The bones of what appears to be an elderly man have been found in a Highland crypt as work to determine the final resting place of a notorious clan chief beheaded after Culloden gets underway.
Professor Dame Sue Black, a leading forensic anthropologist from Dundee University, is today leading the exhumation at Wardlaw Mausoleum at Kirkhill, near Inverness.
She is working to determine if the contents of the coffin are the remains of Lord Lovat, Simon “The Fox” Fraser, who was beheaded in London in April 1747 for his part in the Jacobite rebellion.
He was 80 at the time of his execution and was the last man to be beheaded in the United Kingdom.
Officially, the chief of Clan Fraser of Lovat is said to have been buried in a chapel at the Tower of London but doubt has long remained over his final resting place amid claims his supporters moved the body home to the Highlands.
This morning, Professor Black opened the lid to the lead coffin which has long suspected to hold his remains.
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While up until now there has been no certainty the contents were human remains , Professor Black said it was likely they are that of an elderly male, with signs of arthritis in the rear of the pelvis.
Professor Black said: “It is probably a man and it is certainly a man older than 25. There is a lump of extra bone on the sacrum and it suggests that he suffered from arthritis.
“That could be consistent with a pathological condition. If there is not a pathological condition it is consistent with it being an elderly man.”
A number of bones were retrieved from the crypt in the first hours of the exhumation, including a right foot, right ankle and femur plus several ribs.
The key to confirming whether the remains are of Lord Lovat will be in the upper vertebrae which will indicate if the man was beheaded.
A lower vertebrae has so far been found.
Professor Black added: “We are really interested in the vertebrae in the neck
“We haven’t got to the crucial ones yet. If there are cut marks, they are likely to be up at the third or the fourth or the fifth vertebrae. We have one that is lower down, probably the sixth or seventh.
“We are tantalisingly almost there, but not quite
“And if we find a head that has been chopped off, that would be wonderful. But we don’t have that yet.
“But I think we are doing very well.”
The lead coffin which holds the remains has vastly deteriorated with a local undertakers - who have links to the Fraser family - to bring a new coffin to the site today where the remains will be placed.
Some pieces may be temporarily removed if further investigation is required.
Some fragments of material, from either the original coffin or a cover to the body, have also been retrieved.
Broadcaster Dan Snow is at the mausoleum filming the exhumation for his History HITS series.
He said: “We are very excited, and we are only a few hours in.
“We were down in the crypt which was quite crowded and we lifted the lead lid off. Then there was a collapsed wooden lid. Then there was quite a chaotic scene of bones, organic material and rotting wood inside it.
“It was hushed tones. Although he has been dead for a long time, whoever it is, we all felt a respect and an excitement.”
Solving the 270-year-old mystery will lay to rest a long held question mark over the fate of the powerful Jacobite sympathiser known for his double dealings with the British government.
Also in the mausoleum is Lord Lovat’s lead coffin plate which is marked with the family crest and topped by a five pointed crown of a dukedom.
One of the prices that The Fox demanded for supporting Bonnie Prince Charlie in 1745 was to be given such a title.
Earlier, he had sent messages of support to both sides ahead of Culloden in 1746 .
Infamous for his double dealings, Lord Lovat’s Jacobite sympathies were forged in the late 1600s in France but he was later to betray the cause after revealing the plan for the first uprising to Queen Anne’s government.
Erik Lundberg, custodian of Wardlaw Mausoleum said confirmation that the remains of Lord Lovat are indeed held at the crypt will further boost the profile of the mausoleum.
Fans of television series Outlander have already increased visitor numbers at the tiny Highland attraction given its links to Clan Fraser, which features heavily in the show.
Lord Lovat is portrayed as the grandfather of central character Jamie Fraser, played by Sam Heughan.
Mr Lundberg needs to raise £100,000 required to keep the mausoleum maintained and open to the public.
He said: “It’s been two years to get Sue Black and to get the film crew here. We are delighted that they are all here today.
“I a feeling quite confident about the findings so far. We are only in the early part of the morning but it is looking good.
“I am really interested in Scottish history and I really want to be able to answer the question over where Simon is buried. He is such an important character.
“I also love this building, the mausoleum, and I am also looking to generate publicity to get some donations. It was restored wonderfully in 1997 but due to a lack of money it hasn’t been touched since then. We do need some money to do some repair work here.”