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Issue 101 - The Clan Fraser

Scotland Magazine Issue 101
November 2018


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The Clan Fraser

Diving into the history of the Lowland and Highland branches

Two Clan Frasers exist. The senior line is a Lowland clan, based in the northeast of the country. They are the Frasers of Philorth with Lady Saltoun as their chief. The country of the Frasers of Lovat is a hundred miles to the west and they are Highlanders. Both clans have their origins in the French family of de Friselle, a name derived from ‘fraise’ (strawberry), the leaves of which appear on the coats of arms of both chiefs.

Gilbert de Fraser first appears in the record in Scotland about 1109 as holder of lands in East Lothian. Members of the family were amongst the great and good of the nation: sheriffs, confidants of kings, bishops, ambassadors and even chancellor of Scotland. One Sir Simon fought with Wallace and beat three separate divisions of English invaders (said to be 10,000 men apiece) at the battle of Roslin in 1303, before being captured by Edward I and brutally executed in London. His head was placed on a spike beside that of Wallace on London Bridge. Another Sir Simon fought at Bannockburn, where he and two of his brothers were killed. Sir Alexander Fraser, Lord Chamberlain of Scotland, Sheriff of Stirling and Sheriff of Kincardine, married a daughter of King Robert Bruce and was killed at the Battle of Dupplin.

His grandson married a co-heiress of the Earl of Ross and obtained the lands of Philorth in Northeast Scotland. His family, now the Lords Saltoun, has been there ever since. With their estates on the headland of North Aberdeenshire, they were insulated by geography, the dominions of the mighty Earls of Huntly, and from much of the nation's trouble and unrest. One chief was wounded at the Battle of Worcester fighting for Charles II but got safely home. They were not embroiled in the Jacobite Risings and could concentrate on marrying appropriate young women and gently expanding their estates.

Sir Alexander (the name traditionally held by the head of the family), 8th of Philorth, built the town of Fraserburgh at the end of the 16th century. It was going to have a university but competition from Aberdeen, which did not welcome a thriving harbour and community so close, prevented it getting off the ground. His son wed the heiress to Lord Saltoun of Abernethy and, through her, the family inherited this impressive peerage.

The Frasers of Lovat, however, are a Highland clan with the familiar bloody history of strife with their neighbours and clans further afield. Their founding ancestor was a younger brother of the first of Philorth. He married a daughter of the Jarl of Orkney, which brought him lands in Caithness, and the chief obtained more territory previously held by the Bissets before they fell out with the Crown.

Clan territory lay due west from Inverness and along Loch Ness, largely on the south side, as far as Loch Lochy. There in 1544 was fought one of the most dreadful clan battles in history when 500 Macdonalds of Clan Ranald ambushed 300 Frasers on their way home. After a hot summer day spent hewing at each other with their great twohanded claymores, the Macdonalds were judged the victors with eight survivors to the Frasers’ five. It is said that 80 pregnant Fraser women were widowed and all bore sons. Both Lord Lovat and his teenage heir, who was 'educated in the University of Paris under the best masters and would have proved an honour to his country', were tragically killed.

As it often did in local conflicts, the Clan allied with the Monroes in fighting for Mary, Queen of Scots. In 1562 they captured Inverness from the rebellious Marquess of Huntly. They fought and lost against Montrose at the battle of Auldearn, this time creating 87 widows, but were with the royalists at Dunbar and Worcester They fought at Killiecrankie in 1689 for James VII & II, but, thanks to Simon the Fox, 10th Lord Lovat, their role in the two great Jacobite Risings of the 18th century was not straightforward.

Simon was an astonishing character: ruthless, amoral, treacherous and without any discernible principles save selfinterest. In his own words, he ‘cared not a rush for all the virtue in the world’. He survived to his 80th year, having made a multitude of enemies, been on the run from the authorities in Scotland, England and France, and betrayed every cause in which he was involved. His weapon was his extraordinary sunny charisma. George I agreed to be godfather to his daughter named, naturally, Georgina. He charmed Louis XIV, who presented him with a sword, and William of Orange, who gave him a pardon when he was under sentence of death. He even charmed the widow of his predecessor, whom he then abducted, raped (drowning her screams with bagpipes beyond the bedroom door) and married to help seal his control of the clan lands. She was destroyed when he abandoned her.

His sway over the clan was absolute. He wrote that 'the Highland clans to a man, would regard it as their honour and boast, to cut the throat, or blow out the brains of any one, be he who he would, who should dare to disturb the repose of their laird’. In the '15 Rising he raised the clan for the rebels but captured Inverness from them for the Government when he realised he might be backing the wrong side. In the '45 he left it as long as he could before commanding his Government-supporting son to lead the clan for the Prince. He lost his head at the Tower for that, treating his execution with remarkable composure, courage and good humour.


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