Simon Fraser, 11th Lord Lovat (c. 1667 – 9 April 1747, London), was a Scottish Jacobite and Chief of Clan Fraser, who was famous for his violent feuding and his changes of allegiance. In 1715, he had been a supporter of the House of Hanover, but in 1745 he changed sides and supported the Stuart claim on the crown of the United Kingdom. Lovat was among the Highlanders defeated at the Battle of Culloden and convicted of treason against the Crown. He was the last man in Britain to be publicly beheaded, on Tower Hill, London.
He was the second son of Thomas Fraser, third son of the 7th Lord Lovat. The barony of Lovat dates from about 1460, in the person of Hugh Fraser, a descendant of Simon Fraser (killed at Halidon Hill in 1333) who acquired the tower and fort of Lovat near Beauly, Inverness-shire, and from whom the clan Fraser was called Macshimi (sons of Simon).
Young Simon was educated at King’s College, Aberdeen, and his correspondence afterwards gives proof, not only of a command of good English and idiomatic French, but of such an acquaintance with the Latin classics as to leave him never at a loss for an apt quotation from Virgil or Horace. Whether Lovat ever felt any real loyalty to the Stuarts or was actuated by self-interest is difficult to determine, but that he was a born traitor and deceiver there can be no doubt. One of his first acts on leaving college was to recruit three hundred men from his clan to form part of a regiment in the service of William and Mary, in which he himself was to hold a command, his object being to have a body of well-trained soldiers under his influence, whom at a moment’s notice he might carry over to the interest of King James.
His older brother, Alexander Fraser, was heir apparent to the barony and served in the army of Viscount Dundee (Claverhouse) at the Battle of Killiecrankie (1689). Soon thereafter, at a feast at Beauly, the piper was playing “Bittack” or “MacThomas”, a song which includes the lines “There is a dirk upon Thomas’ son rattling and glancing above the band of the breeches, when a knife might very well satisfy him; he has a sword and a shoulder belt, when a straw rope might answer him.” Alexander Fraser took this as a personal affront and drew his dirk. While he afterward maintained that he meant only to puncture the piper’s bag and stop the music, he fatally stabbed the piper. A Jacobite who had killed a man could expect no leniency from the government of William and Mary, so he fled to Wales and disappeared. With his older brother out of the way, Simon became heir apparent.
Exile in France
Among other outrages in which Simon Fraser was engaged about this time was a rape and forced marriage committed on the widow of the 10th Lord Lovat with the view apparently of securing his own succession to the estates; and it is a curious instance of influence that, after being subjected by him to horrible ill-usage, she is said to have become seriously attached to him. A prosecution, however, having been instituted against him by Lady Lovat’s family, Simon retired first to his native strongholds in the Highlands, and afterwards to France, where he found his way in July 1702 to the court of St Germain.
In 1699, on his father’s death, he inherited the title of Lord Lovat. One of his first steps towards gaining influence in France seems to have been to announce his conversion to Catholicism. He then proceeded to put the project of restoring the exiled family into a practical shape. Hitherto nothing seems to have been known among the Jacobite exiles of the efficiency of the Highlanders as a military force. But Lovat saw that, as they were the only part of the British population accustomed to the independent use of arms, they could be at once put in action against the reigning power. His plan therefore was to land five thousand French troops at Dundee, where they might reach the north-eastern passes of the Highlands in a days march, and be in a position to divert the British troops till the Highlands should have time to rise. Immediately afterwards five hundred men were to land on the west coast, seize Fort William or Inverlochy, and thus prevent the access of any military force from the south to the central Highlands. The whole scheme indicates Lovat’s sagacity as a military strategist, and his plan was continuously kept in view in all future attempts of the Jacobites, and finally acted on in the outbreak of 1745. The advisers of the Old Pretender seem to have been either slow to trust their coadjutor or to comprehend his project.
At last, however, he was dispatched (1703) on a secret mission to the Highlands to sound out those clan chiefs who were likely to rise, and to ascertain what forces they could bring into the field. He found, however, that there was little disposition to join the rebellion, and he then apparently made up his mind to secure his own safety by revealing all that he knew to the government of Queen Anne. He persuaded the duke of Queensberry that his rival, the duke of Atholl, was in the Jacobite plot, and that if Queensberry supported him he could obtain evidence of this at St Germain. Queensberry foolishly entered into the intrigue with him against Atholl, but when Lovat had gone to France with a pass from Queensberry the affair was betrayed to Atholl by Robert Ferguson, and resulted in Queensberry’s discomfiture. The story is obscure, and is complicated by partisanship on either side; but Lovat was certainly playing a double game. On returning to Paris suspicions got afloat as to Lovat’s proceedings, and he was imprisoned in the castle of Angoulême. He remained nearly ten years under supervision, till in November 1714 he made his escape to England.
Return to Britain and “The ’45”
For some twenty-five years after this he was chiefly occupied in lawsuits for the recovery of his estates and the re-establishment of his fortune, in both of which objects he was successful. The intervals of his leisure were filled with Jacobite and Anti-Jacobite intrigues, in which he seems to have alternately, as suited his interests, acted the traitor to both parties. But he so far obtained the confidence of the government as to secure the appointments of sheriff of Inverness and of colonel of an independent company. His disloyal practices, however, soon led to his being suspected; and he was deprived of both his appointments.
When the rebellion broke out, Lovat acted with characteristic duplicity. He represented to the Jacobites — what was probably in the main true — that though eager for their success his weak health and advanced years prevented him from joining the standard of the prince in person, while to the Lord President Forbes he professed his cordial attachment to the existing state of things, but lamented that his son, in spite of all his remonstrances, had joined Bonnie Prince Charlie, and succeeded in taking with him a strong force from the clan of the Frasers. The truth was that the lad was unwilling to go, but was compelled by his father. Lovat’s false professions of fidelity did not long deceive the government, and after the Battle of Culloden he was obliged to retreat to the Highlands, after seeing from a distant height his castle of Dounie burnt by the royal army. Even then, broken down by disease and old age, carried on a litter and unable to move without assistance, his mental resources did not fail; and in a conference with several of the Jacobite leaders he proposed that they should raise a body of three thousand men, which would be enough to make their mountains impregnable, and at length force the government to give them advantageous terms, but the project was not carried out.
Arrest and execution
Lovat was arrested on an island in Loch Morar. He was conveyed in a litter to London, and after a trial of five days (with evidence given against him by the fellow Jacobite John Murray of Broughton) sentence of death was pronounced on 19 March 1747. He was executed by John Thrift on 9 April 1747, the last man to be beheaded in England. Shortly before the execution, a scaffold for spectators viewing the beheading had collapsed and left 20 dead, much to his amusement. This became the origin of the saying “laughing your head off”. Just before submitting his head to the block he repeated the line from Horace: Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori. The famous etching by William Hogarth shows Lovat awaiting execution in The Tower, counting with his fingers the various Clans that he had brought to his cause and battle to support the Stuart claim to the throne.