‘Get me Beltrami’ – the Glasgow solicitor who became a legend.

Around the turn of the millennium I was prevailed upon to write a regular column on legal affairs for The Herald – for no better reason than I happened to know a lot about accountancy (a non-sequitur, I know, but I won’t bore you with the details).

Getting to know the dramatis personae was not an onerous task. Scotland’s jealously proud legal profession is not large and I would repeatedly bump up against the same personalities, often in the rarefied climes of Edinburgh’s New Town.

One prominent figure whose name was generally uttered in awed tones - even in the capital - was that of legendary defence solicitor Joe Beltrami, who has died aged 83.

Beltrami founded the Glasgow firm that bore his name in the late-1950s and wrote himself into Scotland’s social - and criminal - history. He appeared for the defence in over 500 murder trials, coming into regular contact with many of the post-war underworld’s most exotic - even eccentric - figures. 

They included ‘Gentle Johnny’ Ramensky, who used his safe-cracking abilities as a commando during world war two and who, when he found any war savings or pension books in safes he had just cracked, would post them back to their owners. He also represented Jimmy Boyle, the convicted murderer turned sculptor and novelist who wrote an acclaimed autobiography while imprisoned in Barlinnie, A Sense of Freedom.

Another client was one-time Glasgow ‘godfather’ Arthur Thompson, a terrifying figure whose plush home, ‘The Ponderosa’, was two council properties knocked into one.

As the firm’s website proudly recounts, Beltrami’s record of securing acquittals led to the coining of the phrase ‘Get me Beltrami’ among Glaswegians seeking legal assistance in desperate circumstances.

This was never less than a prudent request. Two of Beltrami’s cases led to the only Royal Pardons granted in Scotland in the 20th century: Patrick Meehan, falsely accused of murder of a pensioner during a break-in at a house in Ayr; and Maurice Swanson, wrongly convicted for a bank robbery. Beltrami defended successfully in 12 capital murder cases. As The Herald put it - ‘Beltrami 12, Hangman 0’.

In 1993, Beltrami became the first solicitor-advocate to plead in the Court of Criminal Appeal and he was later awarded an honorary life membership of the Law Society of Scotland. He continued working into his 70s.

Beltrami belongs among that select group of Scottish lawyers who grew bigger than their calling. One thinks also of such luminaries as Donald Findlay QC; and the maverick Tory MP (and sartorial oddity) the late Nicholas Fairbairn QC. Beltrami helped launch the distinguished careers of both men.

Happily, Joe Beltrami is not the last of the legal line. One son, Ed, is chief crown prosecutor in Wales; another, Adrian, is a QC at the commercial bar in London.

Thomas Ross, president of the Scottish Criminal Bar Association, speaks for many today when he said: ‘Joseph Beltrami, perhaps the first lawyer in Scotland to specialise in criminal law, laid the path for all of us to follow.

‘No counsel instructed by him failed to learn from his guidance. Known fondly as “Big Joe” – he will never be forgotten.’

Paul Rogerson is Gazette editor in chief