In the autumn of 1915, at the height of the Great War, Lochiel (Chief of Clan Cameron and a cousin of the Moniack Frasers) mournfully predicted that “another old Inverness-shire family was becoming extinct”. Of the 15th Lord Lovat’s three sons, Simon was gravely ill and thought to be dying (likewise his baby son Shimi). Hugh, the second son, had already been killed at the 1st Battle of Ypres, so the succession was thought to depend on the third son, my newly-married grandfather Alastair. But news had just reached Beaufort that he had been badly wounded at Gallipoli and was being shipped home, allegedly now incapable of fathering any children.
In the event, Lochiel’s fears were not realised. Both Simon and his infant son Shimi recovered, with a second son (Hugh) appearing in 1918. Grandpa Alastair defied the Turkish shell to produce four boys of his own at Moniack. But the descendants of Shimi, his brother Hugh of Eilean Aigas, and his uncle Alastair of Moniack, are all that now survives of the senior branch Lovat family – there’s literally no-one else left.
To understand why, you have to go back exactly a century from 1915 to the year of Waterloo. In December 1815 Archibald, the younger son of Simon of the ’45 (‘The Fox’), died aged nearly 80, having buried all five of his own sons. With him died the entire male line descended from the 5th Lord Lovat (d. 1577). The Lovat estates and the Chiefship of Clan Fraser passed to the nearest male heir, my 13-year-old great-great-grandfather Thomas Fraser, 10th of Strichen.
But Thomas himself was the last surviving descendant in the male line of the entire Strichen branch. This branch had lived in Aberdeenshire for nine generations – descendants of a younger son of the 4th Lord Lovat (d. 1558). As late as 1700, the Frasers of Strichen had ranked as only the 5th most senior branch of the family, but following two Jacobite risings and years of Lovat Fraser campaigning in the Americas, they had advanced to 2nd place by 1815. As Archibald’s fifth cousin three times removed (and a Catholic to boot), there were many in Inverness-shire who doubted Thomas of Strichen was indeed the true heir. They sneeringly nicknamed him ‘Mormond Tam’, from a hill in his native Aberdeenshire. But they underestimated his determination to re-establish the Lovat Frasers as a leading family in the Highlands, which he proved through many decades of successful litigation against numerous challengers – on at least three occasions all the way to the House of Lords (the highest court in the country).
When 80-year-old Simon ‘The Fox’ (the 11th Lord) was beheaded on Tower Hill in 1747, for supporting the Stuarts in the 1745 Rising, his title and estates were forfeited. However, by the mid-19th century many of the old Jacobite families had recovered their titles by persuading Parliament to reverse the forfeitures. Simon and Archibald, the Fox’s two soldier sons, had already recovered the Lovat estates, as a reward for their services in the North American wars, and it was Thomas’s ambition to do the same for the old Lovat peerage – but it was to be a struggle. An embarrassed Government gave Thomas a new Lovat peerage in 1837, but he was not content with being the 1st Lord Lovat of a new creation – he wanted to be the 14th Lord Lovat of the old creation, and for his oldest son to be ‘Master of Lovat’, a title which only comes with Scottish peerages dating from before the Act of Union of 1707.
Parliament was reluctant to restore the old Lovat title, probably because the Old Fox was reckoned to have changed sides once too often, and possibly because of Thomas’s own Catholicism. After decades of lobbying by Thomas, it was only when Queen Victoria (who had made him Lord-Lieutenant of Inverness-shire in 1853) eventually made her wishes known, that Parliament finally restored the old title in 1854. However, doubtless as a mark of Parliament’s disapproval, the act of parliament was explicitly drafted to remove the forfeiture only for the descendants of the 4th Lord (not earlier branches). Thomas’s only son to have children was my great-grandfather Shimi, 15th Lord Lovat (d. 1887). The senior surviving branch of the family is entirely descended from his two surviving sons, my great-uncle Simon and grandpa Alastair – Lochiel’s friends of 1915. As a result, the Lovat peerage may now be nearly 600 years old, but the descendants of those two brothers are now the only heirs left – however many centuries you go back.
Author: Archie Fraser / May 2019