Lovat of the 45, the old fox, scotland's most notorious clan chief, rebel and double agent
Simon Fraser, 11th lord lovat ‘last and greatest of the old-style scottish chiefs’
Like an old eagle, Lovat smiles enigmatically from under hooded eyes – complete with 18th century frock coat, wig, breeches, wrinkly stockings, and shoes with silver buckles. This is Lovat as the great cartoonist Hogarth saw him, in the Tower of London. Hogarth’s engraving of Lovat sold out 12 times. So many reprints earned the artist a lot of money. This oil painting is based on the engraving.
Against the odds, Simon Fraser climbed the family tree to become Lord Lovat, chief of Clan Fraser, to lose it all on the last throw of the dice.
The end of lovat’s great gamble, 9th April, 1747, was a wet Thursday. The prisoner in the Tower prepared to die. ‘For my part,’ he said, ‘I die a martyr for my country.’ For the British government, Lord Lovat was that most dreaded and despised creature – a rebel, spy, and traitor.
In a life packed with plotting and incident, Lovat became the most notorious double-agent of the age.
He was born into a family that fought its way onto the beaches of England with William the Conqueror. The Old Fox became, by turns, a rebel Jacobite conspirator, a loyal British army officer, and government supporter. He spied for the Stuarts and the Hanoverian Kings. Born a Protestant, he converted to Roman Catholicism to follow the Stuarts. Mac Shimidh Mor to his kin (son of the Great Simon), Lord Lovat – somehow – kept ahead of his detractors and charmed his supporters for 60 years.
Last peer of the realm to be beheaded. This is the block on which the Old Fox met his end. It’s on display in The Tower of London
By the 1700s, Lovat Fraser country stretched over 500 square miles – from Inverness, south along Loch Ness, to the Atlantic west coast.
After the battle of Culloden, the Bonnie Prince escaped the manhunt for him. Lord Lovat became the British government’s most notorious prisoner. They put a ‘hook in the jaw of the great leviathan’, and locked him up in the Tower for a year. They did not let go until he was dead.
A lace-wristed courtier of kings in London and Paris, at the same time Lovat of the ’45 was a traditional Highland chief, with the power of life and death over his kin. But … he was born to none of this.
Born in obscurity, around 1667, Simon Fraser was merely second son of a second son. He should never have been chief. Yet, before he was twenty, a series of untimely deaths propelled him to the top of the family tree.
Within months, in one of those twists and turns that ruled his fate, he had been accused of raping a marquis’s daughter to accept his hand in marriage, and unjustly juggled out of his inheritance. Was he going to give up, let Murray and Mackenzie predators carve up the Frasers and their hereditary clan lands, and make them disappear for ever? No, he was not. He did what it took to survive, then thrived at the head of his clan from 1715-1745.
Map of the Clans
July 1745, Bonnie Prince Charlie launched his clan powered odyssey to reclaim the thrones of his ancestors. Charles offered Lovat supreme command of his forces. The prince believed the old chief’s appearance would draw tens of thousands to the Stuart cause. An Old Fox to the end, Lovat hedged his bets. He disliked how the Prince had come so unprepared. ‘Siller [silver] would go far in the Highlands,’ he said, and Charles had come without money, men or arms.
So, Lovat sent out his son with the Fraser kin, and stayed at Castle Dounie himself, loudly lamenting the willful disobedience of children. The Jacobite armies reached Derby, before their ignominious retreat, to defeat at the hands of the government at Culloden.
In The Last Highlander, I use the story of Simon Fraser, 11th Lord Lovat’s life to recreate this extraordinary period of history in a gripping adventure and spy story. A 20th century novelist said Lovat was ‘the last and greatest of the old-style Scottish chiefs ’. A fellow Highlander, in 1747, said Lovat lived like a fox, but died like a lion, and, as a Highland chief should – that is, not in his bed.
The arc of Lovat’s life shows how defeat at Culloden leads to the death of the traditional Gaelic civilization of the clans.
Fear of the martial spirit of independent minded clansmen, led to a policy of ethnic cleansing that more than one historian has called ‘genocide’. The government ‘pacified’ the Highlands once and for all. The aftermath of Culloden anticipated the Clearances, when desperation forced so many Frasers to leave for America and Canada.