Stuart Letford

To pipers, Lord Lovat of the ’45 is known through two tunes, both called Lord Lovat’s Lament. One is a 4/4 march, the other a piece of ceòl mòr. Simon Fraser, 11th Lord Lovat – MacShimidh Mòr – was a clan chief who was beheaded for his part in what was the last Jacobite rising. A martyr and a heroic son of Scotland. A man of culture. A charmer. A kindly man.

Not quite.

Like most of Scotland’s nobility in those days, Lovat (c1670-1747) was a controversial figure. He is someone with a few scandals to his name, not least his central role in the 1732 kidnapping of Rachel Chiesley, Lady Grange (who became insane after 13 years in captivity and died on Skye in May 1745). Lovat was also tried for raping Amelia Murray, daughter of the Marquis of Atholl, in 1701. (For failing to stand trial he was outlawed – not for the first time – and fled to France where he made contact with the court of the exiled Stuarts.

Lovat’s piper, David Fraser, composed the moving tune we know today and which was last set for competition in 2017. Craig Sutherland played it to win the Gold Medal at the Argyllshire Gathering that year. Who, then, was this man?

Simon Fraser was never destined to be chief of the Frasers. He was the second son of a second son but a series of untimely deaths propelled him to the top of the family tree as a young man. He is the Lord Lovat of the famous Indenture of 1743, the legal contract between him and David Fraser who he sent to the MacCrimmons to perfect his piping.

Sarah Fraser’s award-winning book was first published in 2012. It was her first book and it is an engrossing read. She doesn’t excuse Lovat’s faults or chicanery but, instead, presents him in the complex context of those times. Much of the book reads like a historical novel and it is both a gripping and a ripping yarn. It’s factual although Fraser at times almost treats Lovat as a romantic figure rather than the rogue he certainly was. As the Inverness Courier put it, “As family black sheep go, the 11th Lord Lovat may take some beating.”

Sarah Fraser is well qualified to write this biography. She undertook a doctoral thesis on obscene Gaelic poetry and has contributed to radio and television programmes on Gaelic issues and Scotland’s clans. Oh, and she is married to a Lovat Fraser (the son of the famous commando of the Second World War). Her treatment of contemporary Highland society is good as is her chronicling – from Lovat’s perspective – of the events leading up to the Act of Union. She is particularly good on Culloden and the genocidal horrors of its aftermath. As we know, the defeat at Culloden led directly to the end of traditional Gaelic culture and civilisation personified by Lord Lovat himself.

Lord Lovat as a young man.

The great highland bagpipe makes the first of quite a few appearances early on in the book when the author includes the codicils to Lovat’s will that prescribed his funeral plans: “All the pipers from John o’ Groat to Edinburgh shall play before my corpse and the good old women in my country shall sing a coronach before me. And then there will be crying and clapping of hands, for I am one of the greatest chiefs in the Highlands.”

However, the second time the pipe is mentioned is in dark circumstances … Lovat’s forced marriage to and probable rape of Amelia Murray: “Two men hauled her, in tears, before Reverend Munro, Simon taking his position grim-faced by her side. The deafening groan of the pipes bounced off the walls of the small room. The minister kept his head down, and pronounced Amelia and Simon man and wife.” Later, “… the piper played in an adjacent room to drown Amelia’s screams, and in the morning a servant found her speechless and out of her senses.”

Other than a rapist, Simon Fraser, 11th Lord Lovat was variously a clan chief, traitor, election rigger, philosopher, deserter, polyglot and a man of dubious morality. Born at a time when Scotland was a Presbyterian theocracy, inward looking in many ways yet outward looking in others. For example, Fraser writes of Inverness around the middle of the 17th century: “Over a hundred boats and ships could be anchored in Inverness harbour at any time; they strained at their ropes, ready to take scholars, curious travellers and merchants and their goods to and from the Continent. The Baltic ports, the great medical and ecclesiastical centres of Leyden and Paris, and the trading cities of the Hanseatic League, were more accessible and more familiar to educated Highlanders than most English cities and ports.” These people grew up in world of theocracy and Renaissance humanism.

On the other hand, English visitors to Scotland in general were known to make their wills prior to visiting. One wrote with relief: “I passed to English ground, and hope I may never go to such a country again.” Haste ye back, indeed.

William Hogarth’s portrait of Lord Lovat, taken a few days before Lovat’s beheading. “Lovat’s left index finger tapped the thumb of his right hand, as if he enumerated some point. It might have been the number of clans who would rise and reel. It might have been the men he could count on subverting. It was any old argument from a man who had spent his life in debate.” Hogarth reproduced his oil painting an an engraving and made a tidy sum.

John Roy Stuart (1700-c1750), he of the strathspey, makes a few brief appearances but, for me, not enough. Stuart was the swashbuckling warrior poet who seemingly provided the inspiration for Alan Breck, the central character in Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel, Kidnapped. A veteran of many campaigns since 1725, he was one of the Jacobite’s best military strategists. One of the band of Jacobite exiles dubbed the Ecossais Royales, he returned home a few weeks after fighting Cumberland in Fontenoy on hearing of the Prince’s landing in Scotland. He raised a regiment, oddly named the Edinburgh Regiment (it comprised men from Perthshire and Strathspey) and took part in all the actions of the Rising. One of the many anecdotes about him has him pointed out to Cumberland after Culloden: “Good God! The man I left in Flanders doing the butcheries of ten heroes. Is it possible that he could have dogged me here?”

We simply don’t know much about the last few years of Stuart’s life. We know he left for France on board the L’Heureux with the Prince and that he died in France, probably in Boulogne in or around 1749/50. His last resting place is not known. There were sightings of him in Scotland in 1747, trying to drum up support for another rising. I would have liked to have read more about Stuart and of the longstanding relationship between him and Lovat, two of the most important Jacobite figures of the period.

Also, Fraser rather glosses over the Rout of Moy, the skirmish at Moy Hall in February 1746. Donald Bàn MacCrimmon was the only person on either side killed during Lord Loudon’s humiliating defeat there. Incidents like this add colour to the story. Fraser has plenty of colour and detail throughout the book and I expected a little more on this particular incident.

A couple of minor quibbles: Killiecrankie is not 10 miles from Blair Castle but three. And I would’ve have preferred the point size of the text to be a smidgen bigger, even if by only half a point.

Overall, this is an enjoyable, comprehensive, entertaining and well-written biography of an important figure in Scotland’s story. Lovat lived in brutal times and he was a fascinating man. His life would make for a great movie. Buy this book, read it, and remember MacShimidh Mòr the next time you play either of the two aforementioned tunes written in his memory.

* The Last Highlander (Harper Press, 2013), £9.99.

• Listen to Lord Lovat’s Lament as played at Piping Live in 2015 by The Big Music Society featuring Murray Henderson: