The British Empire Library

For the Love of a Highland Home: The Fraser Brothers' Indian Quest

by Kathy Fraser

Book Review by kind permission of Chowkidar, the journal of the British Association for Cemeteries in South Asia
Two years ago the Chowkidar magazine by BACSA reported that traces of a handsome Mughal-style tomb had been tracked down near Delhi, which once contained the body of Alexander (Aleck) Fraser, one of five brothers who had sought their fortunes in India. Four of the Fraser boys lost their lives abroad and only James, the eldest, returned to the ancestral home of Moniack, near Inverness, in the Scottish Highlands. It was the determination to keep Moniack, also known as Reelig House, in the family that led to the constant quest for money to redeem the heavily indebted estate.

The author has done a remarkable job in telling the story of the brothers, following the discovery of 'a battered old trunk' containing a rich archive of journals and letters between the Fraser boys and their parents. Kathy Fraser was also intrigued on entering Reelig House in the 1970s as a bride, to find a set of five sepia images hanging in the hall - photographs of the boys ' portraits painted by Henry Raeburn, the not ed Scots artist. The original portraits had been sold in 1879. The Raeburn portraits are an early indication of the disjuncture between the actual financial situation of the debt-laden pater familias Edward Satchwell Fraser 'Reelig', and his expectations of how a Highland Laird should behave.

Because lack of money was the spur that sent the five Fraser sons abroad, it is worth noting that their father's debts continually hovered around £ 30 ,000, sometimes diminishing a littl e with loans from friends and occasional remittances from India, but certainly not helped by Reelig's expenditure. The sum is equivalent to almost two and a half million pounds today, and probably not many of us would sleep easy in our beds with a debt of that size hanging over our heads. But Reelig, the 14th Laird, sends the boys to expensive schoo ls, gets William, his second son, into the East India Company as a writer, and invests in a slave plantation in Guyana. A further estate purchase at Dunchea in Scotland followed.

The task of telling a story that begins in 1751 and ends in 1846, and that straddles three continents (South America, Europe and India) as well as Scotland, is immense. This is a long book of nearly 400 large pages, but not a single page is without interest. The whole family (except William, now in Delhi), wrote copiously to each other and Reelig copied everything into a series of letter-books, which form a continuous narrative until his death in 1835. There is much incidental information about the boys' adventurous lives. There are descriptions of life in Guyana, and pretty horrible it sounded too, being 'abominably ugly, perfectly flat' and with the ever present fear of rebellion by the unfortunate slaves working in the cotton plantations. Both James and Edward, who had been sent there to oversee the family estates were glad to leave, James bringing with him two slaves, one of whom, Black Toby, was to accompany his master to India and home to Scotland.

Edward was the first of the boys to die (in 1813 not 1816 as page 163 has it). Working in Delhi, he began to show signs of tuberculosis, which at that period was almost inevitably fatal, and only alleviated by laundanum. A river cruise to Calcutta was ordered, followed by a sea voyage to St Helena, with its fine climate. Aleck accompanied him as he grew weaker, and Edward died in his brother 's arms and was buried on the island.

Aleck was the next to go, also it seems from tuberculosis. In an attempt to escape the burning heat of Delhi, he encamped near the Jumna with William and James and died in his tent there in May 1816. He was buried where the tent had stood.

William, the best known of the brothers, rose to the position of Agent to the Governor General and Commissioner of Delhi. He had become almost Indian himself, painted in native dress, and living with a number of bibis and children from these relationships. One of these, little olive-skinned Amy, was sent to Scotland with the cover story that she was a friend's daughter, but eventually it came out that the unmarried William was her father. Both William and James commissioned local artists to paint figures and scenes of late Mughal life in and around Delhi and these exquisite images were put together in what became known as the Fraser Album, which was rediscovered at Moniack in the late 1970s. It is ironic that a single page from this album, which sadly was broken up, would today fetch £30,000 - almost the sum that Reeling needed to pay off his debts.

William was assassinated in 1835 by the disgruntled nephew of a Muslim colleague. His grave is now at Skinner's Church (St. James's Church), old Delhi with an inscription that begins: 'The Remains interred beneath this monument were once animated by as brave and sincere a soul as was ever vouchsafed to man by his Creator. .. ' George, the youngest son, died five years later at Aurangabad, on his way to Bombay, and home, with his young wife. His tomb was discovered last year. It was left to James to carry on the male line and to take over the Moniack estate. He became an expert on Persia, being put in charge of two jolly Persian princes temporarily in exile in England before escorting them home. His retirement was spent in writing and later in planting exotic trees at Moniack, where a small monument commemorates the five brothers.

Only a couple of errors are noted in this book, which can easily be corrected in a new printing - the author is a bit wobbly on some historic place names - Kanpur was only used after 1947, it was Cawnpore during the brothers' days, and Uzbekistan didn't come into existence until the 1990s. A detailed book like this deserves a professional index too, which can't be done with 'search and find' on the computer. Otherwise it is a splendid story and deserves a wide readership.

British Empire Book
Kathy Fraser
First Published
Grey Thrush Publishing
Reelig Estate
Review Originally Published
Autumn 2016 in Journal of the British Association for Cemeteries in South Asia


Armed Forces | Art and Culture | Articles | Biographies | Colonies | Discussion | Glossary | Home | Library | Links | Map Room | Sources and Media | Science and Technology | Search | Student Zone | Timelines | TV & Film | Wargames

by Stephen Luscombe