Alexander McCall Smith

McCall Smith in 2018
McCall Smith in 2018
BornRodney Alexander Alasdair McCall Smith
(1948-08-24) 24 August 1948 (age 75)
Bulawayo, Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe)
OccupationProfessor of Medical law, writer
NationalityBritish, Zimbabwean
CitizenshipUnited Kingdom
EducationChristian Brothers College, Bulawayo
Alma materUniversity of Edinburgh (LLB, PhD, Emeritus Professor in the School of Law)
GenreFiction, crime fiction, children's books, academic non-fiction
Official website

Sir Alexander "Sandy" McCall Smith CBE FRSE (born 24 August 1948) is a Scottish legal scholar and author of fiction. He was raised in Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and was formerly Professor of Medical Law at the University of Edinburgh. He became an expert on medical law and bioethics and served on related British and international committees. He has since become known as a fiction writer, with sales in English exceeding 40 million by 2010 and translations into 46 languages.[1] He is known as the creator of The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series.[1][2] The "McCall" derives from his great-great-grandmother Bethea McCall, who married James Smith at Glencairn, Dumfries-shire, in 1833.[3]

Early life

Rodney Alexander Alasdair McCall Smith was born in 1948 in Bulawayo in the British colony of Southern Rhodesia (present-day Zimbabwe), to British parents.[4] He was the only son, having three elder sisters.[5] His father worked as a public prosecutor in Bulawayo.[6] McCall Smith's paternal grandfather, Dr. George Marshall McCall Smith, born in Nairn, abandoned his wife and four children in Scotland and ran off with one of his patients to New Zealand in 1914. They settled in Rawene where he became the medical doctor and a community leader.[7][8][9] McCall Smith was educated at the Christian Brothers College in Bulawayo before moving to Scotland at age 17 to study law at the University of Edinburgh, where he earned his LLB[10] and PhD degrees.[4][11] He soon taught at Queen's University Belfast, and while teaching there he entered a literary competition: one a children's book and the other a novel for adults. He won in the children's category.[6]

Professional career

McCall Smith speaking at the Library of Congress in 2019

McCall Smith returned to southern Africa in 1981 to help co-found the law school and teach law at the University of Botswana.[4] While there, he co-wrote The Criminal Law of Botswana (1992).[12]

He was Professor of Medical Law at the University of Edinburgh and is now Emeritus Professor at its School of Law. He retains a further involvement with the university in relation to the James Tait Black Memorial Prize.

McCall Smith is the former chairman of the Ethics Committee of the British Medical Journal (until 2002), the former vice-chairman of the Human Genetics Commission of the United Kingdom, and a former member of the International Bioethics Committee of UNESCO. After achieving success as a writer, he gave up these commitments.


McCall Smith was appointed a CBE in the 2007 New Year Honours List issued at the end of December 2006 for services to literature.[13] In the 2024 New Year Honours he was appointed Knight Bachelor for services to Literature, to Academia and to Charity.[14]

In June 2007, he was awarded the Honorary Degree of Doctor of Laws at a ceremony celebrating the tercentenary of the University of Edinburgh School of Law. In June 2015 he was awarded the honorary degree of Doctor of Letters at a graduation ceremony at the University of St Andrews.

Personal life

He settled in Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1984. He and his wife Elizabeth, a physician, bought and renovated a large Victorian mansion in the Merchiston/Morningside area of the city. They lived there for almost 30 years, raising their two daughters.[1] Nearby lived the authors J. K. Rowling, Ian Rankin, and Kate Atkinson.[1][15]

An amateur bassoonist, he co-founded The Really Terrible Orchestra. He has helped to found Botswana's first centre for opera training, the Number 1 Ladies' Opera House,[16] for whom he wrote the libretto of their first production, a version of Macbeth set among a troop of baboons in the Okavango Delta.[17][18]

In 2009 he received the Golden Plate Award of the American Academy of Achievement presented by Awards Council member Archbishop Desmond Tutu at an awards ceremony at St. George's Cathedral in Cape Town, South Africa.[19][20]

In 2012 he appeared in a documentary about the life and work of author W. Somerset Maugham, Revealing Mr. Maugham.[21]

In 2014 McCall Smith purchased the Cairns of Coll, a chain of uninhabited islets in the Hebrides. He said, "I intend to do absolutely nothing with them, and to ensure that, after I am gone, they are held in trust, unspoilt and uninhabited, for the nation. I want them kept in perpetuity as a sanctuary for wildlife – for birds and seals and all the other creatures to which they are home."[22]

During a visit to New Zealand in 2014 McCall Smith visited Rawene, where his grandfather, George McCall Smith, ran the hospital for 34 years and created the Hokianga area health service.[23]


McCall Smith signing books in Helsinki in April 2007

McCall Smith is a prolific author of fiction, with several series to his credit. He writes at a prodigious rate: "Even when travelling, he never loses a day, turning out between 2,000 and 3,000 words [a day] – but more like 5,000 words when at home in Edinburgh. His usual rate is 1,000 words an hour".[2] He has gained the most fame for his No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series, featuring Mma Precious Ramotswe and set in Gaborone, Botswana. The first novel was published in 1998. By 2009, the No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series had sold more than 20 million copies in English editions.[2]

According to his publisher in Edinburgh, "He was, until 2005, a professor of medical law at the University of Edinburgh, but gave up the position to concentrate on his writing and now writes full time."[24]

He published 30 books in the 1980s and 1990s before he began the series that has brought him the world's notice.[1] In 2008 he wrote a serialised online novel Corduroy Mansions, with the audio edition read by Andrew Sachs made available at the same pace as the daily publication. He wrote more than ten chapters ahead of publication, finding the experience of serialised publication to be "a frightening thing to create a novel while his readers watched. 'I am like a man on a tightrope.'"[2]

In 2009 he donated the short story "Still Life" to Oxfam's "Ox-Tales" project, comprising four collections of stories written by 38 British authors. McCall Smith's story was published in the "Air" collection.[25]

In 2020 he published a collection of poetry entitled In a Time of Distance: And Other Poems.[26]

Selected bibliography

Main article: Alexander McCall Smith bibliography

See also


  1. ^ a b c d e Philby, Charlotte (19 June 2010). "Alexander McCall Smith: The No1 novelist's guide to Edinburgh". The Independent. Archived from the original on 21 June 2010. Retrieved 26 August 2012.
  2. ^ a b c d Grice, Elizabeth (13 March 2009). "Alexander McCall Smith talks about 'Corduroy Mansions' – interview". The Telegraph. Retrieved 15 October 2013. To say McCall Smith is a literary phenomenon doesn't quite describe what has happened.
  3. ^ National Records of Scotland OPR 826/20 73.
  4. ^ a b c "Alexander McCall Smith: Reader's Guide" (PDF). Just Buffalo Literary Center. Buffalo, New York. 2012. Retrieved 1 December 2017.
  5. ^ "Alexander McCall Smith: My family on values". 22 April 2011.
  6. ^ a b Hunter, Jeffrey W. (2009). Contemporary Literary Criticism. Detroit, Michigan: Gale. ISBN 978-1-4144-1944-2.
  7. ^ "Renowned Scottish author Alexander McCall Smith has link with Northland". 14 August 2023.
  8. ^ "Smith, George Marshall McCall".
  9. ^ "Hokianga Health - Hauora Hokianga". Archived from the original on 5 September 2021. Retrieved 5 September 2021.
  10. ^ "Professor Alexander McCall Smith". University of Edinburgh School of Law. Retrieved 28 June 2020.
  11. ^ Nicoll, Ruaridh (2 May 2004). "Handy Sandy". The Observer. Retrieved 12 May 2008.
  12. ^ Frimpong, Kwame; McCall Smith, Alexander (1992). The Criminal Law of Botswana. South Africa: Juta Publishers. ISBN 978-0702126703. Retrieved 28 June 2016.
  13. ^ "No. 58196". The London Gazette (Supplement). 30 December 2006. p. 8.
  14. ^ "No. 64269". The London Gazette (Supplement). 30 December 2023. p. N2.
  15. ^ "Ian Rankin". No. 1 Magazine, Scotland's Glamorous Glossy. Archived from the original on 1 March 2014. Retrieved 24 February 2014.
  16. ^ Clayton, Jonathon; Lister, David (22 March 2008). "Alexander McCall Smith creates the No 1 Ladies' opera house". The Times. Archived from the original on 13 May 2008.
  17. ^ AFP news report on the "Okavango Macbeth" on YouTube
  18. ^ "The Okavango Macbeth". Goodmusic. 2011. Retrieved 28 June 2016.
  19. ^ "Golden Plate Awardees of the American Academy of Achievement". American Academy of Achievement.
  20. ^ "2009 Summit Highlights Photo". 2009. Alexander McCall Smith, creator of The Number 1 Ladies Detective Agency, enlivened the Summit with his humor.
  21. ^ Guillen, Michael (22 June 2012). "The Evening Class: FRAMELINE36: REVEALING MR. MAUGHAM (2012)—The Evening Class Interview With Michael House". The Evening Class. Retrieved 21 July 2019.
  22. ^ "McCall Smith vows to give Cairns of Coll back". Archived from the original on 18 March 2017. Retrieved 17 March 2017.
  23. ^ "Renowned Scottish author Alexander McCall Smith has link with Northland". Northern Advocate. 1 June 2014. ISSN 1170-0777. Retrieved 5 June 2019.
  24. ^ "Alexander McCall Smith". Birlinn. Retrieved 28 June 2016.
  25. ^ Oxfam: Ox-Tales Archived 18 July 2011 at the Wayback Machine
  26. ^ Massie, Allan (7 October 2020). "Book review: In a Time of Distance, by Alexander McCall Smith". The Scotsman. Retrieved 8 August 2023.