Highlands & Islands

Woman found in Old Fox casket may have been from London

Dame Prof Sue Black Image copyright Wardlaw Mausoleum Trust
Image caption Dame Prof Sue Black led a forensic investigation on the remains

A woman from the 18th Century whose headless remains were found in what was thought to be a clan chief's coffin may have been a wealthy Londoner.

The casket at Wardlaw Mausoleum in Kirkhill, near Inverness, was thought to have held the executed Simon Fraser, 11th Lord Lovat, nicknamed The Old Fox.

But a forensic examination revealed the remains were of a woman.

Now, the results of a further study suggest that she may have been from an affluent area of London.

The Old Fox was executed in London in 1747 because of his support for Bonnie Prince Charlie.

The government ordered that the chief's body be buried at the Tower of London.

According to his clan, his headless body was instead smuggled back to Scotland and placed in his family's mausoleum.

Image copyright Peter Moore/Geograph
Image caption Bone fragments from the woman were found in a casket at Wardlaw Mausoleum
Image copyright Wardlaw Mausoleum Trust
Image caption The original lead casket next to a new coffin that was made to hold the bone fragments that were found

A team of scientists led by Dame Prof Sue Black carried out a forensic examination of the remains, involving fragments of bones, in 2017.

Last year, the results revealed that the majority of the bones were those of a woman aged 25 to 35. No evidence of the Old Fox was found.

In an effort to find out who the woman was, her breastbone was sent to Dr Ceiridwen Edwards, senior research fellow in archaeogenetics at the University of Huddersfield, in the hope of recovering DNA.

This has proved difficult so far because of the poor condition of the bone.

However, Dr Edwards sent a small sample of bone to Dr Peter Ditchfield, at Oxford University, who was able to look at the chemical analysis of the bone and determine the woman's diet and possible social position.

Dr Ditchfield found that the woman appeared to have eaten a moderate amount of meat and a small amount of fish.

This suggested that her diet was closer to those of people who lived in affluent areas in the 18th Century.

Image copyright Wardlaw Mausoleum Trust
Image caption Prof Black examining some of the bone fragments at Wardlaw Mausoleum in 2017

Erik Lundberg, of Wardlaw Mausoleum Trust, said that while the woman's identity remained a mystery the latest analysis had thrown up new clues.

Mr Lundberg said: "Unfortunately, the isotope analysis undertaken by Peter is not able to say that she definitely came from an affluent area of London, just that she had a diet like someone from there.

"A person from a wealthy local family around Kirkhill, like the Frasers, may have had a similar diet, or perhaps she is someone that had spent a significant amount of time in London.

"It does suggest that she was not a person from a poor area, whether in Inverness or London, as she would not have been able to afford such a good diet."

He added: "It is fascinating to get a glimpse of the life led by this young lady, and a testament to the skill of Dr Ditchfield in recovering this information."

Dr Edwards is continuing her work to try and recover viable DNA from the bone.

Mr Lundberg said: "She may, in the future, be able to tell us more about this intriguing young lady.

"We are very grateful for the time and effort that both she and Peter are spending in trying to tell us something about her life and location."

A Fox's Tale: Who was Simon Fraser, 11th Lord Lovat?

The clan chief, the last person to be beheaded in Britain, is recorded in history as a charmer who was prepared to switch sides during and around the times of the Jacobite uprisings.

But the last of those risings, in which he supported Bonnie Prince Charlie, ended in defeat for the Jacobites at Culloden in April 1746. The following year, Lord Lovat was executed at Tower Hill in London.

It is said that several people who had gathered to watch the beheading died after the scaffold they were on collapsed.

Lord Lovat found this incident funny and was said to have been so visibly amused when he was executed that his death led to the phrase "laughing your head off".

The Old Fox is a figure familiar to fans of Diana Gabaldon's series of Outlander books.

In the author's time-travelling, romantic adventure stories, he is the grandfather of Jamie Fraser, one of the books' lead characters.

Scottish actor Clive Russell plays The Old Fox in the television adaptation of Gabaldon's novels.

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