Highlands. the death of a highland chief
9th April 1747. His execution was a public holiday. Tens of thousands crowded onto Tower Hill for the entertainment.
The prisoner in the Tower of London raged at his barber. In a few hours he would lose his head. Yet, the barber had offered up the noble, condemned head’s wig, very light on powder, ‘on account of it being a rainy day.’ His Lordship tossed it back to be taken away, properly groomed and powdered, and brought back.
He ‘went to the block with pleasure,’ he said, ‘and if he had a suit of velvet embroidered, he would wear it’ today. The sartorial sensitivities belonged to the last aristocrat in Britain to be beheaded.
This spring day, damp, grey, very English, Thursday April 9th, 1747, warders and friends begged the old man to petition the king for mercy.
‘He was so old and infirm that his life was not worth asking,’ he said. This was not true. His life, and the ending of it, was worth a lot to many different people. ‘For my part,’ he claimed, ‘I die a martyr for my country.’ He died for an independent Scotland, called ‘North Briton’ on certain maps after 1707; and to secure the fortunes of his Fraser kindred; and for Bonnie Prince Charlie’s clan-powered lunge at the thrones of his Stuart ancestors in 1745.
The barber returned his wig and Lovat thanked him. ‘I hope to be in heaven by one o’clock,’ he said, ‘or I should not be so merry now.’
The barber wished his lordship ‘a good passage’ across. Lovat looked out of the window. He was going to slip through the bars of life and escape to heaven, he was sure of it.
The previous month the old prisoner had been impeached for high treason as a Jacobite rebel. The whole House of his fellow Lords removed to Westminster Hall specially for it. One by one, old friends and old enemies pronounced him ‘Guilty, upon my Honour’.
The accused was Simon Fraser, 11th Lord Lovat, Mac Shimidh Mor in Gaelic – ‘son of the great Simon’ – and ‘last of the great Celtic-Scottish chiefs.’
The Frasers fought their way from France onto the beaches of England with William the Conqueror. One of Simon’s forebears was Robert the Bruce’s Chamberlain. Another, Sir Simon ‘the Patriot’ had been William Wallace’s compatriot in the Scottish Wars of Independence from England. That Simon was hung, drawn and quartered when the English captured him. This Simon had made fast friends and sworn enemies, for decades maintaining a double life. He spied for and against the Houses of Stuart and Hanover. His scheming was one factor leading to the 1707 Act of Union, incorporating the parliaments of Scotland and England into Great Britain. He cursed it, ‘cette negotiation infernelle’ – ‘this hellish negotiation’.
In Georgian Britain, it mattered to many convicted felons about to ‘be launched into eternity’ that they do it showing ‘bottom’, a certain gutsy dash. You wanted to be remembered for your style, on your own terms. According to the broadsheet reports, in the days before the beheading Lovat faced his fate with ‘gaiety’. Smoking his last pipe, he knocked it out into the fire, and gave the pipe away as a relic. The ash from it fell in little clods, and dust rioted away in the air. He watched the eddying specks. ‘Now, gentlemen,’ he said to his companions, ‘the end of all human grandeur is like this snuff of tobacco.’
While he prepared on that Thursday morning, the wooden scaffold on Tower Hill grew greasy and slippery in the morning drizzle. It awaited Lovat’s arrival. London life went on around it. Maids raised fires in the first floor drawing rooms around the square, to take the chill from the rumps of the curious rich and rare as they watched in comfort. Tall chimneys smoked.
The Tower of London
Before he dressed to see the show on Tower Green, one gentleman sat to fortify himself with a good breakfast, and wrote to his friend. ‘Lord Lovat is to lose his head in a few hours,’ he said. ‘The day being rainy is like to prove a great disappointment to the crowds that are hastening to see the execution…
‘Perhaps such tragical scenes may do good to somebody: and though this old man be highly guilty and his guilt very inexcusable, yet a considerate spectator cannot but be led to pity and bewail the corruption and infatuation of human nature, when he sees a man almost at the utmost period of human life … with a plentiful fortune, and everything he could reasonably desire … disturb the peace of the country, and endeavour to overthrow the constitution … Men should consider that when they are endeavouring to break down hedges, a serpent may bite them.’
Soldiers marched to the base of the scaffold. Unhurried, they formed up in circular rows between the block and the mob. The crowd gathered early. Hundreds paid to clamber up a wooden stand, to benches that gave a clear view across to the block on the same level as the victim.
Lovat’s scaffold, the collapsing terrace is lurching left, away from the one still standing, behind the scaffold
Towards 10 o’clock, one of these packed terraces collapsed. The crowd beneath panicked and drove itself back from the splintering beams and planks, and the bodies being crushed and impaled beneath them. The injured were carted away, some screaming themselves to death. Fifty died or were disabled. The wood was shoved to one side, to be looted for burning by the poor. News of the slight delay this caused the proceedings reached Lovat.
‘Good,’ he grunted, ‘the more mischief the better the sport.’ A believer in signs and portents all his life, he took this as a sign that God was angry at this judicial killing.
Back on the scaffold, lesser players in the drama came and went. Government representatives lounged about chatting with Lovat’s closest clansmen and friends. Gentlemen and bureaucrats gazed with distaste down on the rabble. But an execution was a merry day of fun uniting the whole community. It gave them a break from the cares of their hard lives. The officials were here to get the administration of the sentence right, and to record last words of inspiration or insurrection. Carpenters hauled an empty coffin up the steep steps, and dumped it in a corner. The executioner, John Thrift, appeared to check on the tools of his trade. He fiddled around the block.
The huge square had the atmosphere of a gala occasion. Prince Charles Stuart slipped the hounds. The ‘Old Fox’ was the government’s most high profile prisoner. There was a rage to see him. All year the press had kept the name of unseen ‘wicked’, ‘dangerous’, ‘notoriously to be suspected’ Lord Lovat in the public consciousness. Even though they had him now, he was still talked up as a threat to national safety.
Despite the drizzle, the heart of England shouted, kissed, gossiped, ate and drank. Ballads about the drama began to flow from one mouth to another, till they roared in unison, celebrating their victory over ‘Old England’s Foe’:
As through the city Lord Lovat did pass,
The people in hundreds did follow,
And cryed you Old Fox you are catched safe at last,
While some hissed and others did hollow….
It took about an hour to clear the dead and maimed from the collapsed terrace. Then the Sheriffs of London sent the message. The axe demanded ‘his body.’
When the ‘Old Fox’ appeared, the tension ratcheted up by raucous degrees. ‘Clogged with infirmities and pain,’ the 80 year old Lovat was ‘assisted by two servants’. No longer any harm to anyone, he had to be hauled up the scaffold steps. He looked about him.
‘God save us! Why should there be such a bustle about taking off an old grey head that can’t get up three steps without two men to support it?’ he asked, shaking off his supporters and going to test the axe for weight and keenness.
It was very nearly time. ‘Then farewell to wicked Lord Lovat, old Lovat./ Then farewell to wicked old Lovat,’ the song lumbered along – like an old nag beaten up to a canter, thumping out its taunts. ‘Don’t you love it, Lord Lovat, Lord Lovat?’
Codicils to Lovat’s will prescribed his funeral plans, in his homeland, 600 miles and a civilisation away.
‘All the pipers from John o’ Groats to Edinburgh shall play before my corpse and the good old women in my country shall sing a coronach before me. And then there will be crying and clapping of hands, for I am one of the greatest chiefs in the Highlands.’
Taking his time, he hirpled over to consider his coffin. The lid, with his name on it, hung open, a door to take his mutilated body down to the underworld. He leaned against the rails a moment and murmured a line of Horace, ‘Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori’ – ‘It is sweet and seemly to die for one’s country.’
Lord Lovat took in the thousands below, shouting and singing, moving restlessly, all eyes on him. In his mind’s eye, he saw his ancestors. They moved away from him in a line into the past. They had fought together to make their country independent and free. Lovat lived to see it absorbed into another.
He knelt down. The kinsmen who helped him here knelt near him. They picked up the cloth to catch his head, and stretched it out between them. It was a scarlet sheet. Thrift moved his Lordship back a bit. Lovat sat up and the two men spoke. He would bend down, raise his hankerchief and pray, the old aristocrat said. When he dropped the hankie, Thrift must do it.
Lovat stretched out his short neck as best he could. In under a minute he gave the signal. He was launched by the good grace of a single chop. Prince Charles Edward Stuart’s (Bonnie Prince Charlie’s) ‘late unnatural Rebellion’, or, the failed second coming of the Jacobite Messiah, thudded a step closer to permanent extinction. The crowd roared.
The style in which Lovat met nemesis was approved by supporters and detractors. That evening Sir Arthur Forbes wrote to his cousin Duncan, a close friend of Lovat’s in Inverness. ‘It’s astonishing with what resolution and sang-froid Lovat dyed today,’ Sir Arthur reflected. ‘Lovat said he dyed as a Christian, and as a Highland chief should, that is, not in his bed.’
After his funeral, Lovat’s piper composed a lament for his chief. It’s still played at Lovat Fraser funerals. You can hear Lord Lovat’s Lament played by one of his descendants and click here to buy The Old Fox’s biography. The fate of Lovat’s kin at home in the Highlands was equally grim. I’ll talk about it in my next post.