Simon Fraser was variously described as ‘the Fox’ or “the most devious man in Scotland.” Those epithets were largely justified and he was certainly one of the Highlands’ most colourful characters. Fraser of Lovat Chiefs were dubbed ‘the MacShimi’ (the son of Simon) in recognition of their descent from Sir Simon Fraser, who was killed at the Battle of Halidon Hill, in 1333. The unfortunate, 18th Century incarnation of Simon Fraser was embodied in the seventy-nine year old MacShimi Chief of Clan Fraser of Lovat. He was the 11th Lord Lovat and a convicted Jacobite rebel. For the crime of treason, Fraser was beheaded on Tower Green in London. The corpulent Lovat has the unfortunate and unwanted notoriety of being the last man to be publicly beheaded in the United Kingdom.
Many of Fraser’s escapades centred on his desire to attain the title of Lord Lovat. He saw that as rightfully his, being son of the 10th Lord. However, it wasn’t as simple as that. Simon’s father was only recognised as Lord Lovat posthumously, three years after the previous Lord, Simon’s cousin, died. The succession was complicated by Simon having a rival; the female heir of the 9th Lord. Indeed, that Amelia was herself later recognised for some time as the Baroness Lovat. Simon’s first cunning scheme was to elope with the young Amelia; an idea to which she seemed partial. That never happened and Simon instead turned his devious intentions to her mother, the elder Lady Amelia Lovat, whom he abducted. His desperate aim was to forcibly marry her and claim the title. A ceremony was carried out and the marriage reputedly consummated when Simon’s ghillies slit the Lady’s stays with their dirks, whilst his pipers drowned her screams.
Soon after, having roused the fury of Amelia’s family, Simon was forced to flee the country. Fraser spent the next six years on the Continent, travelling around and paying frequent visits to the Jacobite court. Never being one to pass up an opportunity to further his own schemes, Fraser took the opportunity to convert to Catholicism and ingratiated himself with those who supported the Stewart cause. He seems to have honed his talents for intrigue and double-dealing whilst at St. Germain, in France, even laying down plans for a possible rising in Scotland. It’s fair to say that Fraser rivalled the Master of Gray for the title of Scotland’s Machiavelli. Françoise d’Aubigné, Marquise de Maintenon and the second wife of King Louis XIV of France, once described MacShimi as “un homme ravissant” (‘an entrancing man’) – yes, he was far more debonair in his thirties (he was born around 1667) than his latter day image portrays.
Fraser returned to Scotland, in 1703, with a plot to compromise the 1st Duke of Atholl, brother of his ‘bride’. He was still trying to gain the title he coveted, however, the marriage was by then annulled and Amelia had remarried. His Machiavellian plans to implicate Atholl as a Jacobite were thwarted and Simon slunk back to his estates to bide his time. If you get the picture, there he was, trying to stitch up Atholl and all the while continuing to correspond with his own exiled Jacobite cronies. His deviousness extended to asking the ‘King across the water’ to create him Duke of Fraser – the price of his loyalty – simultaneous with his attempts to ingratiate himself with the Hanoverians in London. All of which would have made Patrick, Master of Gray, look like a novice!
Come the Rising of 1715, Simon stayed out of the firing line and took advantage by helping himself to the sequestered lands of defeated Jacobites. Afterwards, during the Rising of 1719, his plotting continued, first promising the Earl of Seaforth that he would raise the Frasers for the King, then giving orders to the Clan to oppose the Rising. He was tipped off that he was betrayed and somehow managed to wheedle his way out of trouble once again and headed for sanctuary in London.
Finally, in 1730, aided by his cunning and the younger Amelia being forfeited as a Jacobite, he won a long drawn out legal battle and the title of 11th Lord Lovat. Amazingly, his incorrigible double dealing continued as he maintained connections and provided support for the Jacobites. Then along came the ’45, when he cannily hedged his bets, before belatedly joining the Rebel cause – a fatal mistake. At first, he wrote to the Lord Advocate of Scotland, referring to Charles Edward Stuart as, “That mad and unaccountable gentleman” and proffered his support for the government. Then, within days, he also wrote to Prince Charles in Edinburgh. Ultimately, he came out for the Prince, contributing a regiment of two battalions, around 500 men in total, under the command of his eldest son, the Master of Lovat.
When he heard of the defeat at Culloden, he was reputed to have said, “None but a mad fool would have fought that day.” The night after the defeat, Lovat and the Bonnie Prince met for the only time. As Charlie was scurrying away, seeking to evade capture, Lovat advised him to return to France; to try another day. Lovat himself fled to an island on Lake Morar, where a Captain Fergusson laid claim to his capture. If you can imagine the aged and infirm MacShimi, a grotesquely corpulent man, hiding inside a hollow tree, picture his bare legs sticking out like pale beacons against the bark. This wretched sight gave away the arch schemer. He was taken in a litter to the Tower of London, where he remained until his trial in Westminster Hall the following March.
During his trial, Lovat conducted himself with dignity, even sitting for the infamous portrait by Hogarth. He was beheaded on the 9th of April, 1747. In a final ironic twist, one of the wooden grandstands set up for Londoners to watch his execution collapsed, resulting in several deaths preceding his own.
Like many another so-called Scottish noble family, the Frasers were in fact Norman-French. They originated in Anjou and Normandy and appeared in Scotland for the first time around 1160, during the reign of Malcolm ‘the Maiden’.
Original from Ian Colville