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Hunt for answers over mystery of the Old Fox

By Val Sweeney


WHEN forensic experts began to examine the remains of a headless body in a Highland family mausoleum, many expected the bones would be confirmed as belonging to a notorious clan chief nicknamed the Old Fox.

Instead, what was discovered in the crypt at Wardlaw Mausoleum, near Kirkhill, has sent out shockwaves and left myriad unanswered questions as well as presenting a conundrum for the family.

For what were thought to be the remains of Simon Fraser 11th Lord Lovat – the last man to be beheaded in Britain in 1747 for supporting the Jacobite rebellion – have turned out to be those of a 25 to 30-year-old woman.

The unexpected twist is baffling many including present-day Lovat Fraser clan members as they absorb the information. For although official accounts state the 80-year-old peer was buried at the Tower of London, the clan has always maintained that supporters intercepted his body and spirited it back to his homeland, according to his wishes.

The recent forensic investigation – which many had anticipated would lay to rest a 271-year-old intrigue – has served to deepen a mystery rooted in historical and political conspiracies.

For who is the unidentified headless young woman? Why was she placed in a coffin clearly made for a clan chief and containing his nameplate? Where is her head? And where is the body of Lord Lovat – is he interred at the tower, or is there another explanation?

Writer Sarah Fraser, who married into the Lovat Fraser clan, is an expert on the Old Fox, having researched his life for her acclaimed biography, The Last Highlander.

Like many, she is now picking her way through the tangle of questions arising from the astounding revelation that the body was not that of the Old Fox.

"I was disappointed rather than surprised – I was disappointed for him," Mrs Fraser said. "He wanted to be buried up here.

"I was amazed when it turned out to be a woman. But I suppose if it wasn’t him, why shouldn’t it be a woman?"

She plays down the notion of exhuming the remains of Lord Lovat who, if official accounts are correct, is buried in the tower alongside the Earl of Kilmarnock and Lord Balmerino who were executed in 1746 after being taken prisoner at the Battle of Culloden.

"It is highly unlikely there will be an exhumation for several reasons," said Mrs Fraser, whose husband Kim is uncle of the present Lord Fraser. "Firstly, this is history and you must deal reverently with history.

"As far as I know, he is in the mix with Kilmarnock and Balmerino. There is no reason to suppose these families would wish their ancestors to be disturbed. Also he has been there for more than 270 years. Why would you disturb him after all this time?

"With the tower, you are talking about a 1000-year-old Unesco World Heritage Site. You cannot just go in with a pick axe and hammer and disinter three people. I understand the impulse to do that. But it is not feasible." 

In yet another tantalising twist, there are local rumours that the crypt contained more Lovat coffins up until the 1970s but some disappeared.

There is some speculation that they could have been looted for lead but if there is any truth in the anecdotal accounts, it also raises the question: What happened to the bodies – and was the Old Fox among them?

It is a question which may never be answered and is perhaps a fitting finale for an enigmatic character who was known for his feuding and change of allegiance from the House of Hanover to supporting the Stuart claim on the crown. 

"People want to solve a mystery," Mrs Fraser said.

"People don’t like uncertainty. But life is full of uncertainty and his most certainly was.

"All this fits the profile of the man. You cannot pin him down. He kept people guessing. Even in death, he embodied the attitude which he lived out in life."

The Old Fox aside, there is also the unanswered question over the unidentified headless woman.

Was it part of some elaborate deception to appease clan members who might believe that the bones in the coffin belonged to their chief? Or, was it simply that the coffin was put to good use to inter a family member rather than leaving it empty? 

Mrs Fraser plans to trawl parish records to see if anyone died around the same time and could have been placed in there.

But there still remains the mystery over the missing head.

Mrs Fraser thinks the most likely explanation is that it was taken by a souvenir hunter believing it to be that of the Old Fox.

"The forensic examination answered one question but has thrown up 50 more," she said.

Erik Lundberg, custodian of the mausoleum, has also been left to ponder the results.

He has had a 20-year interest in the building and often gives talks and guided tours to visitors including fans of the popular TV drama and books Outlander in which the Old Fox is portrayed as the grandfather of lead character Jamie Fraser.

Before the examination, led by renowned Scottish forensic anthropologist Dame Sue Black, he had been "reasonably confident" the remains were Lord Lovat. 

"I am disappointed," he reflected. "It would have been nice if the Old Fox had been here.

"But I don’t think it will have an effect on visitor numbers and we might actually get a boost for a while. It makes another fascinating chapter in the story."

He speculated the Old Fox could have been brought back to the Highlands in his own coffin and then put somewhere else for safety in case the government troops took him away in the aftermath of Culloden. But he felt it likely he was with his fellow rebels in the Tower of London.

"It throws up plenty of new questions, some of which may never be answered," he said.

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