IN Back In The Day we have already featured Lord Lovat, the war hero who famously led his troops through the Second World War. Today we look at one of his ancestors, one of the most perplexing people in all Scottish history.

On one of the many occasions I have visited the metropolis, I took time to visit the Tower of London, and specifically the White Tower.

I don’t know if they are still there, but in a corner of the top floor was a grim display of items associated with the last executions by beheading on Tower Hill – as opposed to executions elsewhere in the Tower where Nazi agent Josef Jakobs was the last man to be shot for spying as recently as 1941.

Among the items were gruesome torture implements, an executioner’s block, an executioner’s axe, and a piece of a scaffold that dated back to the mid-18th century. The axe and block were used for the beheading of Simon Fraser, 11th Lord Lovat, the last man to be judicially decapitated in Britain for his role in the 1745-46 Jacobite Uprising.

I took a picture of an interpretive sign for the axe and block. The sign stated: “Prisoners of noble birth found guilty of treason were beheaded with an axe. This oak block weighs 56.7kg (125lbs). Its curved cut-outs accommodated the head and upper chest, exposing the neck. According to tradition, it was used at the last public beheading on Tower Hill: Simon Fraser, 12th (sic) Baron Lovat on 9 Apr 1747. The axe dates from the 16th century and weighs 3.2kg (7lbs).”

Apart from the fact that he was the 11th and not the 12th Lord Lovat, the sign was correct. A plaque nearby explains the fragment of scaffold.

“A piece of English Elm from the upright of the scaffold which formerly stood on Tower Hill. The last executions on it were those of Lords Kilmarnock and Balmerino AD 1746.”

I have never quite understood that assertion, for surely both Lovat and his fellow Jacobite Charles Radcliffe, 5th Earl of Derwentwater – he is often forgotten as a Jacobite martyr, possibly because he was English – mounted that Tower Hill scaffold in April, 1747, and December, 1746, respectively? Or perhaps a different scaffold was built for them.

Apparently the items were “discovered 1862” and were “presented to the Governors of the Tower by The late Miss J. Ward Johnson 1949”.

They are sad, melancholy and a horrific reminder of the fate wielded to so many Jacobites by the British state after the ’45 in what was nothing more than an orgy of vengeance by the Hanoverians and their lackeys.

With all due respect to Radcliffe, Kilmarnock and Balmerino, there’s no doubt who is the most well-known of the quartet that met their death at the Tower. Lovat was famous or infamous in his day and is known to many more millions nowadays for being the grandfather of Jamie Fraser in the television series Outlander – he was played by that fine Scottish actor Clive Russell.

He has also returned to prominence in recent weeks when it was proven by the brilliant scientist Dame Sue Black, of the University of Dundee’s Centre for Anatomy and Human Identification, that the headless body in his coffin in the Fraser clan’s Wardlaw Mausoleum at Kirkhill near Inverness was that of a young woman and not an elderly man.

So who was he? Simon Fraser, 11th Lord Lovat, known as The Fox, was a real catch for the forces of King George II in 1746 as he was their main quarry after Prince Charles Edward Stuart himself. It was no wonder that they wanted him taken – even though he was in his 80th year and crippled by gout and arthritis, The Fox on the run was still a danger to the Hanoverian state because of the respect in which he was held across the Highlands.

Lovat’s remarkable life is chronicled in a quite excellent biography by Sarah Fraser called The Last Highlander which I thoroughly recommend to anyone wishing to know more about this fascinating man. But here’s a brief look at his life.

Born in 1667 into the ancient clan who fought with distinction in the Wars of Independence – Sir Simon Fraser was one of the co-victors of the Battle of Roslin and his sons were close friends of Robert the Bruce, Alexander marrying Bruce’s sister Mary – Simon was the second son of Thomas Fraser of Beaufort who was closely related to Lord Hugh Fraser of Lovat, chief of clan Fraser.

Simon became his father’s heir when his elder brother was killed fighting alongside Bonnie Dundee against the forces of King William III at the Battle of Killiecrankie in 1689. He was still nowhere near being clan chief, however, and took himself off to Aberdeen University from which he graduated in 1695. Lord Hugh Fraser, the 9th Lord Lovat, was a weak man who unexpectedly signed over the clan leadership to Simon’s father in 1696.

Lord John Murray, Earl of Tullibardine and the most powerful man in Scotland, disputed the succession and fell out spectacularly with Simon in Edinburgh. The young Fraser hothead duly went north to Castle Dounie to try and persuade Hugh’s widow Amelia to give him the hand of her daughter, also Amelia, in a dynastic marriage that would seal his succession. Tullibardine was having none of it and moved his niece to the Murray stronghold, Blair Castle, where he planned to marry her off to Alexander Fraser, heir to the Lordship of Saltoun.

Simon retaliated by kidnapping Alexander and frightening him away, and to make matters worse in October, 1697, he went back to Castle Dounie and forced the widow Amelia into a sham wedding, raping her to consummate the “marriage”.

Tullibardine ensured Simon and his father were declared outlaws and when old Thomas died in 1699, Simon was unable to legally claim his title as 11th Lord Lovat which later passed to one Alexander Mackenzie who had legally married the younger Amelia.

Simon Fraser somehow managed to persuade King William that he was no threat, despite having his own personal army, and he was pardoned in 1700, only to be declared an outlaw again the following year over the forced marriage and rape.

Simon went off to the court of the Stuarts in France where he devised the plans that were eventually used in the 1715 and 1745 uprisings. Long before the former, however, Simon was double dealing, giving Queen Anne information about the plans of James, the Old Pretender. He was found out and King Louis XIV clapped him in jail for three years.

Even after he was released he was prevented from travelling to Scotland and thus missed the Act of Union which he opposed.

Still desperate to get his Lovat title and the chieftainship of his clan back, Simon sided with the forces of the new King, George I, during the ’15, and was given back his title as a reward, with Alexander Mackenzie imprisoned for being a Jacobite. The two men would fight in the courts for the next 15 years as to who was entitled to the income of the estate. Simon eventually won and spent his time building up the Fraser estates and wealth, even taking command of one of the Independent Companies of Highland soldiers established by the Hanoverian regime – the Fraser Highlanders.

As Winston Churchill once observed, “anyone can rat, but it takes a certain amount of ingenuity to re-rat” and Simon Fraser promptly did that, angering the Hanoverian government by openly campaigning for the restoration of the Stuarts. They responded by cancelling his military role.

Yet when Bonnie Prince Charlie arrived in Scotland in 1745, as the chief of Clan Fraser, Lovat played a very dangerous game.

He allowed his sons to fight for the Stuarts, but stayed at home himself “loudly lamenting the wilful disobedience of children,” as Sarah Fraser has put it. Lovat did meet Charles, however, and expressed his anger at the lack of “siller” which he knew would be necessary for a successful campaign. They met again after Culloden, at which Clan Fraser fought bravely and suffered many casualties, and Lovat advised the prince to get away and re-form his forces. Charles fled through the heather, as we know, and made it to France while anyone associated with the Bonnie Prince was hunted down. The Duke of Cumberland’s troops were not taking any more games from Fraser and burned Castle Dounie.

Lovat managed to make it to Loch Morar but was captured there while hiding in a hollow tree. Although approaching his 80th birthday, The Fox was taken south to London.

When the Earls of Kilmarnock, Balmerino and Derwentwater were executed for treason, Simon Fraser could guess his fate. Even though others pled successfully for their lives, Lovat was too great an enemy, albeit a double-dealing one, and his trial by his peers was a formality.

He was found guilty and was ordered to be beheaded – the fate of a peer, and not the hanging, drawing and quartering many other Jacobites endured, such as Dr Archibald Cameron, the last Jacobite to be executed for treason in June 1753.

In a way, Lovat had the last laugh. Newspapers and pamphlets of the time recorded that as he was led out to the scaffold on Thursday, April 9, 1947, a wooden stand that had been erected near the Tower to seat crowds eager to see the execution collapsed sending hundreds plunging down. At least nine people died and dozens were injured, which amused Lovat – the phrase ‘laughing your head off’ is said to date from that event.

According to a woodcut print made on that fateful day, Lovat “with some composure laid his head on the block which the executioner took off with a single blow.”

He was supposed to be buried inside the Tower but family tradition has long had it that his body was secretly removed and taken to Wardlaw Mausoleum which he had built as the family crypt. Now we know that his supposed final resting place was not there.

So one mystery remains: where is the body of Lovat? Is it buried in a chapel in the Tower of London alongside those of Kilmarnock and Balmerino, as has been claimed down the years?

Should a survey be mounted to try and find the skeletons?

On balance, I don’t think so, for their lordships have lain at peace for more than 270 years and I don’t think anything would be gained for their descendants by bringing them back to Scotland.