Interview: Sarah Fraser, author of The Last Highlander

Author Sarah Fraser pictured at her Inverness-shire home
Author Sarah Fraser pictured at her Inverness-shire home
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Sarah Fraser talks to David Robinson about the clan she married into (twice) and her biography of its most famous, and tragic, chief

BIOGRAPHY is all about putting yourself in someone else’s shoes, so let’s try that with Sarah Fraser. She has just written a biography of Lord Lovat of the ‘45, the most famous chief of the Fraser clan, a rebel, double agent and the last aristocrat to be executed for treason in Britain.

She is not, she is quick to point out, a Fraser by birth, even though she has married two of them (and yes, we’ll come to that). Home was a semi in Bishop’s Stortford, which means that she can joke about “just being an Essex girl”, though the last time I checked the tabloids hadn’t yet taken the charming, willowy, and cultivated Essex girl stereotype to heart. If she hadn’t met Kit Fraser while studying English at Bristol, she concedes, she might never have headed north to the Highlands in the first place.

But she did, and she fell in love. With Kit, whom she married when she was 22. With the Highlands, where they lived in a wing of Moniack Castle. And with the history of the area, which seemed a whole lot closer to the surface than it did back home on the Essex-Hertfordshire border.

Castle, she says, might give you the wrong idea about Moniack. “It was an I Capture the Castle type rather than the Cinderella one. For me it’s the smell of Moniack that is deeply nostalgic, and it’s the smell of Superser calor gas fires and of fermenting wine from the winery Kit’s parents set up in 1979 to keep a roof over their heads.”

Back then, Beaufort Castle, the enormous red sandstone Victorian pile just a few miles away to the north, was still owned by the Frasers and the home of the clan chief, just as the estate on which it was built had been for 700 years. The Frasers, this family into which Sarah had married, had dominated the area in a way that is hard for an English incomer like herself to imagine, leading a clan that held sway over 500 square miles of land for 500 years of history.

Hard, but not impossible. Not if you taught yourself Gaelic ahead of your own four children (now aged between 18 and 24) learning the language at Dingwall Academy; not if, when they were old enough for you to be able to study for part of the week in Edinburgh, you pushed on towards a PhD (in obscene Gaelic poetry). And not, above all, if you immersed yourself in the history of MacShimidh Mor, the 11th Lord Lovat, the clan chief who brought the Frasers back from the verge of extinction only to lose everything – including his head – after Culloden.

The one thing most people know about the Frasers in recent times is the spectacular collapse of the family businesses that led to the sale of Beaufort to Stagecoach entrepreneur Ann Gloag in 1995. The full extent of their losses only became clear after the death in 1994 of Simon Fraser, who lost millions in a series of bad investments and risky stock market deals, and sold off all but 32,000 acres of the 162,000 acres signed over to him to manage by his war hero father “Shimi” Fraser. Within a year even those remaining lands and Beaufort itself had to be sold.

Marrying her second Fraser, Kim – younger brother of Simon the failed businessman, son of Shimi and uncle of the current Lord Lovat – two years ago took Sarah even closer to the ancestral centre of Fraser power. The two stories of a wrecked inheritance – the first brought about by backing the Jacobites in the ‘45, the second by mismanagement – don’t have any common cause, although their effect is similarly devastating.

“The story of Lovat of the ‘45,” she explains, “is all about what you do when you are faced with a stolen or lost inheritance. I have seen for myself what an enormous burden an inheritance can be, when you are half a public figure and half belong to a place. In one way, it’s enviable, but it’s almost like having another parent – your own cultural, historical parent. Do you do what it tells you – or do you abandon it? Because if you do, that can also be traumatic.”

At the start of the 18th century, that was the dilemma facing Simon Fraser. He wasn’t born to the clan chiefdom, but from 1685 to about 1740 inheritance laws looked like tearing apart the Fraser lands and dividing them between the Mackenzies and the Atholl Murrays. If he did nothing, the Fraser clan faced political extinction.

“That’s what interested me about him,” says Sarah Fraser. “When something like that happens, do you go quietly or do you fight? Because if you fight, you’re going to make a lot of very powerful enemies. But to him, being juggled out of his Fraser inheritance, that was like someone saying to him, ‘Right, you’re all going to be Swedish from now on.’ And that could never be acceptable.”

She is explaining all of this in one of the two living rooms in the gentrified manse in which she and Kim – who is recovering from a stroke – live when he is not working in London as a personal investment adviser. The centuries-old Fraser motto – Je Suis Prest – is embroidered on the cushion next to her on the sofa; the carpet in the adjoining dining room is woven in Fraser hunting tartan; the walls are covered with photos of photogenic members of the clan, which appears to be nearly all of them. They might have lost their money and their land, but the Frasers have lost none of their Brideshead-like allure.

The house, about eight miles west of Inverness – and on land that has been on the Frasers’ rolls since the 1500s – was given to Kim by his war-hero father. (Describing Shimi Fraser to Stalin, Churchill called him “the mildest-mannered man that ever scuttled a ship or slit a throat.”). It stands on a small hill, with pear trees and geans below, the Black Isle to the north and the sprawling mass of Ben Wyvis to the west. The fields on its 1,000-acre farm run down to the Beauly Firth. In the middle of them, white plastic sheets on sticks stand in for scarecrows, blowing around like ghosts. Time to look back at the most famous Fraser ghost of all.

Sarah Fraser’s book begins right at the end of her subject’s life. It’s 1747, and Simon Fraser, the Old Fox himself, had been captured and was about to be executed. London’s Tower Green was packed, so much so that a wooden viewing gantry collapsed, killing nine people. It took an hour to clear away the dead and the injured. The crowd, unperturbed, carried on their chant “Don’t you love it, Lord Lovat, Lord Lovat, Lord Lovat?”

The 77-year-old Simon Fraser murmured that line from Horace about it being sweet and seemly to die for his country, lay his head on the block and waited for the executioner’s sword. He had originally been sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered, but these were modern times and the old ways were starting to look barbaric.

Modern times. That was, in part, what the legal challenges to the Fraser lands were about: feudal simplicities were ending and new rules applied. General Wade coming up to assess the need for roads in the Highlands, the spread of the cash economy, the longer reach of state power: all made it harder to turn back the clock.

But that’s hindsight. To Simon Fraser, there were still other ways to build up his power base. He could switch sides to support the Jacobites – hadn’t they, like him, also lost their lawful inheritance? – lured by the promise of a dukedom. He could switch his religion to Catholicism to earn favour with Louis XIV, the most powerful man on the planet. Conquering Scotland, he told the French king in 1702, would be straightforward. All it would take would be a force of 6-7,000 men, 18,000 weapons, ammunition for an army of 30,000 and £40-50,000 in hard cash.

He was probably right, but the Jacobites, still hoping to be invited back to England in their own bloodless revolution, dithered. And after Louis threw him into prison, the only way to restore the clan’s fortunes and to end his outlaw status in Britain was to switch sides again, return to his ancestral lands and hold Inverness for the Hanoverians in the 1715 Rising.

Not, of course, that Simon Fraser was ever really loyal to the British Crown. This was a man who at the time of the Spanish invasion threat of 1719 was writing letters of support to the likely rebels while at the same time writing to the government in London asking for more cash, christening his daughter Georgina and successfully asking George I to be her godfather. Duplicity on such a scale has divided historians but only makes Fraser more intrigued about her subject. “What I wanted to find out was which of their judgments was true – the Victorian assessment that “seldom has a more horrible old man met a more justly deserved end” or a 20th-century one that he was “the greatest of the old Celtic Scottish chiefs”.

“Yes, he was devious, spectacularly so, but he was driven by an overarching concern to retrieve his titles and estates. Yet to do that he had to live in a modern world which would take him away from the old ways. So on the one hand he is a hard-nosed businessman, farming his salmon and looking after his timber, but at the same time he is the old-fashioned clan chief who effectively redistributed rents through feasting; a civilised and cultured man yet with a very firm sense of the world to which he was born and educated.”

Ironically, Lovat prospered under the Hanoverians, regaining the title to his lands and squashing the claims to them of rival clans. Yet he threw it all away in the ‘45, which he joined even though he always knew that any rebellion without French military muscle would be doomed to failure. The Old Fox’s tribal loyalties pulled at him and wouldn’t be denied.

Essex girl she may be, but Sarah Fraser can understand that too. To find her way inside his mind, she has had to research everything about the Old Fox’s life, from European geopolitics to rival clan land claims. In the British Library, Edinburgh’s West Register House and the archives at Kew, she has followed his life through his letters, noting how it flattens when he was under stress, spotting how it varied according to his mood and safety.

But she has also, over the years understood the one intangible thing the Old Fox thought he was defending: the wild northern sweep of the Fraser lands. She has lived with Frasers, and on Fraser land for nearly all of her adult life, and she understands its lure as well as anyone.

As she drives me back to my train at Inverness, she talks about the first time she made the journey on the road in the other direction, before the Kessock Bridge opened and when the ferry still ran. “I’ve made that journey so many times now. And there’s something special arriving up here. You might have been driving overnight from London, and you come up to the end of the A9 and out along the firth. And the sun is behind you rising in the east and whether it’s the mudlats or the water, it’s gleaming in the light. Suddenly there are these huge open spaces and the air smells of salt, and I just know that I’m home.”

The Old Fox himself couldn’t have put it any better.

• The Last Highlander by Sarah Fraser is published by HarperCollins on 10 May, priced £20