There are surely few more personable clan chiefs than Lady Saltoun of Abernethy, 20th Lady Saltoun and chief of the name and arms of Fraser. She insists that I come for lunch, and greets me warmly at her home beyond Braemar. The pink-washed building is an attractive place built 25 years ago, a modern laird’s house on a site commanding views of three major Cairngorm peaks.
A trim, spry, cheerful figure given to an attractive mixture of erudition and much humour – the embroidered message on the cushion next to her reads Go First Class – Your Heirs Will – Lady Saltoun takes a positive interest in clan affairs, is active and knowledgeable on the heraldic front, keeps a cracking website, and – brave lady – ventures into tartan design. This last can be a minefield for the uninitiated, and occasionally becomes a graveyard for reputations.
She is currently the only female holder of a lordship who also holds a seat in the House of Lords as an elected hereditary peer. As one of 92 “hereditaries” remaining in the Lords, she dutifully makes the return journey from Upper Deeside to Westminster weekly. This is no empty gesture, for Flora Saltoun takes the Lords as seriously as her many roles as family head, mother, clan chief, businesswoman, and computer user. For good measure, she was also secretary of the Association of Scottish Peers until a decade ago. At 78, she packs more into a week than some of us do in a year, regarding physical age as a matter for the calendar, not the heart.
The fact that clan Fraser is headed by someone who is not a man gives a clue to the ancient fabric of our Scotland. Centuries before “social inclusion” became politically correct buzzwords, men and women had been recognised in Scotland as equals. Female chiefs supply a goodly number of places in the current 135-strong listings of the Standing Council of Scottish Chiefs. Alongside Lady Saltoun of Abernethy for Fraser, there are ladies heading such houses or clans as Elliott of Redheugh, Kincaid of Kincaid, Hunter of Hunterston, Leask of Leask, MacDougall of MacDougall, Mackinnon of Mackinnon, Mar, Moffat of that Ilk and Rose of Kilravock. Few will forget the impact on Scottish clan matters a generation ago by Dame Flora MacLeod of MacLeod, last MacLeod chief but one.
What does it feel like to be a clan chief, I wonder aloud, and the riposte is immediate. “I suppose I see my role as mother of the clan, the matriarch among Frasers. Since I happen to have been born to this role, my duty is to be available to clan members. They expect it, and it has been my lifetime commitment.” Her dedication stems from the fact that she is passionate about genealogy, especially Fraser family history, a lifetime interest inherited from her mother, while from her father she gained a sense of duty instilled from a very early age.
In 1933, Flora Fraser’s father became 19th Lord Saltoun. Her elder brother and presumptive heir Alexander Simon Fraser was killed in action in 1944, making Flora the new heir. On the death of her father in 1979, the 20th Saltoun took her seat in the House of Lords. When through the House of Lords Act two decades later 662 hereditary peers were removed from the House, Lady Saltoun became one of the few elected to remain.
More than half a century ago, when she married Capt. Alexander Ramsay of Mar, grandson of Prince Arthur, Duke of Connaught, she chose to be married in Fraserburgh, ancestral Fraser home. Her one regret in life is that she was born in Edinburgh rather than her beloved Broch – though she made up for this by later living in Cairnbulg Castle for 32 years.
As chief, Lady Saltoun uses the chiefly arms demonstrating what she terms “the whole Clan Fraser” Azure, three fraises Argent (three five-limbed strawberry flowers on a silver background).
In private life, she employs a quartered version that recognizes the arms of ancestral families down the generations – Fraser, Abernethy, Ross and Wishart. Sharp eyes will spot that the arms of Fraserburgh are similar – and there is no coincidence, for an ancestor, Sir Alexander Fraser, 8th of Philorth, founded the burgh that bears his name at the end of the 16th century.
The history of clan Fraser dates from around 1160 when Simon Fraser made a gift of a church in East Lothian to the monks of Kelso Abbey. Early Frasers moved into Tweeddale in the 12th and 13th centuries, and from there into the counties of Stirling, Angus, Inverness and Aberdeen.
Of more relevance to the 21st-century clan system is the role played by Lady Saltoun in clan affairs – and here let me quote Neil Fraser, chairman for more than 20 years of the Clan Fraser Society of Canada. Neil, an active clansman who regularly returns to Scotland for clan and heraldic events, descends from Alexander Fraser, millwright in Rathven in Banffshire, who emigrated to Canada after suffering misfortune in the Muckle Spate of 1829.
Neil writes: “Lady Saltoun has promoted her Fraser heritage by taking special interest in supporting her worldwide network of Clan Fraser Societies in Australia, Canada, New Zealand, United States and the UK – and the volunteers who administer them.
“This was never more evident than when she encouraged the National Trust for Scotland to stage a Clan Fraser Gathering at Castle Fraser, now a Trust property, in August 1997. The outcome attracted 30,000 visitors, and proved the largest clan gathering ever held in Scotland, with Frasers from 21 countries around the world. Over the four days of the gathering, Lady Saltoun met almost all Frasers there. Neil concluded: “I have met a number of clan chiefs over the years, and consider myself fortunate to have in our Fraser Chief someone who is so supportive of those who seek to celebrate the heritage of our Scots ancestors”.
Lady Saltoun is the author of Clan Fraser – A History celebrating over 800 years of the family in Scotland (1997), a work that sold out in hardcover first edition, and whose subsequent softcover reprint in 2005 continues to be snapped up by Frasers and non-Frasers alike. It is to date the only history of a clan to have been written by the chief of the clan.
As befits a chief, Lady Saltoun expresses firm views about tartan, recognising that a Fraser wears a Fraser sett so that others might identify him or her as a Fraser. She admits that this system works best if commoner setts such as Fraser Red or Hunting Fraser are used. While she admires and enthuses over some of the newer Fraser designs now in use, she raises the question: “Do you want to be instantly recognisable as a Fraser or not? While some other Frasers may know some of the less common setts, people of other clans almost certainly will not. So you might find yourself going about incognito!”.
The clan Fraser website spotlights several Fraser setts. In addition to her own favourite Fraser setts, she wears Fraser Gathering tartan because this latter design came from her hand. She is firm about use of colour, abhorring bright yellow or white tartans, eschewing traditional Red Fraser tartan in its unmistakeable pillar box red, cobalt blue and emerald green for the same pattern in “orangey red, a paler blue and a soft grass green, more like red Fraser Gathering tartan, or 78th Fraser Highlanders tartan”, adding “In the same way, the slightly muted Hunting Fraser can be more attractive if you use dark blue, dark brown and dark green”.
While even this tartan-cognisant clan chief admits to being hard pressed in recognising every single sett of the nearly two dozen Fraser tartans now registered, she gives no ground in her firmly adhered traditional view that dress tartans should bear red grounds – as opposed to the gaudy whites introduced these last 50 years. While she encourages the wearing of Fraser tartans by all Frasers and those connected with the name, she points out that some are tied to particular branches of the family such as Lovat and Altyre with others to regiments such as the Fraser Fencibles or the 78th Fraser Highlanders – and these should be worn only by those family or regimental members.
When it comes to wearing tartan, you’ll find an enthusiast in Lady Saltoun – and here it is perhaps the dominance of the kilt that makes her such a enthusiast for tartan for the fair sex. With a message directed pointedly at the younger generation of women, she enthuses, “For ladies, tartan should be worn in any style which happens to be fashionable”.
At the great Clan Gathering in Holyrood Park in Edinburgh this July, there will be a Clan Fraser tent staffed by members of the Clan Fraser Society extending a special welcome to all Frasers and their kin. Leading the welcome will be Lady Saltoun personally, along with three generations of her family. I discover that the extent of her commitment as chief is that she herself is footing the bill for the costs of the tent, staffing, hospitality and related arrangements.
Gordon Casely looks forward to The Gathering in Edinburgh on the last weekend of July this year, and to meeting up with Lonach Highlanders and Lonach Pipe Band on duty there.Tweet
This is an article from the April 2009 edition of Leopard Magazine. To read much more like this every month, subscribe to Leopard Magazine.