It seems that events are conspiring to keep me in the glens of Scotland for a time. So be it…
Today, historian Dan Snow and a team of forensic investigators opened the coffin of one of history’s great bastards. Visit Dan Snow’s History Hit Facebook page and you can see videos of the investigation.
Snow, a delightful populizer of British history, was investigating the burial of the last man beheaded in Great Britain for the crime of treason — Simon Fraser, Lord Lovat, known for good reason as The Old Fox. Fraser was more Machiavellian than Machiavelli. He played all sides in the Jacobite/Hanoverian game of thrones, all with the goal of preserving and enhancing the power and glory of Clan Fraser — and Himself.
He makes an appearance in Dragonfly in Amber in the Outlander books and in Season 2 of the STARZ series. The Old Fox is the grandfather of the story’s hero, Jamie Fraser. In the wake of his appearance, novelist Martin Kielty, who wrote a biographical novel titled Simon the Fox, which looks quite worthy, wrote an essay on Lord Lovat for Scotland Now. Kielty notes that The Old Fox
…was probably more deeply involved in the murderous politics of the day than can ever be proved.
His brother died after the Battle of Killiecrankie in 1689, making him next in line to the title of Fraser chief. Then Hugh, 9th Lord Lovat, died in 1696 after confirming Simon’s dad Thomas as his successor. Thomas died in 1699, leaving The Fox as both MacShimidh and 11th Lord Lovat. He’s been accused of skullduggery in all those deaths – and there does seem to be an awful lot of smoke for no fire.
But Simon had a better side. He fought nobly to protect Clan Fraser, proving himself to be a worthy chief.
He always carried a bag of farthings to hand out to the needy, while it’s said he could stop any Fraser he passed and recite their lineage, always showing a genuine interest in their lives.
Fraser — who seems to have always been a Jacobite at heart — ultimately came down on the wrong side of history, and when the Jacobites were crushed at Culloden in 1746, he was arrested and hauled off to the Tower of London. He was 80 in 1747 when the English lopped off his head. Kielty recounts that:
During his execution a viewing platform collapsed, killing over a dozen people – Simon thought it was hilarious and literally laughed his head off as the axe came down.
Fraser was supposed to have been buried ignominiously in the Tower, but his family has always claimed that he was brought home to Fraser lands southwest of Inverness — despite government proscription — and buried there. Snow’s team opened the coffin and found… well, we have to await DNA analysis for confirmation. But the body inside had no head.
I just love stories like this, and I admit to a certain fascination with scoundrels like Fraser. He was, no doubt, dangerous to know, but he sure does make for a fine and convoluted tale. And his own obfustication adds spice to the inquiry. Kielty cops to mixed feelings about his protagonist:
I flip-flop every day. Simon lived amid rebellious turmoil, as clans tried to keep one son on either side of the political divide, so they were always among the winners. He seems to have taken it much further than anyone else, and enjoyed it more than anyone else too. The real question is “why?” and we’ll never know.
I don’t know about that. Players love the game, and it doesn’t have to be more complicated than that. As Simon Fraser, Lord Lovat, The Old Fox was fond of saying:
“The more mischief, the better sport.”
Here’s a bit from Sarah Fraser, who wrote a biography titled “The last Highlander” about her ancestor.
Claire and Jamie, laying it on thick, running a “supernatural” con on The Old Fox.