A Conversation with... Dr Robbie

The Glasgow University Law Society (GULS) Law Review has commissioned a series of interviews with academic staff from across the School. Here, students Ambreen Rasool & Holly McKenna talk to Dr Jill Robbie.


Dr Jill Robbie is a specialist in Property Law, and is particularly interested in its relationship with natural resources. She joined the School of Law in 2015, after completing her traineeship with Brodies LLP. She read law at the University of Edinburgh where she was jointly awarded the ‘Lord President Cooper Memorial Prize’ for most distinguished Honours graduate, and completed her PhD on private water rights in Scots Law at the same institution. In this article, she shares with us her professional experience of academia and university.


The conversation

Could you outline your career so far and your journey to becoming an academic?

I did my undergraduate degree at Edinburgh, which – at 17 – I was very young in starting. I finished this and applied for traineeships, the same as everyone else, but I also applied for a PhD scholarship from the Edinburgh Legal Education Trust. I was offered both at the same time but I choose the PhD. I did this over four years, on the law of private water rights. Once this was submitted, I began my Diploma at Edinburgh and then trained at Brodies LLP – the same firm who offered me a traineeship before my PhD. Initially, when I told them I wanted to come back in 4 years’ time, they advised that they couldn’t suspend it but that I could come back and do a short interview. I was then offered a traineeship to start after my Diploma.Near the end of my traineeship, I applied for jobs in both Norway and [University of] Glasgow and was also offered a solicitor’s position at Brodies. I decided to take the job at Glasgow, which I do not regret. It was a hard decision as I had not interviewed at Glasgow before turning down the job at Brodies, which was very risky. I’m glad that I followed my heart, though, as I didn’t want to do something just for the sake of safety; terrifying as it sounds.

What advice would you give to students who are seeking a career in academia? I think it’s a very difficult choice to make so early. I didn’t do a Masters, as I was very convinced that I wanted to pursue this kind of career, but some people are unsure. After the dissertation, if you love it and need more time to study in this way, a good way of testing this is to do a Masters (either taught or research), then you can see if it’s for you. If you’re convinced already, it’s all about finding the topic, the supervisor, the university and the funding. My dissertation was on ownership of water, and basically became the first chapter of my PhD thesis.

You are currently researching the reform of private water rights in Scotland. How did you come to be interested in this field of law?

In the first year of my undergraduate degree, when we did Delict, the required reading was 168 paragraphs of the Stair Memorial Encyclopaedia on nuisance. I took the recommended reading very seriously and read the whole thing in the Edinburgh law library one weekend. Lots of this law was related to water. I began to think about how it is such a strange substance for the law to step in and regulate. I came across water rights again in second year through studying common interest, and by this point I was so interested in it. Water is so vital, but it’s not like land or an object because it constantly moves and is an element in itself, so the way the law tries to deal with this is very interesting. My undergraduate degree began in 2004 and I haven’t gotten sick of it yet! During my PhD, Niall Whitty (a retired Edinburgh academic who wrote the required reading in the SME) had written a chapter on water, but my research went beyond this.

What three things should practitioners know about private water rights in Scotland? 1. They should be aware of the private water rights implications of their projects. This area of law is quite unknown and has not been investigated in great detail prior to my book coming out (creating an easier way for practitioners to find the law). Being aware of this and ensuring that water is a consideration. 2. Public law consents, such as planning permission or licences for water activities, do not mean you have private law consent. 3. The law in Scotland is very different from English law and does not have a reasonableness element to it. It is very restrictive, which there are many reasons for throughout history.

Which law would you introduce and why? I think because water is so important and lacks investigation into it, it would be impossible to make just one change. This is my project at the moment – I will be looking at the jurisdictions of Louisiana, Norway and South Africa to find out how these places regulate water and then come back with my findings and, hopefully, create a water code or new water law for Scotland. It’s very nerve-wracking, but I want to give a broad perspective on how other countries manage their water resources.

What is your favourite case in your field of interest? It would have to by the Magistrates of Linlithgow v. Elphinstone from 1768. This was the case that established common interest in water and the fundamentals of the doctrine that we have today. It is based on the idea that water is a communal good.

If you could require students to read one thing outside of prescribed reading before graduation, what would it be and why? That’s such a hard question! I would probably choose the book Property in the Margins by Andre van der Walt. Only now am I coming to an understanding of how important this book is.

Andre was a South African professor, who I went to visit during my PhD in 2010. He was amazing! I had gone there with the idea that Scotland is a mixed legal system and that Roman law is exceptionally important in our history and he showed me how Roman law and Roman/Dutch principles had been used as a negative force in South Africa’s apartheid era. He was working towards making the property law system in South Africa a force for social justice, which he succeeded in, and which his students continue to do. I think he shows what academics, practitioners and students can do to make the world a better place through property law.

~ Ambreen Rasool & Holly McKenna


Jill Robbie will speak at the next Law Reform and Public Policy seminar, 'Micro and macro applications of the systemic constitutional approach to property regulation in the context of sustainability', on Wednesday 16 May. Visiting researcher Dr Elsabe van de Sijde will also present at the event.

The seminar will take place at 4.00pm in Room 207, No.10, The Square.

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