Clan Fraser of Lovat – the first 1000 years
Introduction: Where Frasers Are
What follows is an enormously long post – so I’d better explain what it’s for. There is such a huge revival in the interest in Highland history – in the clans, and in clan Fraser of Lovat in particular, as a result of the smash hit TV series Outlander. I want to give a run through of Fraser history to point out some of the high and low points for the clan. Where we have come from, and I end by looking at where we are now. Sorry it’s so long. Yo don’t have to read it all at once….
Traditional Clan Fraser of Lovat territory lies at the centre of the Highlands. It leads west from Inverness, down Loch Ness to the west coast.
The Lovat heartland has centred on Inverness, the Aird of Lovat and the Beauly Firth for about 700 years.
Clan Fraser of Lovat: 1. 1100-1300s: Origins to the Scottish Wars of Independence
Historians believe we came from France, following William the Conqueror’s Norman invasion in 1066. Scotland experienced a wave of Norman immigration in the late 1100s. And it’s likely that this is when the Frasers arrived in Scotland.
The name, Fraser, is not native Gaelic. It is of French origin. There is evidence of Frasers over centuries in Anjou, the region on Normandy’s southern border. This French connection of Frasers, or Frisels, Fresels or Frezelieres is thought to have something to do with the strawberries on the chief’s coat of arms. Fraise is French for strawberry.
One of these Frasers became Lord of Neidpath Castle (then called Castle Oliver). They grew in influence and took a dominant role in the Scottish Wars of Independence.
Sir Simon ‘the Patriot’ Fraser, companion of William Wallace and Robert the Bruce, is the most important of them. Born at Neidpath in 1257, Wallace handed him command of the Scottish forces in 1303.
Edward I of England, called Scotorum Malleus , ‘Hammer of the Scots’, had decided to mount an invasion to crush Scottish unrest and desire for independence.
Sir Simon met the invading force at Roslyn and defeated a 30,000 strong invading force with only 8,000 men of his own. Given the unequal numbers, Sir Simon had to show tactical brilliance. And he did.
A contemporary called Sir Simon a man totally gifted for war. Another hailed him as ‘manly, stout, bold and wight’ – meaning brave and nimble.
He later saved the Bruce’s life three times during a defeat at Methven, near Perth. His luck ran out and he was eventually captured, and taken to London. In 1306, Sir Simon met the same gruesome death as his companion in arms, William Wallace. He was hung, drawn and quartered, before they stuck his head on a spike next to Wallace’s.
Another Sir Simon fought at Bannockburn, where he and two of his brothers died.
A third Sir Simon married a Bisset heiress and received a charter of Bisset lands around Beauly, Inverness-shire.
2. 1300s-1500s: the Birth of Clan Fraser of Lovat in the Highlands & Clan Feuds
From the early 1300s, then, Frasers established themselves in what has ever since been recognised as the Lovat Fraser homeland – Beauly and the Aird.
The first document linking a Fraser with these lands of Lovat and the Aird is dated, 12 September, 1367. Hugh Fraser is styled Dominus de Loveth et portioarius de le Ard – the Lord of Lovat and guardian of the Aird. The tombstones of Fraser of Lovat lairds dating from this period can still be seen in Beauly Priory.
As decades and centuries pass, the Frasers root into native, Celtic clan society. The Lords of Lovat take on the identity and role of clan chiefs. The family become a clan. They speak Gaelic. Their social structure is clannish and they begin to intermarry with neighbouring Gaelic clans – or they begin to feud with them. Everyone is land and power hungry.
The bottom line of clanship is captured in the Gaelic word dion meaning ‘protection’ (pronounced jee-un), with the implication of offering sanctuary to those in danger.
Showing your ability to call out your fighting men to defend your people and see off predators commands respect from neighbouring clans. Strength at the top allows the clan to prosper without the continual threat of raids, feuds and depradations from clans smelling weakness – and an opportunity.
The clan also involved itself in national conflicts. They came out for the Crown to support Mary, Queen of Scots at the Siege of Inverness in 1562. The most famous historian of his era, George Buchanan recorded that ‘as soon as they heard of their sovereign’s danger, a great number of the most eminent Scots poured in around her, especially the Frasers and Munros, who were esteemed the most valiant of the clans inhabiting those countries in the north.’ The Frasers and Munros took and held Inverness for Mary, Queen of Scots.
The Fraser chiefs needed their strong arm and strong fighting men, since feuds and warfare plagued the clans until the end of the 1600s.
3. 1600s: Union of Crowns & Civil Wars throughout Britain
When Elizabeth I of England died in 1603, her closest male heir was King James VI of Scotland. James united the thrones of Scotland, England and Wales, and Ireland, to create Great Britain. He became King James VI of Scotland and I of England. The Union many Scots fought off and many English fought for over centuries took place in peace and contentment. The contentment did not last.
By the late 1630s, Scotland, including the Highland clans, was embroiled in a series of brutal Civil Wars . Divided, very roughly speaking, along religious lines, the clans lined up for King Charles I and the established church Royalists; or behind various parliamentarian and Covenanting, low church, puritan minded, factions.
At the Battle of Auldearn in 1645, many Frasers opposed the charismatic royalist leader, the Marquess of Montrose. But not all. A poem on the battle gives a sense of the particular horror of civil conflict that sets families and clans against each other.
‘Here Fraser Fraser kills, a Browndoth kills a Browndoth.
A Bold a Bold, and Lieth’s by Lieth overthrown.
A Forbes against a Forbes and her doeth stand,
And Drummonds fight with Drummonds hand to hand…
Oh! Scotland, were thou Mad? Of thine own native gore,
So Much till now thou never shedst before.’
But by 1689, the Frasers were united behind the deposed and exiled Catholic Stuart monarch, King James II. With his flight from the throne, Jacobitism (from Jacobus, Latin for ‘James)’ was born.
The Scottish Parliament voted in favour of accepting the invading Dutchman William of Orange and Queen Mary as rulers of Scotland. Mary was James II’s daughter, and a Protestant. But many clans, while disliking James II’s Catholicism, believed him to be the rightful, anointed ruler. ‘Bonnie’ Dundee (John Graham of Claverhouse, 1st Viscount Dundee) rallied the supporters of the Stuart king, raised the royal Stuart standard.
The Fraser chief, Lord Hugh Fraser of Lovat, tried to prevent his clan rising for the exiled king, but failed. A weak chief, Hugh’s leading men deserted him. The heir to the second branch of the ruling family, Alexander Fraser of Beaufort marched a force of Fraser fighting men and put them under Dundee at the Battle of Killiecrankie.
This weakness at the top of the clan had become a real problem. The fact is, that by the late 1600s, Clan Fraser of Lovat was going under. We would have been swallowed up by powerful, predatory neighbours and in-laws.
Except, one man rose to the top of the clan family. He is the chief who went on to become Scotland’s most notorious clan chief, rebel and double agent: Simon Fraser, Lord Lovat of the ’45.
4. 1700s: the Jacobite Quest & Frasers in the New World
A series of weak chiefs, combined with premature chiefly deaths that left child heirs to the chieftainship. These boy chiefs came under the influence of their mother’s people.
It was normal for clans to form marital alliances. The daughters of ambitious, neighbouring clans married Fraser chiefs, and vice versa. But, if the chief died young, leaving only a boy heir, what should happen, is that the brothers and cousins of the late chief should assume the guardianship of the heir to raise him in the ethos, culture and history of his clan. And these men too were the natural managers of the clan’s territories and assets.
However, in the second half of the 17th century, on the death of their Lovat husbands, the widowed Lady Lovats brought in brothers and uncles from their own clan – particularly the Mackenzies and Atholl Murrays – to help them while the young Lord Lovat grew up. This created a clash of interest – for whose benefit did they run the Fraser clan? With everything alienated to the care of an ambitious neighbouring kin, the neighbouring kin started to appropriate what is not theirs. This had been happening to clan Fraser of Lovat for several generations until 1696. As a result, weakness had come to erode the standing of Clan Fraser of Lovat in the Highlands.
Only Simon Fraser, Lovat of the ’45, was strong and ambitious enough to stop the Fraser of Lovat slide to oblivion. There is a whole post devoted to the Old Fox, as he is so important in Fraser history and the history of the Jacobite cause.
But, after achieving so much, he raised the clan for Bonnie Prince Charlie at Culloden. He was captured, taken to London, condemned by his fellow peers, and was the last nobleman in Britain to be beheaded. The Lovat Estates fell forfeit to the Crown, their assets used to support British troops during the military occupation of the Highlands.
Fifteen years later, the Old Fox’s son, another Simon Fraser, was determined to work the Fraser’s passage back into government favour. The Anglo-French wars in North America offered him his chance. Simon raised a regiment of 800, and was commissioned as lieutenant-colonel. The regiment was first called the 78th regiment of foot, but soon renamed the Fraser Highlanders.
‘The uniform of the regiment was the full Highland dress, with musket and broadsword… and a sporran of badger’s or otter’s skin. An eagle’s or hawk’s feather was worn in their bonnets by the officers, while the soldiers ornamented theirs’ with a bunch of the distinguishing mark of the clan or district to which they severally belonged.’
(The photo of the current Lord Lovat below here show him in his 78th Fraser Highlander uniform.) Ordered to North America they distinguished themselves first at the Battle of Louisbourg in 1758. Then they fought in the Battle of the Plains of Abraham under General Wolfe’s command. Finally, the helped to capture Montreal in 1760.
All this helped Simon Fraser to gain a seat in the UK parliament and to be restored to the hereditary estates of Lovat in 1774. he was raised to the rank of Brigadier General. In 1778, he became a proud founder member of the Highland Society of London. The Highland Society members wanted to ‘promote the Interests of the Highlands’. They concentrated on obtaining a repeal of the ban on Highland dress, and celebrating the Gaelic language, music and literature. They sought to revive the region by establishing schools, improving agriculture, and providing relief to distressed Highlanders, and generally ‘keeping up the Martial Spirit; and rewarding the gallant achievements of the Highland Corps’.
5. 1800-1945: Frasers in War, the Lovat Scouts, World Wars I & II
In 1899, Lord Lovat raised the Lovat Scouts to fight in the Boer War. Kitchener mentioned Lovat in dispatches and he received teh DSO, Distinguished Service Order in 1900. Lovat commanded the Highland Mounted Brigade in World War I, and in 1915 his leadership and courage earned him the honour of becoming a Knight of the Thistle.
Lovat served in Stanley Baldwin’s Conservative government between 1927-29.
The monument in Beauly Village Square records eloquently the price the clan paid for service to king and country.
This monument celebrates ‘the raising of the Lovat Scouts … to show that the martial spirit of their forefathers still animates the Highlanders of today.’ But the cost shows on the other faces of the monument.
Not many of these have a Fraser surname, but for the majority, the blood they left on the field of battle had Fraser genes in it. The clans are tightknit. They allied over centuries with the Camerons, Macraes, Mackintoshes and Mackenzies.
They were rooted in small rural communities. Across the Highlands & Islands, communities failed to survive this loss of so many fit young men.
The Frasers continued to pay the price for their martial excellence in the world wars that dominated the twentieth century.
In World II, it is ironic that young Frasers gave their lives to liberate Normandy and Anjou from German occupation, when this is where we think the clan originated 900 years ago.
The World War II hero, Commando leader and clan chief, Shimi Fraser, 15th Lord Lovat, led his men onto Sword Beach during the D-Day landings.
Injured a week after, he retired and worked for Churchill’s government. When Churchill sent Lovat to build connections with Stalin on the side of the Allies, Churchill told Stalin, ‘I am sending you the mildest mannered man ever to scuttle ship or slit a throat.’
7. 2000s: Outlander & The New Clan Brand
The current clan chief, Simon Fraser, 16th Lord Lovat, wants to build up and maintain contacts between the Fraser kindreds. There are clan Fraser members and fans spread out across the globe.
American Frasers at the New York gathering and march of the clansOutlander – we cannot forget to mention the Outlander connection – and how Jamie Fraser of Lovat and his men symbolise our forebears.
Refreshing the clan brand, and keeping it fresh is vital. The clan has been global for centuries due to emigration, forced and voluntary. We want to acknowledge that – you can help by sending us your pictures of places and people and events with the Fraser name or connection.
Send to Sarah Fraser, clan historian at email@example.com or post direct on Facebook at Sarah_Fraseruk, or Twitter @sarah_fraseruk and we’ll share them for all of us to enjoy.
What kind of thing could you send?
Placenames –there is an Inverness and Culloden in Jamaica – witness to the Highlanders transported after Culloden
Or people – like Malcolm Fraser the former Australian Prime minister
Or events – pictures from clan gatherings across the world or Outlander conventions
We want to get a conversation going about who we are – where we come from, where we went, what we did, and where we are going….