Fraser & Cowie

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.

(public domain) Clan Fraser Badge

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.**

(public domain) Cowie Crest

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.


About Kate Cowie Riley

Kate writes two blogs currently: "Weaving the Magic Thread ~ the texture of my life", a collection of auto-biographical essays; and "Scottish Heart", where she shares her love of Scotland and the trips through Scotland that she both plans and guides. She is also Copy Editor and Lead Contributor Emerita for "Celtic Family Magazine". Kate retired in 2013 from nearly 40 years in Private Practice as a Somatic Psychotherapist & Bodyworker, Massage Therapy Instructor, Sivananda Yoga Teacher, Spa Director, and Consultant, who also wrote & taught about Eco-sustainability and WellBalance. Her professional blog, "The Riley School of Integrated Somatic Bodywork" is also retired. All of Kate's blogs are copyright by Kate Cowie Riley; all photos are copyright Kate Cowie Riley, unless otherwise stated. All photos and text or part thereof are not to be used for commercial purposes or without written permission from the author. All photos must be used in their original form, no addition or alteration are allowed. Any advertisements that are seen on the Wordpress sites are in no way supported by Kate Riley.
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20 Responses to Fraser & Cowie

  1. Craig Cowie says:

    Reblogged this on Craig Cowie's Blog and commented:
    I am making my first forays into understanding my Scots Cowie roots and this is the best summary I have found to date from one of my ancient relatives (maybe…). My Uncle Rae Cowie (Hamilton, NZ) has managed to trace our ancestors back to 1720 in Banffshire and Kincardineshire. We also have significant links with Morrison and Robertson clans.

    • maxine says:

      Yes, a very interesting article which I have just come upon. I am a Cowie descendent, my Paternal Great Grandmother (born late 1800s) was a Cowie & I have the family tree that I was able to trace back all my connections. The information on the Cowie Castle especially. I live in Australia.

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  4. Benjamin cowie says:

    hi this benjamin cowie and this so interesting learning about all my heritage

    • I am most happy to be able to help in your discovery! This is the main point of my Scottish Heart blog—-to help others learn about Scotland and their Scottish history, as I learn about mine in doing the research for what I write.

  5. Zoe cowie says:

    Thank you, I too am tracing my Cowie roots. I find it very complicated so it is taking me a while to understand how the clans worked. Your post is helpful, but every time I read something, it takes me somewhere else!
    Id love to know more, can you recommend a good book to start with?

    • I am sorry that I cannot recommend a book to you. Years ago, one of my uncles paid a private investigator to comb through the records in Scotland and she was able to trace back six generations of our family. There are a couple of online sources that may help: Scotland’s People and the Clan Fraser. Have fun with your explorations!

  6. Wayne Cowie says:

    I’ve no idea where to go for my Cowie roots. My grandfather, ‘Jack’ Cowie (his son, John Ross Cowie was my father). I know nothing of my grandfather who came over from Scotland. He was a sargent major in the second WW I believe.

    • Greetings, Wayne,
      and Happy Tartan Day!
      I assume that you have exhausted the resources of your family and their telling of the family history/ memories. Sometimes, one can get lucky with an article from the local newspaper. If you know where your father was born, his birth announcement may state the birthplace of his parents. Also, his birth certificate would most likely have the same information. If you cannot locate it among family papers, you should be able to get a copy from the local governmental office where he was born. Barring that, I have to say that the next best option would be to pay one of the ancestor-search services and see what they come up with. Good luck to you and thank you for reading Scottish Heart!

    • Jeff says:

      Hi Wayne,

      Why dont we share what we have and see if we can progress….. i live in Sydne yAustralia and can trace back to Scotland but then it all falls over …. Jeff

  7. Sean Cowie says:

    Greeting, Kate Cowie Riley,
    Sean Cowie of Brisbane, Queensland, Australia,
    I wondered about COWIE were from the Strathclyde-Britons, My Great Grandfather Andrew William Cowie came from Lowland Scotland, Muirkirk, Ayrshire, Right but I don’t know my descentants from Strathclyde-Britons if true? but DNA showed Dundee, Scotland 322.92% but other more from Germany 243.48 and 243.48 and 160.30 may be from The Cowie of Gorrenberry means from Ancient Saxony??, IF true from Ancient Saxony, where the Cowie lived Wald (Forest near Berlin) and The Cowie is a STAG, and the Forest (clans), This is a region in which a lot of Cowies today are heading back to their ancient homeland before they joined Saxony with Anglo came to England and Scotland. I hope you may know better to help me to find right??

    • Hello, Sean,
      I am not a Genealogist, and am sorry that I am not able to help you trace your ancestry. What I do know of my own family was knowledge gained through the auspices of an uncle who hired a Private Investigator to search the records in Scotland. As for the Cowie name itself, the earliest mention of it that I could find is as written within the blog. I think that it’s great that there are DNA sources now that can help with the search. I know that in my own case, the DNA line comes through the Baltic area, into Normandy and then on in to Scotland, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that’s the route of the Cowie name itself. I wish you well with your search to figure it all out for your family line—and feel free to report back on what you discover!

    • Jeff cowie says:

      Hi Sean,

      I live in Sydney , am a COWIE and have roots back to Scotland. I would be interested in whatever tree information you have about the COWIE clan here in AUS.

  8. John Ross Cowie says:

    I am also researching the COWIE family name and its origins, my own branch of the family is centred on Banffshire, how they came to be here or where they came from seems to be lost in time.
    If anyone from the COWIE family in Banffshire can shed light on this – be very grateful.

    • Jeff Cowie says:

      Hi John Ross,
      Would be happy to share whatever info you have in relation to COWIES from the Banffshire area – who knows, we could be related.

  9. Jeff says:

    I am a COWIE based in Australia – i bleieve i have roots connected to Banffshire although its very hard to trace

    • Neil cowie says:

      Hi Jeff
      Aye u would most probably have roots in banffshire…
      Myself I was born in Forfar late father was from Banff originally
      All the best
      Neil cowie

    • Neil cowie says:

      Hi Jeff
      U most probably have roots in Banffshire.
      I myself was born in Forfar..but my late father was born in Banff..there are lots of cowie’s in Banff and round the northeast of Scotland
      All the best
      Neil cowie

  10. Ryan Cowie says:

    Thank you for breakdown on our history and roots. I am Ryan Cowie and live in Cape Town, South Africa.
    I am so proud to be a Cowie!

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