Scottish clans, from the Gàidhlig clann, “progeny” or clanna, “children” was historically a symbol of the unity and strength of the different groups, families, tribes (if you will) of the Highland areas. Families pledged loyalty to a certain chief, and in turn received protection. Clan names are, for the most part, associated with land where the clan lived. The clan chiefs held power over the lands within their control, and were king, protector and judge for their clansmen. Scottish clans date as far back as the 12th century, and were the driving political system in Scotland until the end of the Battle of Culloden and the Highland Clearances that followed.
In his book, “The Highland Clans” (1967), Sir Rupert Iain Kay Moncreiffe of that Ilk,* 11th Baronet, conjectures that there are two clan family trees in Scotland: The Galley, descending from the Norse King Ingiald, 7th century ruler of Uppsala, and The Lyon, descending from the Irish Eochu, King of Tara, father of Niall of the Nine Hostages. The warrior chiefs that became Clan Chiefs were mostly Celtic, but are also Gaelic, Norse-Gaelic, and British. During the 14th century, the Anglo-Saxon, Flemish, and Norman influx brought more clans in to Scotland, including Fraser. The Frasers (Gàidhlig: Frisealach) probably hail from Anjou in France; the name may derive from Fredarius, Fresel or Freseau. It has also been suggested that they descend from a tribe called Friselii in Roman Gaul, whose badge was a strawberry plant.
The Celtic-Pictish Clans of the north were based in a patriarchal system wherein the land itself belonged to the entire tribe, the Clan Chief acting as father. The Scottish Clan system was feudal and the Chief was as a king, owning the land and giving protection to those under him who lived on the land. In wartime, the Clan became a military regiment, and marched under its badge and rallied to its own pipes and tune. The Clan system as it is now is a blending of these two systems.
The members of the Clan who had blood ties to the Clan Chief were called the “Native Men” and shared the same surname. Those who came under Clan protection, but were not related by blood were called the “Broken Men” because they (usually) had come under Clan protection after some devastating occurrence and were not able to continue surviving without protection from the Clan. There were also families within the Clan that had a lot of power from their own land holdings, but shared neither blood nor name with the Clan Chief. These were the “Septs”. Cowie is a sept name of Clan Fraser.**
The resurgence of the Clans came about in the Victorian era, thanks to Queen Victoria’s love of Scotland and Sir Walter Scott’s writings. In modern Scotland, heraldry is regulated by the Court of the Lord Lyon (also: the Lyon Court or Lyon Office) which is a court of law which maintains the register of grants of arms and the records of genealogies. Under Scots law, Clans with recognized Chiefs are considered a “noble community”. Clan Chiefs are recognized by the Lord Lyon as rightful heir to the undifferenced arms of the ancestor of that particular Clan, and is the only person entitled to bear them. (Undifferenced arms are coats of arms that have no distinguishing marks for one bearer specifically and can only be used by the Clan Chief, or by others with the permission of the Chief.) The Clan is the Chief’s estate, and by law the Chief serves as the representative of the Clan community. Most Clan Chiefs can trace the continuity of their lineage back to the 13th-14th centuries, some as far back as the 11th century.
The first historical record of the Frasers in Scotland comes from 1160, when Simon Fraser gifted the church at Keith (East Lothian) to the monks at Kelso Abbey. The Frasers moved to Tweedale in the 12th century, and then in the 13th century they moved in to the areas of Angus, Aberdeen, Inverness, and Stirling. Five generations later, Sir Simon Fraser (the Patriot) was executed by the English King Edward I after he was captured fighting alongside Robert the Bruce in 1306. This Simon Fraser’s only heirs were his daughters, both of whom married in to other Clans. His cousin, Sir Andrew Fraser of Touch-Fraser and Cowie (who died in 1297) was the father of four sons: Sir Alexander Fraser of Cowie (ancestor of the Frasers of Philorth), Sir Simon Fraser (ancestor of the Frasers of Lovat), Sir Andrew Fraser and Sir James Fraser of Frendraught.
The Clan Fraser line descended from Sir Alexander Fraser of Cowie is considered the Senior line of Frasers (Philorth). Sir Alexander took part in the victory at Bannockburn in 1314. He married Robert the Bruce’s widowed sister, Lady Mary (who had been imprisoned in a cage by Edward I) in 1316. Robert the Bruce conferred the lands of the Barony of Cowie, the Barony of Cluny, and the Barony of Kinnaird upon Sir Alexander and appointed him Chamberlain of Scotland. His seal appears on the letter to the Pope dated 6th April, 1320, known as The Declaration of Arbroath, which sought recognition of Scotland’s political independence under the kingship of Robert Bruce. Sir Alexander was killed at the Battle of Dupplin in 1332. (His three younger brothers were killed at the Battle of Halidon Hill in 1333.)
Sir Alexander’s grandson, Sir Alexander Fraser of Cowie and Durris, married Lady Johanna, younger daughter and co-heiress of the Earl of Ross and acquired the Manor Place (later to become Cairnbulg Castle) and lands of Philorth through the marriage. The lineage continues in the present Chief of the Senior Line of Clan Fraser is Flora Marjory Fraser, 20th Lady Saltoun, who is an active member of the House of Lords.
According to a prophecy of Thomas the Rhymer:
While a cock craws in the north, there’ll be a Fraser at Philorth.
* “of that Ilk” is Scottish for “of that place”
** there are different meanings assumed for Cowie: it’s either from the Gàidhlig coille, meaning “wooded place”, or calltainn, an adjective for ‘hazel tree’; or it came from the Old English cuhyrde “tender of cattle”. Perhaps it is a combination of all three, and means “hiding cattle in the woods of hazel trees” which could make sense, considering that cattle rustling was a major occupation of the Highlanders.