Can Petra beat the curse of The Lovats?
She is about to join Clan Fraser, the ancient Scots family devastated by unspeakable tragedy and crippling debt. So...
AS mottos go, Clan Fraser’s is remarkably straightforward: ‘Je suis prest’ – ‘I am ready.’ It is a credo that has served the family well over centuries of bloodthirsty and tragic history. This week, the latest chapter in the family saga unfolded when it was announced that the current chief and 16th Lord Lovat, 38-year-old Simon Fraser, is to marry model Petra Palumbo, daughter of property tycoon Lord Palumbo.
It is an intriguing match. Lord Lovat, a commodities analyst based in London, grew up at Beaufort Castle near Beauly in Invernessshire, home to the Frasers for almost 500 years. But a series of family tragedies meant that at only 18 years old he was forced to sell it to businesswoman Ann Gloag. Devastated at the loss, he has always vowed to buy it back.
Miss Palumbo, meanwhile, is part of a complex family that is currently feuding over a £70million trust. Could it be that, 20 years on and with a beautiful new bride on his arm, Lord Lovat is finally ready to break the family curse and take back his ancestral seat?
Miss Palumbo, 26, certainly has the looks to capture the heart of one of Scotland’s most eligible bachelors. In April, she appeared on the cover of society bible Tatler, above the headline: Isn’t Petra Palumbo lovely? With her wide blue eyes, willowy figure and long flowing hair, it was a rhetorical question.
She is said to love fancy dress; recent creations have included a human loofah and a piece of salmon sushi. Despite some lucrative modelling contracts in recent months, she has a deep love for tapestry and works full time in her mother’s needlework shop. So devoted to the craft is she, that she is currently in the process of completing her certificate in technical hand-embroidery at the Royal School of Needlework. Her father, Peter Palumbo, a onetime close friend of Princess Diana, is said to be impressed.
Not that she hasn’t thrown herself into the role of the future Lady Lovat with gusto. On a recent trip to Toronto to accompany Lord Lovat to a Clan Fraser gathering, she dressed head to toe in tweed for the occasion, jokingly referring to herself as ‘the wannabe Queen Mother’. He appeared in full Highland dress, befitting one of Scotland’s most active clan chiefs.
Standing at 6ft 4in in his ceremonial kilt socks, with curly black hair and swashbuckling good looks, Lord Lovat has a tendency to appear as though he has just wandered off the pages of a Barbara Cartland novel.
Educated at Harrow and Edinburgh University, he has the sort of charm that is equally at ease whether protesting against a pylon scheme in Beauly in wellies and a pullover or hobnobbing with royalty in his finest bib and tucker.
He even has a fictional counterpart – Jamie Fraser, Lord Lovat, the dashing nobleman and heartthrob in US hit TV show Outlander.
His previous girlfriends include the Spanish Lancome model Ines Sastre (they were introduced, apparently, by his supermodel sister Honor). But it would seem he has found true love at last with Miss Palumbo, 12 years his junior.
Lord Lovat’s mother Lady Virginia, an elegant, auburn-haired, society beauty, is said to be thrilled and has been telling friends how glad she is they found each other.
Certainly, the family has borne much heartache over the years. In 1994, Lord Lovat’s uncle, 42-year-old Andrew Fraser, was gored to death by a wounded buffalo while on safari in Africa.
Ten days later, in a scene that could have come straight from the pages of an Evelyn Waugh novel, his father Simon, 54, suffered a heart attack while riding in a drag hunt on the Beaufort Estate.
His last words are reported to have been: ‘Where are the hounds?’ Lord Lovat, then a 17-year-old schoolboy at Harrow, had lost both his father and his uncle in l ess than a fortnight.
His 83-year-old grandfather Lord ‘Shimi’ Lovat, who led a Commando unit during the D Day landings and was once described by Winston Churchill as ‘the mildest mannered man that ever scuttled a ship or cut a throat’, was devastated by the death of his two sons.
Within a year, he, too, was dead and the title passed to the by then 18year-old, along with Beaufort Castle. He also inherited the family’s considerable debts of £7.4million. For any young man, it would have been an extraordinarily heavy burden.
‘I had no time to get used to it,’ he said once. ‘Partly because of the Press attention. But we’ve got a very big family, a lot of whom live around here, and I had a lot of support from the locals. They looked out for me.’
At the time, Mrs Gloag was still deeply involved with Stagecoach, the bus company founded by her and her brother Brian Souter in 1980 and which had made them worth, by 1995, £174million.
She bought the castle, a tranche of the land and 27 houses, neatly snipping the Fraser family ties in one move.
Lord Lovat went off to university in Edinburgh to study economics and at 21 took up his seat in the House of Lords. He didn’t last long. Three weeks later he was thrown out, during the Lords’ shake-up of hereditary peerages.
‘I understood what they were doing and I was a perfect example of why they needed to do it,’ he said. ‘But at the same time, when I turned 21 I thought, “I’ve got to take my seat. I might as well have a go”.’ Lord Lovat, who declined to comment on his engagement, is nothing if not a have-a-go type, much like his bloodthirsty ancestors.
Sir Simon Fraser was hung, drawn and quartered in 1306, a year after Sir William Wallace suffered the same fate. Their heads were impaled next to each other, and Sir Simon’s brother John’s, on London Bridge.
Simon the Fox, 11th Lord Lovat, was executed at the Tower of London in 1747 for his role in the Jacobite rebellion, the last and oldest (he was 80) man to be publicly beheaded in Britain.
In 1999, Lady Virginia remarried. It was a happy union, to parliamentary
Finally ready to take back his ancestral seat?
It would seem that he has found true love at last
sketch writer Frank Johnson. Alas, he, too, died young, passing away in 2006 at the age of 63.
The young Lord Lovat, meanwhile, became a stockbroker, working for a time in Geneva before relocating to London. He was also adapting to the role of clan chief, spending time in North America at clan gatherings and Highland games.
‘There’s a bit of stress because I have to make speeches pretty much everywhere I go,’ he said. ‘Quite often I don’t have an awful lot to say to a whole bunch of strangers at a dinner in South Carolina. But I’m getting used to it. Slowly.’
He has made no secret of the fact that he would like to buy Beaufort back ‘at some point in the future’ and that his motivation for his career was to make the sort of money that would one day allow him to do that. Intriguingly, then, his impending marriage will place him squarely within a family built on the purchase of property.
Lord Palumbo, now 80 years old, is a property tycoon of the oldfashioned sort. His father, Rudolph, made a vast fortune developing bomb sites in London following the Second World War and left a family trust worth £135million.
In recent years, the Palumbos have been feuding over the money in the trust, with two of Lord Palumbo’s children by his first marriage – son James, owner of the Ministry of Sound nightclub, and Annabella – accusing him of plundering it.
In 1995 they took him to court, accusing him of spending money on extravagances such as £2.5million on vintage wine, £1.8million on classic cars, a French chateaux, £13million on art works and a £263,000 donation to the Conservative Party.
The case was eventually settled out of court, although it caused friction among the family – James and his father are said never to have spoken since. In 2010, there was another court hearing over a smaller trust. Yet despite the disharmony, Petra, the result of Lord Palumbo’s second marriage to Lebanese-born Hayat, is close to her father. Her upcoming marriage will no doubt have involved his blessing.
But even if Lord Lovat were to be able to produce the financial clout to purchase Beaufort Castle (and his marriage may take him a step closer to doing that), it is questionable whether Mrs Gloag would ever consider selling.
Over the years, she has experimented with various projects on the estate. In 2005, she unveiled plans for a £20million luxury golf and housing development that would, it was claimed, rival Skibo Castle in Sutherland. The plans included proposals to build 82 lodges. There was widespread local dismay at the project.
Lord Lovat, who still has a house in the area (the family also runs a small estate office and owns a few properties locally), protested in the strongest terms, writing to the council: ‘I and other residents surrounding this development are even more concerned that this golf course is actually a ploy to build the next suburb of Inverness around Kiltarlity. Are we dealing with a Trojan ‘housing’ Horse or do they want to build a good golf course?’
Other objectors to the project included the Scottish Environment Protection Agency, Scottish Natural Heritage and Historic Scotland, while planning officials recommended that Highland councillors reject the development. Finally, in June 2006, Mrs Gloag withdrew the application. Lord Lovat also protested vociferously and, ultimately, fruitlessly against Scottish and Southern Energy’s Beauly-to-Denny power line, which cut straight through former Fraser country. He has often used his considerable clout as clan chief to rally for local causes.
Although Mrs Gloag has done much for Beaufort Castle in the 20 years she has owned it, she is said to spend more time at Kinfauns, her castle near Perth, where she has built a house in the grounds for her son Jonathan, who was severely injured in a car crash in Africa in 2009.
At 72, she now devotes most of her time to her various charities, including her Gloag Foundation, which works with under-privileged women in Africa, and the Mercy Ships project.
Beaufort Castle, perhaps, may not be as important to her as it once was.
If Lord Lovat were to retake Beaufort Castle, it would be an intensely personal crusade.
His sister Honor now lives in Los Angeles with her husband, Stavros Merjos, and their two sons, and works as an art dealer, running a modern gallery. Another sister, Violet, lives in London and works for jewellery company Bvlgari.
For him, however, the ties to the land of his ancestors run deep. The pull, he says, is emotional, bound up with hundreds of years of history.
‘I’ve grown up in the Highlands but I don’t have anything I grew up with, which makes it quite hard,’ he has said. ‘ My f amily has been uprooted and I’ve been left without a base.’
Now, it would seem, true to family form, he might just be ready to take that base back.
Often used his considerable clout as clan chief
Striking couple: Lord Lovat with Petra Palumbo, a sought-after model, top