Rev James Fraser, 1634–1709: A New Perspective on the Scottish Highlands before Culloden by David Worthington - review by Peter Davidson

Peter Davidson

Equally Fluent in Gaelic & Greek

Rev James Fraser, 1634–1709: A New Perspective on the Scottish Highlands before Culloden

By

Edinburgh University Press 248pp £85
 

For two decades before I learned his name, I was fascinated by the Reverend James Fraser. All I knew was that an anonymous ‘Highland gentleman’ of wide education had contributed two detailed pieces on Highland beliefs, especially beliefs about prophecy and second sight, to John Aubrey’s collection of essays on the supernatural, Miscellanies, published in 1696. Even from those few pages, this figure astonished and intrigued me, not just with the depth of his knowledge but also with the remarkable calm with which he described supernatural activities in his community. A letter to Aubrey from one of his Scottish correspondents (a very good letter, incidentally, which also touches on northern stone circles and the first days of Jacobitism) served to identify this Highland savant as James Fraser, a polymathic Scottish Episcopalian clergyman who lived near Inverness in the later 17th century. 

A few years later, in Aberdeen University Library, I sat down on a cold summer morning to make a start on Fraser’s travel journal, covering the years 1657 to 1660 and describing in three very substantial manuscript volumes a wandering tour from Inverness to Rome, along with a pirate-induced westward lurch to the coast of Catalonia and a very long divagation as far east as Vienna and Hungary. There are some lively descriptions of place and personal observations in these volumes, and also a good deal of material copied from guidebooks and topographies. They are written fair, but in such a minute hand and with such a sharp little crow-feather quill that my eyes rebelled after twenty minutes’ reading. Nonetheless, I kept going, increasingly fascinated by this inhabitant of two worlds, a Gaelic-speaking Highland sage with one foot in the realm of clans and second sight and the other in the diasporic commonwealth of cosmopolitan, highly educated Scots who belonged to the international ‘republic of letters’. He could compose a bardic poem of praise with the same ease with which he could write a letter to the Celtic linguist Edward Lhuyd for publication in learned London.

Fraser is the subject of David Worthington’s new book. He was in his twenties when he travelled, and not long graduated from King’s College, Aberdeen, which had furnished him with a knowledge of Greek, Latin and Hebrew and imbued him with characteristically Aberdonian royalist and Episcopalian beliefs. Although he wrote

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