 2015)
- The Guardian (10 March 2015)
- personal knowledge (2019)
- private information (2019)
- P. Dye, six photographs, 2002, Mirrorpix
- obituary photographs