Rab Houston has some qualms about a romanticised portrait of an 18th-century Scottish aristocrat
Few can boast an ancestor quite as colourful as Simon Fraser, 11th Lord Lovat. One of 120 Jacobites executed for treason at the Tower of London on 9 April 1747, he was the last person in Britain to be publicly beheaded. From the 1680s, his career spanned momentous political, military and religious upheavals including the Glorious Revolution and several plots and risings to restore the Stuarts to the British throne.
Throughout, Lovat trimmed his sails to the winds of change, effortlessly shifting sides between Protestant and Catholic, Stuart and Hanoverian, British and French in relentless pursuit of the main chance. He lived in a world of danger, brutality, intrigue, betrayal, imprisonment, fear and flight.
With such a promising subject, Fraser’s passion for the historic Highlands, the Jacobites and her husband’s family carries the book along through a mix of embellished description and anecdote. Along the way we learn about European royalty, aristocracy, diplomacy and warfare, spying, inheritance and of course the Scottish Highlands, a distinctive society undergoing a drastic transformation as a result of dynastic contests, economic change, and the Union of 1707 that brought the hand of London into the glens. Politics too was very different then: an intensely personal matter of alliances or ‘interests’ (like the one focused on the Campbell dukes of Argyll) that were extensions of deeply felt individual friendships and enmities.
Against this background, Fraser paints a romantic picture of a charming rogue: well-educated, cunning and adaptable, as determined as he was dastardly. She sees his life as a tragedy, boldly fighting to become head of his clan and promote its fortunes only to die in disgrace and have his line tainted. Others might think differently, including those who knew that he suborned the 9th Lord Lovat into disinheriting his own daughter in favour of Simon’s branch of the family: to them he was an unprincipled opportunist and a thoroughly repulsive individual. A rapist and bigamist among much else, in his mid-60s he duped a young woman of 23 into marrying him for political advantage.
He understood his fellow Highlanders, high and low, very well indeed, providing lavish hospitality in the style of a traditional chief – when it suited him. Yet with good reason nobody trusted him (including his own clansmen, whom he cheated) and his eventual betrayer called him “the most detested man in his Country”.
It is hardly surprising that few who knew Simon Fraser mourned his passing as much as his distant kinswoman and biographer.
Rab Houston is author of Scotland: A Very Short Introduction (OUP, 2008)