Brief History Of Clan Fraser

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  • Crest Badge: A buck's head, erased, or tyned argent.
  • Motto: Je suis prest (I am ready).
  • Gaelic Name: Friseal
  • Septs: Abernethy, Bissett, Bisset, Brewster, Cowie, Frazer, Frisale, Frisell, Frizelle, Gilruth, Gelruth, Grewar, MacGuar, MacGruer, MacKim, MacKimmie, MacTavish, Oliver, Olifer, Sim, Syme, Sims, Siomon, Symon, Simonds, Symons, Simson, Simpson, Symson, Twaddle, Tweeddale, Tweedale, Tweedie, Twaddell and Tweedie.

    Clan Fraser provides a striking example of the great variety of experience which can be found within the history of a single clan. They have lived in the southern Borders, the northern Lowlands and the Highlands surrounding Loch Ness. They have been Covenanters and Jacobites, fishermen and farmers, and most notably soldiers. Even by the standards of the Highland clans, they have preserved a strong sense of blood-ties. Their most famous chief, Simon, 11th Lord Lovat expressed:

    "There is nothing I place in balance with my kindred."

    Numerous legends trace the origin of Fraser, many stemming from the superficial resemblance to "fraise", the French word for strawberry. That Clan Fraser is of Norman origin remains unchallenged, but the more plausible statement regarding the meaning of the name itself, is that it came to Britain by a knight named Frezel, from the lordship of La Frezeliere in Anjou.

    The earliest Fraser found on record was Gilbert de Fraser, who, in 1109, witnessed a charter to the monastery at Coldstream, along the southern border. In 1160, Sir Simon Fraser, who possessed half of the territory of Keith in East Lothian, made a gift of the church to the monks of Kelso Abbey. Through marriage the Frasers acquired Castle Oliver on the Tweed and became the Sheriffs of Peebles.

    Castle Oliver's Sir Simon Fraser was a supporter of William Wallace in the Wars of Independence (1297-1314), and like Wallace, he was captured, hanged, drawn and quartered for his part in the fight for freedom. But family patriotism did not go unrewarded as Sir Alexander Fraser of Touch became Chamberlain of Scotland and married Lady Mary, sister of King Robert the Bruce. In 1375 his grandson, of the same name, acquired through marriage the estates of Philorth in Buchan, whose descendants grew into a powerful branch of Frasers in Aberdeenshire.

    "Quhen there's ne'er a Cock O'the North, you'll find a Firzell in Philorth"
    -Prediction of Thomas the Rhymer
    (translation of dialect: As long as a rooster crows in the North, There will be a Fraser in Philorth).
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    However, it was a junior branch of the family that was destined to found the Highland branch of the clan and attain major political importance. Sir Alexander, the Chamberlain, had a younger brother, Simon, who fought at Bannockburn and was later killed at the Battle of Halidon Hill (1333). His descendants, whose chief was always styled MacShimidh (Son of Simon), also made profitable marriages and acquired vast lands in Inverness-shire, around the districts of Aird and Stratherick.

    The Frasers, taking their share in the feuding of rival clans, espoused the cause of Ranald in 1544, for the chiefship of Clan Ranald against John of Moidart's claim. Ranald had been fostered by Lovat and a fierce battle was fought on the shores of Loch Locky between Frasers and MacDonalds. The battles became known as the Blar-na-Leine, or The Battle of the Shirts, after combatants removed their shirts to fight on until there were only five Frasers and eight MacDonalds left alive.

    About 1570, Alexander Fraser, 8th Laird of Philorth, founded the town of Fraserburgh. It was here that the Frasers were granted by King James VI, by the charters of July 1592 and April 1601, the unusual privilege of establishing a university. The university, however, was short-lived, the only relics remaining are a street in Fraserburgh named College Bound and a stone slab carved with the Ten Commandments, once a part of the college wall and now built into South Church.

    In 1670 the 10th Laird of Philorth inherited the Saltoun peerage from his mother and the chiefs of Clan Fraser have since been Lords Saltoun. For his part in the Second Jacobite Uprising in 1745, Lord Lovat, the wily, unprincipled Simon Fraser (The Old Fox), was executed, although it was his son who commanded the clan at Culloden. It is said that his head, legally struck from his body, is still wont to roll along the corridors at dead of night! This seems unlikely that The Old Fox's head should return posthumously since the house, built by another Fraser, wasn't built until the next century. His son, putting a new twist on the old adage, "The sins of the fathers be visited upon his children", was pardoned for his actions in the 1745 uprising and in 1757 raised 1,800 Frasers for service in the Americas where they fought with distinction.

    In a less commanding role of clan history, Dr. Samuel Johnson and his friend James Boswell set out from Inverness on Monday, 30th of August 1773, on the road to Fort Augustus. Along the way, Johnson began to take an interest in the people he saw more than the lush scenery surrounding him. Invoking the "old laws of hospitality", he boldly burst upon a hut that stood on the edge of Loch Ness. Inside the hut was a Mrs. Fraser cooking goat's meat. She spoke little English, perhaps none at all, but a nearby Highlander stepped in as translator.

    According to Boswell's account, the woman was at first in mortal fear for she thought Johnson had come to ravage her rather than ask the harmless questions of curious travelers. At the expense of Mrs. Fraser's startled surprise to see two English gentlemen enter her home uninvited, the incident became the source of mild bawdy humor between Boswell and Johnson for years to come. Johnson was plainly shocked by the poor conditions he had witnessed "in one of the nations of this most opulent and powerful island." Through the interpreter, they learned that Mrs. Fraser had five children, the eldest of which was 13. Her husband, a man of 80 (apparently still hale & hardy), was employed by the landlord as a forester and in return for this service was permitted to keep 60 goats on the land.

    Mrs. Fraser went on to explain that her sons were in Inverness, buying oatmeal, which although very dear in cost, could not be done without. Their 60 goats supplied them with milk and meat and when combined with some hens, potatoes and barley, was how they maintained their existence. When asked if she was happy with her lot in life, she answered that she was as happy as any woman in Scotland, any nuance in her statement being lost in the translation. The inquisition by Johnson and Boswell being over, this poor but gracious clans-woman offered the two travelers a whiskey, in true Highland style.

    In contrast to Mrs. Fraser, a worthy such as Donald Fraser of Abriachan merits mention. Donald Fraser had a thriving business in the secret, illegal trade and smuggling associated with the distilling of grains.In hidden clachan (hamlets), just West of Abriachan, this illustrious clansmen attained a high level of proficiency in the art of making Scotch whiskey. It is still possible today to locate the ruins of Donald Fraser's 19th century bothy. Proudly hailed as the "King of the Smugglers" for good reason; From his stills, prized for the unusual purity of the water, flowed gallons of fine, duty-free whiskey! In the area of which he lived, his name is still spoken with reverence. 

    Which brings us back to 10th Laird of Philorth, Simon Fraser, 11th Lord Lovat, a man lacking in principal yet remembered as a good chief, who so touchingly placed in balance with his kindred - the Clan Fraser. His direct line failed but was revived in 1837.

    There are three, separate Fraser clan societies in North America (two in America and one in Canada), with no coherent grouping of descendants joining either of the two principle branches.

    Of the Highland Frasers, the founder was Sir Andrew Fraser, who acquired his lands in Inverness-shire through his wife, heiress of Lovat. His far descendant, Simon, Lord Lovat, although executed, his title was attained through the new peerage created in 1887 when Thomas Fraser of Strichen became Baron Lovat. The main arms and chiefship are borne by the Frasers of Saltoun, whose seat is Cairnbulg Castle, Aberdeenshire. Lord Lovat, at Beauford Castle, remains Chief of the Frasers of Lovat.