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Issue 22 - A complex clan (Clan Fraser)

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Scotland Magazine Issue 22
August 2005


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A complex clan (Clan Fraser)

In this issue James Irvine Robertson looks at Clan Fraser

There is a senior and a secondary branch of Clan Fraser, whose chief is Lady Saltoun, with the 18th Lord Lovat chief of the cadet clan, the Frasers of Lovat. The progenitor of both families, a de Frisselle, originated in France, and was one of those knights who came to England to make themselves fortunes after the Norman Conquest. The arms of the Frasers contain strawberry leaves, a pun on the name from fraise in French.

Sir Simon Fraser is recorded with lands in southern Scotland by 1160. His Christian name has been carried by so many Frasers since that it leads to considerable genealogical confusion.

Another Sir Simon was a principal supporter of Sir William Wallace and Robert the Bruce in the Scottish wars of independence, beating three divisions of the English army in the same day at Roslin in 1302. He was caught by the English in 1306 and executed with exquisite cruelty.

His cousin Sir Simon fought with Bruce at the battle of Bannockburn and was killed at the battle of Halidon Hill in 1333. His brother, Sir Alexander, also fought at Bannockburn and had time to marry Robert Bruce’s widowed sister, Lady Mary, who had been imprisoned in a cage by Edward I of England. He sired both the senior line and the Lovat Frasers before the English got him too at the battle of Dupplin Moor in 1332.

The senior line, the Frasers of Philorth, settled in Aberdeenshire and became powerful local land owners, founding the town of Fraserburgh in 1592. They began their own university there but nearby Aberdeen University was jealous and managed to close it down.

There remain strong bonds between Lady Saltoun, 20th of the line, who inherited the chiefship and peerage from her father, the 19th Lord Saltoun, in 1979, and who continues to live in the family’s ancestral home of Cairnbulg Castle in Fraserburgh.

The Frasers of Lovat were emphatically Highland. Their first charter for the clan lands north of Inverness dates from 1254 and the chiefs carefully patched together their estate in central and eastern Invernessshire across the ancient Pictish province of Moray by judicious marriage to heiresses and those in good favour with the Crown.

Successive chiefs parcelled out land to their numerous offspring. In 1745, there were 30 land owning Fraser gentry and many, many more who held leases of various kinds.

More so than most clans, the Lovat Frasers can be said to be descended from their chiefs although it may brand them with ‘rodent-like fecundity’. One class of the name is scornfully described by rival clans as ‘boll of meal’ Frasers and they are said to have agreed to use the name when surnames were first used in exchange for food.

The most remarkable Lord Lovat was the 11th, known as the Old Fox and inevitably named Simon. On the death of his cousin in 1696, Simon, who had a commission in Lord Murray’s regiment, hurried north to ensure his succession after his predecessor’s daughter had claimed it.

His cousin, the 10th Lord Lovat, had been married to a sister of his commanding officer, soon to become Duke of Atholl, but Simon decided to marry her to reinforce his claim to be chief. The widow objected so Simon sliced through her corsets with his dirk to consummate his union while his piper played outside the door to drown her cries.

Outraged, the Murrays brought an army of Athollmen north, but the clan rallied behind their new chief and the invaders were rebuffed.

Simon’s own account of the affair has Lord Mungo Murray bursting into tears of shame, but he was eventually convicted of high treason for his behaviour.

But the Old Fox had great personal charisma – ‘blessed with a cheerful disposition’ as one biographer put it – for which his clansmen loved him, as did many of his contemporaries, until they got to know him.

His life-long lack of any discernible moral scruple was one of the wonders of the age. He charmed a pardon out of King William in London before going to France pretending to hold commissions from the nobility of Scotland to join the exiled former King James VII.

He charmed the French King Louis and turned Catholic. He came back to London to betray the Jacobites to the British Government and then returned to France to betray the British Government to the Jacobites. He and the clan supported King George I in the Jacobite Rising of 1715, and he expected to be rewarded with the Lord Lieutenancy of Inverness-shire but authority no longer trusted him and gave the job to General George Wade.

Lovat raised his own independent company of clansmen, paid for by the government, and he pocketed their wages. Wade found out; Lovat defended himself by calling the general ‘that false, deceitful barbarian’.

In his late 70s, on a promise from Prince Charles Edward Stuart to make him Duke of Fraser, the Old Fox dispatched the Lovat Frasers led by his heir in support of the second Jacobite Rising, fighting at the battle of Falkirk in 1746 and at Culloden. The redcoats wasted Fraser country, burning Castle Downie which had been the chiefs’ home for generations. Lovat was caught hiding on an island disguised as an old woman.

At Carlisle, on his way to London in a closed coach, a curious redcoat officer pulled aside the curtain on one of the windows to catch a glimpse of this legendary old rogue. He reeled back with a scream as a set of teeth snapped at his nose from the darkness and he heard a chuckle as the curtain swung back.

Tried for treason before the House of Lords and denied legal counsel, Lovat defended himself shrewdly but was inevitably found guilty and beheaded at the Tower of London on 9th April 1748, the last man in Britain to suffer such a fate.

So large was the crowd to witness the execution that some seating collapsed causing several deaths. ‘The more mischief the better sport,’ commented the old man.

In 1750, the Old Fox’s son, another Simon, was pardoned for having participated in the Uprising, and regained the good graces of the government by the successful prosecution of James Stewart of the Glens for the Appin murder.

He raised Fraser’s Highlanders, the 78th Regiment, which fought brilliantly under his command in the wars against the French in America. He raised another regiment which fought with honour in American War of Independence. He died a lieutenant general The martial tradition was seen again in Simon, 17th Lord Lovat and 25th chief. His grandfather founded the Lovat Scouts for the Boer War in 1900 and they also fought in World War I. In World War II, the Lovat Scouts were commandos with ‘Shimi’, the Gaelic name for Simon, as their leader.

Already battle-hardened, the Scouts landed in France on D-day and fought their way off the beaches to capture the vital Pegasus bridge intact, their colonel being proceeded across by his personal piper. Shimi, Lord Lovat was seriously wounded but recovered to enter politics and be part of a parliamentary delegation to Stalin.

Churchill described him as ‘the mildest mannered man that ever scuttled a ship or cut a throat.’ He died in 1995 and was succeeded by his grandson, Simon.

Only in the last decade have poor business decisions led to the sale of the Lovat family seat at Beaufort Castle, but clan spirit remains as strong as ever in Scotland under the young chief, who is currently preoccupied with making his own fortune and intends to buy back the estates.