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Articles by Marie Fraser of Canada
Beauly Priory - Buried Treasures

In The Old Lords of Lovat and Beaufort (1934), the Rev. Archibald Macdonald, D.D. (1853-1948) wrote that John Byset, who was granted the barony of the Aird in 1211, had residences at Lovat and Beaufort, the latter being a Frenchified form substituted for the old Celtic designation of ‘Dunie’, and meaning beautiful fort or stronghold. He went on to note that the crown of the Byset family’s benefactions to the Church was the founding of the Beauly Priory in 1230, and the village that formed around the monastery came to be known as the Gaelic ‘Monachainn’ or ‘Place for Monks’, while the first Prior, Pastor Jairmo, gave it the name ‘Boulou, a fair good place’. According to tradition, Queen Mary, when she stayed for a night in the house of Bishop Reid (1564), on looking at the beautiful surroundings the next morning, exclaimed: "C’est un beau lieu" or "It is a beautiful place".

Beauly PrioryI found that trying to decipher the inscriptions on the old stones in Beauly Priory was almost as exciting as wading through a book explaining charters dating from the 13th century, written in Latin. Nevertheless, I could not resist the challenge to learn more about the power and wealth of John Byset, which later passed to other families through his granddaughters - Cecilia, Elizabeth and Muriel Byset.

The Charters of the Priory of Beauly, with notices of the Priories of Pluscardine and Ardchatten and of the Family of the Founder John Byset, edited by Edmund Chisholm Batten, was very informative. Edmund Chisholm Batten was well informed about the history of the Beauly Priory and the family of The Chisholm, having in 1843 married Jemima Chisholm (1817-83), daughter of William Chisholm, 24th Chisholm, by Elizabeth Macdonell [eldest d/o Duncan Macdonell, 14th Glengarry & Margjory Grant of Dalvey], and sister of Alexander Chisholm, 25th Chisholm (1810-38) & Duncan Macdonell Chisholm, 26th Chisholm (1811-58). The author’s candour is revealing, as evidenced by the following extracts from the book, printed for the Grampian Club in 1877, in which he questions several of the published accounts of the history of the Frasers of Lovat:

"John Byset, a member of a distinguished Norman family, first appears in the register of the Abbey of Newbattle in 1204, and as lord of the Aird in Moray in 1218. The Aird included the parishes of Dunballoch (Kirkhill) and Conventh (now united with Kiltarlity), the parish of Kilmorack, the Castle of Eddirdor, or Redcastle, with the lordship of Ardmeanach in the Black Isle in Ross-shire as well as the castle and lands of Kilravock in Nairnshire. The founder of Beauly Priory stipulated that his benefaction to the church was specially for the souls of King William and Alexander II, for the king’s confirmation had expressly stated that this princely domain had been granted to John Byset personally.

"We may not proceed further without referring to the MSS which are mentioned by writers on Beauly Priory, while it is impossible to avoid saying that these MSS are entitled to no real credit. One is a history of the family of Fraser of Lovat, intended for publication, 1749; and the other ‘a short chronology and genealogy of the Bissets and Frasers of Lovat,’ which, although said to be written by Mr James Fraser, minister of Wardlaw, purports only to be a transcript of the Wardlaw MS by Robert Fraser, 1725. These two MSS appear to have been written in the interest of Simon, Lord Lovat, who wished the history of his family coloured to suit his claims against Amelia Fraser, who, in 1702, pretending to be heiress of line of the Byset, obtained a decree of the Court of Session, for the peerage of Fraser of Lovat.

"The Wardlaw MS, to which we before referred, was written by James Fraser, minister of Wardlaw from 1661 to 1709. It is probable that he had access to the Lovat Writs of 1652, and so far as he professes to copy actual charters, he may be trusted. When the Wardlaw MS passes from transcribing charters or recording the events which passed before the eyes of the writer, it is hardly to be relied on more than the MSS of 1725 and 1749; but as the compiler died before Simon, Lord Lovat’s contention arose, his story is not twisted to suit the claims of rival parties.

"As a specimen of the inventive powers or credulity of the writer of the Wardlaw MS, he states that John Byset, the founder of Beauly Priory, was the son of Byset, a courtier of William the Lion, which Byset married Agnes, daughter of the king. This marriage is a stupid invention of the seventeenth century. The daughters of William the Lion, legitimate [3] and illegitimate [4], are perfectly well known, and duly inquired into on the claims to the crown of Scotland in 1296.

"The foundation charter of the Priory of Beauly, to which Rose, in his History of the Family of Kilravock, and Spottiswoode, in his Religious Houses of Scotland refer, is probably a forgery. Spottiswoode writes: ‘The Priory of Beauly or Ross was founded in the year 1231 by James Bisset, a gentleman of a considerable estate in that shire.’ After mistaking the name and position of the Byset estates, which, except Erchless and its pertinents, lay in Moray, we cannot expect accuracy…

"In connection with Agnes Urquhart, Lady Kilravock, Rose remarks: ‘As to the familie of Cromartie, whereof she was descended, it was verie ancient: Sir George Mackenzie of Tarbat, now Lord Registrar, reporting that Urquhart of Cromartie and Rose of Geddes were witnesses in the foundation of the Priorie of Bewlie, which behooved to be betwixt the year 1200 and 1220, as farr as I can gather.’ Now anything more certainly a forgery than to put an Urquhart of Cromarty as witness to a charter of 1230, cannot be conceived. It is perfectly clear that the foundation deed of Beauly seen by Sir George Mackenzie, first Earl of Cromarty, must have been a forgery.

"Walter Macfarlane of Macfarlane was son of John Macfarlane of Macfarlane by his wife Helen, daughter of Robert, third Viscount Arbuthnot. After the death of John Macfarlane, Helen, his widow, Walter’s mother, married in 1710 John Spottiswoode, advocate, who was likely to have access to the same sources of information as the Lord Justice General, the Earl of Cromarty. John Spottiswoode died in 1728, and his edition of Hope’s Minor Practicks, printed in 1734 by his son, had appended to it his account of the Religious Houses in Scotland. It is probable that the Beauly charters were transcribed between 1734 and 1738, from their position among the Macfarlane transcripts. It is remarkable that John Spottiswoode, in his account of Beauly, mentions no document, except this foundation deed, other than those transcribed by his step-son, Macfarlane; and it seems most likely that Macfarlane had access to the so-called deed of foundation, but that he rejected it as a forgery, and would not allow his transcriber to copy it.

"Another forgery in connection with the foundation deed requires only a simple statement to secure its detection. The MS historian of the Fraser family, in the Advocates Library, adds: ‘I saw the original charter given to John Bisset by Macdonald, which begins in these terms…’ Except to show the extent of the possessions of John Byset, what object the historian of the Frasers could have in putting forward this charter, it is difficult to perceive. The whole of the forged charter quoted in the MS is printed in the Annals of the Frasers, 1795, p. 24 [referred to by Edmund Chisholm Batten as the publication of the Hon. Archibald Fraser of Lovat].

"The charter of 1231 is a grant by William Byset, his brother John and the officials of the church of Moray being witnesses… The seal has the arms of Byset, "on a shield plain; a bend." The transcriber adds, ‘no crown’; the opinion then prevailing that the crowns quartered in the Fraser of Lovat coat were the arms of Byset: whereas they are the arms of Grant. This simple ordinary shows the antiquity of the Byset achievement.

"We have the family of Byset in the year 1240 possessing the estates following: Walter is lord of Aboyne, and resided at Aboyne Castle, Aberdeenshire; his nephew, John, is lord of the Aird, and resided either at Lovat or Beaufort, Inverness-shire; another nephew, William, is patron of the church, and probable owner of the estate of Abertarff, in the same county; and Robert Byset, cousin of Walter Byset, is the lord of Upsetlington, in Berwickshire.

"In the witnessing part of the charter John Byset, our founder, is called ‘Domino Johanne fratre meo’; but it does not appear from any record that he was one of the barons of the kingdom. Before the Act of 1427 no general rule can be laid down for distinguishing between one holder of a property directly from the Crown and another, and the expressions ‘nobilis vir’ and ‘dominus’, in the charter of subjects, at all events go for nothing in establishing any parliamentary dignity; the premier baron of Scotland claims no higher creation than 1436.

"In 1242 an event occurred, which coloured the history of the Bysets—the banishment of John Byset and Walter, Lord of Aboyne.

"Patrick, Earl of Athol, son of Thomas de Galloway, and nephew of Walter Byset’s wife, was burnt after a tournament at Haddington, where the king was holding a congress of notables. Matthew Paris, writing about 1250, states that in 1242 Walter Byset at the tournament was worsted by the young Earl of Athol, and that Walter Byset contrived to burn the house in which the earl slept, and the earl with it.

"The histories of Bower and Wynton allege that the estates of the Bysets were all forfeited, and the whole family banished from the kingdom, and this has been improved upon by later Scottish historians, till Mr Burton disposes of the matter thus: ‘A strong feeling set against the Bysets. Their estates had to be forfeited, and the head of the house escaped alive with great difficulty. The family afterwards pushed their fortunes, with the other Norman houses in Ireland, and their Highland estates went to the Frizelles or Frasers, who founded an influence which became troublesome to the Government five hundred years afterwards [Burton’s History of Scotland, vol. ii, p. 89].’ Seeing that the Frasers did not get possession of any portion of the Bysets’ Highland estates till 125 years after 1242, and then only a third of those estates, two-thirds of which were acquired by the Fentons and the Chisholms, the former by the peaceful act of marrying a Byset lady, this is strongly expressed. The only fact certain in relation to this matter is that Patrick, Earl of Athol, was burnt in 1242, and that King Alexander II assisted Walter and John Byset in leaving Scotland, where a strong party accused them of murder (p. 44-45).

"It would seem, therefore, that John Byset, founder of Beauly Priory, on his being compelled to foreign exile, made over his barony of the Aird, with his other estates adjoining, to his son, John Byset the younger; and the John Byset whom we shall find acting as Lord of Lovat in 1258 was this John Byset the younger. John Byset, the elder, with Walter, returned to Ireland, and came from Ireland in October 1244, to the king in Wales; and afterwards Walter Byset received two of the king’s shields from Windsor Castle armoury, to go into the king’s service in Ireland (p. 47-48)."

Chisholm Batten notes that Walter Byset founded the Preceptory of the Knights Templars at Culter between 1221 and 1236 (p. 300). He also explains that John Byset’s granddaughter Cecilia Byset married Sir William de Fenton, whose granddaughter Janet de Fenton married, in 1416, Hugh Fraser (1377-1440).

Byset chart

"A particular transaction respecting the Aird property has been so erroneously represented that it must be stated accurately. According to Shaw, Hugh [Fraser] married Margaret, daughter and heiress of William Fenton of Beaufort; and thereby got the lands ; the truth being that in 1416, Hugh Fraser married Janet, sister of William de Fenton… Seven years afterwards, on 9th August 1422, Hugh Fraser enters into a contract for his son and heir, who must have been an infant, marrying a daughter of Thomas of Dunbar, Earl of Moray. On the 20th May 1455, Huchone Fraser of the Lovate is mentioned as if married to Janet, daughter of Elizabeth, Countess of Moray. His fortune was so much increased by this marriage as to enable him to secure the peerage. There is a charter under the Great Seal, dated 28th February 1480, where Hugh is styled by the king, ‘Hugo dominus Fraser de Lovat ac Baro Baroniæ de Kinnell’.

"Thomas, in 1501, succeeded his father Hugh as Lord Lovat, and married Janet Gordon, the daughter of Sir Alexander Gordon of Midmar, brother to the Earl of Huntly. Thomas Lord Lovat is said, in what is called the Culduthel MS by Mr. Anderson (p.76), which MS appears to have been full of inaccuracies, to have had, by his second marriage, a son Robert, who married Janet Gelly, the heritrix of Braky in Fife, and to have purchased the estate of Braky Kinnell. It is said Lord Thomas died at Beaufort Castle on 21st October 1524; but this is doubtful. It was not until 1542 that his son Hugh Lord Lovat, got a feu-charter of the lands of Beaufort from the Earl of Argyle. The House of Lovat seems to have been the residence of the family.

"Hugh Lord Lovat married a daughter of the chief of the Grants, the widow of Halyburton of Pitcur, and used the connection thus formed with the descendants of the Chisholm co-heirs of the founder of Beauly, to acquire much of the Chisholm portion of the Byset property. In 1528 he induced George Halyburton of Gask to convey to him the lands of Inglistown (Englishtown) and Kingslie (Kingillie), now in the united parish of Wardlaw and Fernua; and in 1529 he got James Halyburton of Gask to give up to him the whole barony of Erchless created in 1512.

"In 1544 Beauly Priory saw a sad funeral procession enter the restored church, bearing the bodies of Hugh Lord Lovat and his eldest son (by his first wife) Hugh Master of Lovat, killed in a clan fight. Hugh Lord Lovat’s son (by his second wife) Alexander, who succeeded on his father’s and elder brother’s death, before 1555 married Janet, the daughter of Sir John Campbell of Cawdor.

"Queen Mary, in 1563, hunted and took her summer journeys in the west and south-west of Scotland; but her brother James, the new Earl of Moray, came north to Inverness late in the autumn, with his two brothers, to hold courts and consolidate his power, and there first put in execution the new Act against witchcraft, sorcery, and necromancy, by burning two old women as witches. On the 15th October 1563, Campbell of Cawdor was served heir before him as sheriff-principal by a jury, including of the family of the founder of the priory, William Fraser of Struy, uncle of Hugh Lord Lovat, now a minor; Hugh Fraser of Guisachan, whose father had died fighting beside his brother Hugh Lord Lovat, at the battle of Lochlochy; Alexander Chisholm of Comar; and Kenneth Mackenzie of Kintail.

"It was probably in August 1564 that Queen Mary visited Beauly Priory, the memory of which is presented in local tradition. Mary, the queen, was compelled to resign her crown in favour of her infant son, on 24th July 1567; and the power of the kingdom was actually exercised by her brother, the Regent Murray. After the assassination of the regent in January 1569-70, the Earl of Huntly became her lieutenant in the north. He was supported by the Earl of Athole, and was very anxious to get together as many friends as he could, against those who, under the patronage of Elizabeth, had, on the 12th July 1570, appointed Lennox, Regent of Scotland. Lovat took the opportunity to get Huntly’s assistance in securing the possession of the Priory of Beauly, and an agreement was drawn up, to which John Earl of Athole and Mr John Campbell of Calder were witnesses.

"In 1587 Simon Lord Lovat [1570-1633] was in exile in Antrim and the tutor, Strichen, managed his estates. By the time of the death of Lord Simon, the last monk of Beauly would have disappeared. On the 22nd December 1639, King Charles I granted the Priory of Beauly to the Bishop of Ross."

In 1815, when Archibald Fraser of Lovat died, without legitimate surviving issue, Beauly Priory seems to have been in a disgraceful state, and the families of Lovat and Gairloch [Mackenzie], The Chisholm, Maclean of Craigscorrie, and the Frasers of Newton, Aigas and Eskadale were consulted. Thomas Fraser of Strichen (1802-1875), who had been created Baron Lovat in the Peerage of the United Kingdom in 1837, was denied title to the Priory of Beauly in 1845, but was granted a lease for 31 years from Whitsunday 1847. The rent is £1 and he agrees ‘to maintain and keep the premises in their present state and conditions as a venerable monument of ancient times and an object of interest’…" In 1857 he proved his claim to the Scottish title as 14th Lord Lovat, but for the attainder. Thomas Alexander Fraser, 10th of Strichen, was descended from Thomas Fraser of Knockie & Strichen (1548-1612), second son of Alexander Fraser, 4th Lord Lovat (1527-1557).

In August 1997 we spotted several people trying to decipher the inscriptions on the stones in Beauly Priory. The symbols of the skull and cross-bones on the older stones in Beauly Priory still bear evidence of the strong influence of the Templar Knights of the Middle Ages. Similar evidence was found at Beaufort Castle in South Lebanon, the strategically located Crusader-era fort at Nabatiyeh.

One of the more colourful figures buried in Beauly Priory is Sir Kenneth Mackenzie, 7th of Kintail (d. 1491), whose personal life can be summarized as follows:

Alastair Ionraic Mackenzie, 6th of Kintail, who was already advanced in life before his son turned twenty, thought it prudent to match Kenneth with Margaret, daughter of John Lord of the Isles and 4th Earl of Ross, and thereby end the ancient feuds between their families. The Island chief willingly consented and the marriage was in due course solemnized. However, about a year later, the Earl’s nephew and apparent heir, Alexander Macdonald of Lochalsh, came to Ross, and, feeling more secure as a result of this matrimonial alliance with the Mackenzie family, took possession of Balcony House and the adjoining lands, where, the following Christmas, he provided a great feast for his old dependents, inviting most of the more powerful chiefs and barons, and among others, Kenneth Mackenzie, his cousin’s husband. Unfortunately, Kenneth did not arrive until Christmas eve. He was accompanied by a retinue of forty able-bodied men, but without his lady, which deeply offended Macdonald. To make matters worse, Kenneth was allocated lodgings in the kiln. One insult led to another, and Mackenzie, since he had no desire to keep the peace with Macdonald’s family, decided he no longer wanted to keep his relative. Lady Margaret had a blind eye and, to insult her cousin to the utmost, Kenneth sent her to Macdonald, mounted on a one-eyed horse, accompanied by a one-eyed servant, followed by a one-eyed dog. She was in a delicate state of health, and her husband’s inhumane treatment grieved her so much that she never after fully recovered.

Her only son, recently born, was named Kenneth, and to distinguish him from his father was called ‘Coinneach Og’ or Kenneth the younger. He was fostered in Taagan, Kenlochewe, and succeeded as 8th of Kintail on the death of his father in 1491, but was imprisoned in Edinburgh Castle in 1495, along with his cousin, Farquhar Mackintosh, on orders from King James IV, who was determined to educate the younger lairds into a more civilized manner of governing their people. "The King, having made a progress to the North, was advised to secure these two gentlemen as hostages for securing the peace of the Highlands, and accordingly they were apprehended at Inverness and sent prisoners to Edinburgh in the year 1495, where they remained two years." - Dr. George Mackenzie’s MS History. They escaped in 1497 but were later caught and Mackenzie was killed near Edinburgh. He was not married, but left two illegitimate sons.

A few days after sending away his wife, Kenneth went to Lord Lovat accompanied by two hundred of his followers and besieged his house. Lovat was naturally surprised and demanded an explanation, whereupon he was informed by Kenneth that he came to demand his daughter Agnes in marriage now that he had no wife, having disposed of Lady Margaret. Lovat, who had no particularly friendly feelings towards Macdonald of the Isles, and was anxious to procure Mackenzie’s friendship, consented to the proposed alliance, providing the young lady herself was favourable. She fortunately proved submissive.

Hugh Fraser, 1st Lord Lovat (c1436-1501) had two illegitimate sons before his marriage about 1459. Since his heir Thomas was born in 1460, his daughter Agnes could not have been more than 15 about 1476. By Agnes Fraser of Lovat, Kenneth Mackenzie had four sons [his heir John, later 9th of Kintail, Alexander, Roderick & Kenneth] and one daughter [Catherine]. He had his children by Agnes legitimated afterwards by Papal Bull - see notes below.

Kintail cryptAlastair Ionraic Mackenzie, 6th of Kintail died in 1488 at Kinellan, having attained the extreme old age of 90 years, and was buried in the Priory of Beauly. He is said to have had a natural son, Dugal, who became a priest and was Superior of the Priory of Beauly, which he repaired about 1478, and in which he is buried. This ecclesiastic is said by others to have been Alexander’s brother - Anderson’s History of the Frasers, p. 66; and MS History of the Mackenzies. Sir Kenneth Mackenzie, 7th of Kintail died in 1491 and was also buried in the Priory.

Prior to this the Kintail family had been buried in Iona and later the Earls of Seaforth were buried in Fortrose Cathedral. However, a younger branch of the family, the Mackenzies of Gairloch, continued to be buried in the Priory. John Glassich Mackenzie, 2nd of Gairloch married another Agnes, the only child and heiress of James Fraser of Foyness [third son of Thomas, 2nd Lord and brother of Hugh, 3rd Lord Lovat]. Through this marriage, John Glassich Mackenzie acquired considerable wealth and power. By Agnes Fraser of Foyness, he had three sons and a daughter. He also had two illegitimate sons before his marriage. However, John Glassich was not an exemplary husband, nor was he a very dutiful subject to his King, and in 1547 his estates were forfeited for refusing to join the Royal Standard. He was poisoned or starved to death at Eilean Donan Castle in 1550. In 1551 the Queen granted to John Mackenzie, 9th of Kintail, and his son and heir Kenneth, a remission for the violent taking of John Glassich, Dougal, and John Tuach, his brothers, and for keeping them in prison, thus usurping ‘therethrough our Sovereign Lady’s authority’.


In the History of the Frasers of Lovat (1896), p. 68, Alexander Mackenzie (1838-98) refers to the irregular marriage of Kenneth Mackenzie and Agnes Fraser, as follows: "The offspring of their union was, however, illegitimate. The Earl of Cromarty says that shortly before his death he made penance for his irregular marriage and procured a recommendation from Thomas Hay (his lady’s uncle), Bishop of Ross, to Pope Alexander VI, from whom he procured a legitimation of all of the children of the marriage, dated at St. Peter, in 1491. Anderson also says that ‘application was made to the Pope to sanction the second marriage, which he did, anno 1491.’ Sir James Dixon Mackenzie, however, says that he made a close search in the Vatican and the Roman Libraries but was unable to find trace of any such document of legitimation. " [History of the Mackenzies, second edition (1894), pp. 87, 88, 102, 103, 104]

According to the notes prepared to accompany the Genealogical Tables of the Clan Mackenzie (1879), Major James Dixon Mackenzie, later Sir James Dixon Mackenzie, 7th Baronet of Scatwell, 12th Baronet of Tarbat, wrote: "John of Killin, Baron of Kintail who was a boy of eleven at his father’s death [1491/2], succeeded as chief on the murder of his half-brother, Kenneth Og, in 1497; but his uncle, Hector the Tutor, usurped the estates for several years, on the plea of illegitimacy, until obliged by the Lords of Council to cede them to his nephew John in 1511."

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