I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
As Catholics and Protestants squabbled over who should govern the United Kingdom, Simon Fraser, and 11th Lord Lovat, found the turmoil to his liking. It gave him the opportunity to exploit the chaos for personal profit. A thoroughly disreputable character he became known as “the old fox” and “the most devious man in Scotland.”
The Clan Chief
Simon Fraser was born in 1667 and entertained ambitions to become Chief of the Clan Fraser from a quite early age. The complicated business of building alliances in order to become a clan leader didn’t suit Fraser. He preferred the more direct route of violence.
The clan chief, the 10th Lord Lovat, had died and Fraser hit on the idea of marrying his widow, Amelia. No matter that Lady Lovat did not see him as a suitable match; Simon Fraser got a drunken Episcopalian minister to perform the forced solemnization of marriage ceremony. To consummate the deal, Fraser then raped his bride and secured the title and estate.
However, Lady Amelia’s powerful family was outraged at the actions of the blackguard Fraser. They hounded him and had him declared an outlaw making it difficult to actually seize his inheritance. Eventually, Fraser’s marriage was annulled and also he lost his title and estate.
Joining the Jacobites
Simon Fraser saw one route to regaining his position and wealth and that was to join up with the exiled members of the Clan Stuart who were living in France. James II of England and Ireland was also James VII of Scotland. The last Catholic monarch of the British Isles, he was deposed in 1688 and went into exile in France. Using the Latin name for James, Jacobus, he and his supporters were known as Jacobites, and they plotted to return and regain the throne.
Fraser had been in an alliance with the Protestant crowned heads of England, Scotland, and Ireland, William and Mary. However, the Stuarts were Catholics.
To join the Jacobites, Fraser needed to abandon William and Mary and convert to Catholicism. Neither of these matters provided a moral challenge for a man of flexible loyalties such as Simon Fraser.
Stirring up Rebellion
In 1703, Simon Fraser travelled to Scotland to find out what clan chiefs thought about an armed rebellion to restore the crown to the Stuarts. They didn’t think much of the idea it turned out.
But, Fraser didn’t want to come away empty handed so he saw a chance to curry favour with the British government. He told the Brits about the Jacobite plot and falsely accused the Duke of Atholl of being a conspirator. This, of course, was payback because the Duke of Atholl was one of those who worked to have Fraser declared an outlaw.
But, he made a serious mistake in going back to France after his failed mission. King Louis XIV, who supported the Jacobites, found out about Fraser’s double dealing and put him in prison for three years.
The Jacobite Risings
In 1715, the Jacobites rose in rebellion against the English. Simon Fraser played a tricky game of courting both sides in the hope that whichever one won he would get his estates and title back. The English army of George I emerged on top.
Fraser’s plan worked and he enjoyed several years of prosperity and prestige. But then, he switched allegiances again and campaigned for the Stuarts to be restored to the throne of Scotland.
In 1745, Charles Edward Stuart, Bonnie Prince Charlie, launched an attempt to get the Scottish crown back for his father James. Again, Fraser tried to put his money on both horses. He sent his sons to join Charles’s army but complained about his children being disobedient.
In April 1746, the two sides met at Culloden to the east of Inverness. The Frasers were in the front line facing the more numerous and better-equipped forces of the English. The Jacobites endured an artillery barrage and took heavy casualties; within an hour the battle was over.
For several weeks, Jacobites were hunted down in the Scottish Highlands and huge numbers were either executed or transported to colonies. These actions would certainly attract the attention of war crimes investigators today.
The End for Lord Lovat
Despite his efforts to appear to support both sides, Simon Fraser was identified as a supporter of Bonnie Prince Charlie. He was chased down, found hiding in a hollow tree, and arrested. The English burned down his castle and hauled him off to London.
Monarchs have never been fond of treason and the punishment for those caught attempting it has always been severe.
On April 9, 1747, Simon Fraser, Lord Lovat was brought out of the Tower of London to the scaffold where he was to meet his fate.
Bleachers had been erected to accommodate the large crowds wanting to witness the execution. Perhaps, the viewing stand had been built by the lowest bidder because the structure collapsed killing at least nine people and injuring many others. Viewing the carnage, his lordship is said to have been amused and this is claimed to be the origin of the phrase “laughing your head off.”
But an execution can’t be postponed, and a contemporary account records that “with some composure [Lovat] laid his head on the block which the executioner took off with a single blow.”
Simon Fraser holds the distinction of being the last person in Britain to be executed by beheading, although it’s a good bet he would have preferred someone else already held that honour.
It was the custom of Jacobites still living in Scotland to use a clever artifice when called upon to toast the king, George I. They would pass their whiskey over a glass of water, symbolically toasting “The King over the water.”
A long-standing rumour held that Simon Fraser’s body was secretly taken from the Tower of London and buried in a family mausoleum in Scotland. In 2017, the supposed remains of Fraser were removed from the crypt and found to be those of a youngish woman. However, the identity of the woman, who was found without her head, remains a mystery.
Simon Fraser University in British Columbia is named after a far more illustrious man of the same name as Lord Lovat. The university’s Simon Fraser was born in Vermont in 1776 of Scottish parentage. He joined the North West Company of Montreal and was a trader and explorer in what was to become western Canada.
Lord Lovat turns up as a character in the television series Outlander.
- “The Last Highlander: Scotland’s Most Notorious Clan-Chief, Rebel and Double-Agent.”
- Rab Houston, BBC History, August 22, 2012.
- “Simon Fraser, 11th Lord Lovat.” Undiscovered Scotland, undated.
- “Simon Fraser - the Last Man in Britain to Be Beheaded.” The Scotsman, April 4, 2016.
- “Forensic Investigation Reveals Headless Highland Body Is That of a Young Woman, Not an 18th Century Clan Chief.” Auslan Cramb, The Telegraph, January 18, 2018.
© 2019 Rupert Taylor