The Last Highlander

The Last Highlander

April 1747: the prisoner in the Tower of London, lace-wristed courtier of kings, and greatest of the old-style clan chiefs, prepared to die. ‘For my part,’ he said, ‘I die a martyr for my country.’ Lovat of the ’45 was the government’s most notorious prisoner. Now they would execute this ‘monstrous Scotch papist’, the last peer of the realm to be beheaded. To Walpole and the government, Lord Lovat, this ‘great Leviathan’ and ‘Old Fox’ was no martyr, but that most despicable creature – a rebel, spy and traitor.

In 1066, Lovat’s family fought their way from France onto the beaches of England with William the Conqueror. One forebear was Chamberlain to Robert the Bruce. Another accompanied William Wallace through the Wars of Independence from England. Since the 1300s, Lovat-Fraser lands stretched from Inverness, south along Loch Ness, to the Atlantic west coast.

In a life packed with plotting and incident, Lovat became the most notorious double-agent of the age. By turns a rebel Jacobite conspirator, a loyal British army officer, government place-man, a spy both for the Stuarts and the Hanoverian Georges, a Protestant and a Roman Catholic, Lovat kept ahead of his detractors and charmed his supporters for 60 years. By the age of 20, he had already been unjustly juggled out of his inheritance, accused of raping a marquis’s daughter to accept his hand in marriage, and become a University trained philosopher with a humanist sensibility. Lovat was fluent in five languages, absorbing Machiavelli in the original Italian. He disputed theological niceties with the Papal Nuncio in France, while courting Louis XIV for money to fund an invasion of England and Scotland. Louis gave him a pair of silver pistols with the Fraser chief’s motto Je Suis Prest (‘I am Ready’) engraved around the muzzle, before locking him up as a double agent.

In July 1745, Bonnie Prince Charlie launched his bravura attempt to seize back the thrones of his ancestors. Prince Charles offered Lovat supreme command of his forces; sure the old chief’s appearance would draw tens of thousands to the Stuart cause. The Jacobite armies reached Derby before an ignominious retreat to defeat at the hands of the British at Culloden. In The Last Highlander, Sarah Fraser uses the events of Lovat’s life to recreate this extraordinary period of history in a gripping adventure and spy story. As she argues, the defeat at Culloden led directly to the end of traditional Gaelic civilization personified by Lord Lovat; and to a policy of ethnic cleansing that more than one historian has since called ‘genocide’, as the government ‘pacified’ the Highlands once and for all.

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