Show Summary Details

Page of

Printed from Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Under the terms of the licence agreement, an individual user may print out a single article for personal use (for details see Privacy Policy and Legal Notice).

date: 01 March 2021

Fraser, Sir Alexander, of Philorthfree

  • R. P. Wells

Sir Alexander Fraser of Philorth (1537?–1623)

by unknown artist, 1597

in a private Scottish collection

Fraser, Sir Alexander, of Philorth (1537?–1623), founder of Fraserburgh, was the eldest son of Alexander Fraser (c.1517–1564) and Lady Beatrice (fl. 1520–1570), eldest daughter of Robert Keith, Lord Keith and master of Marischal. He was educated in Edinburgh. He married his first wife, Magdalen, daughter of Sir Walter Ogilvy of Dunlugus, about 1559. His father having died in 1564, Fraser succeeded his grandfather, Alexander, as laird of Philorth in 1569.

Fraser continued his grandfather's project of improving the Philorth inheritance, particularly the town of Faithlie, which later became Fraserburgh. He built a port there in 1579, and obtained a charter establishing it as a burgh of barony and free port in 1588. In 1592 the baronial burgh of Faithlie became the burgh of regality of Fraserburgh, in spite of sharp protests by the burgh of Aberdeen about the infringement of their rights. In the same year Fraser was granted a charter to establish a college and university there, but he took no immediate action to turn the charter into a reality. The general assembly acted promptly to support the project, however, in 1593 granting Fraser the patronage of Tyrie and Rathen churches for his university's use. In that same year Fraser was appointed to advise the Earl Marischal in the pursuit of the 'popish' earls of Huntly, Angus, and Erroll, who were in rebellion. The next year, at the baptism of Prince Henry, Fraser was knighted by James VI for these efforts and for his willingness to loan money to the monarch. In the same period Sir Alexander erected a new parish church near his newly built family residence of Fraserburgh Castle, on Kinnaird Head. The new castle was later abandoned because of its exposed position, however, and eventually became a lighthouse.

In 1596 Fraser was elected commissioner to parliament for Aberdeenshire, though there is no evidence that he ever attended. Nevertheless, in 1597 parliament voted to support his university by agreeing to reimburse him for his costs in establishing it. That same year the general assembly voted to grant certain church lands to Fraser for use by the university, and recommended Charles Ferme, one of the regents of the University of Edinburgh, to be its principal. Ferme moved to Fraserburgh the following year, and two years later was approved as pastor in the burgh, as well as principal of the university there. But Ferme's attendance of the proscribed general assembly of 1605, and his subsequent intermittent imprisonment, led to the ultimate failure of the university. Fraser's involvement in the pursuit of Huntly, Angus, and Erroll, combined with the new parish church that he built, and the appointment of Ferme as the first and only principal of his university, has led many to suspect that he founded the University of Fraserburgh as a protestant alternative to King's College, Aberdeen, which was under the influence of the Catholic earl of Huntly. However, as Sir Alexander and his eldest son, yet another Alexander, spent much of the period from 1603 to 1608 in dispute with the presbytery of Deer over their refusal to take communion, culminating in an accusation of popery made in August 1608 by the synod of Aberdeen, the idea that the university was founded as a bastion of religious purity must be in doubt.

Magdalen Fraser having died, in May or June 1606 Fraser married Elizabeth (b. c.1548), daughter of John Maxwell, fourth Lord Herries, and widow of Sir John Gordon of Kenmure. She predeceased him, dying about December 1620. Fraser died in Fraserburgh in 1623, on 12 April according to most sources, though his death has also been dated to July. His expenditure on Fraserburgh had been such that in his later years some of his estates had to be sold in order to pay his debts. With his first wife he had nine children, including his heir, Alexander, who succeeded as laird of Philorth. Sir Alexander and his second wife had no children. In 1797 an engraving of Fraser, based on a portrait then in the possession of Mr Urquhart of Craigston Castle, Aberdeenshire, was published in John Pinkerton's Iconographia Scotica.


  • J. Cranna, Fraserburgh past and present (1914), 16–19
  • J. M. Bulloch, History of the University of Aberdeen (1895), 87–9
  • R. S. Rait, The universities of Aberdeen: a history (1895), 263
  • J. Row, The history of the Kirk of Scotland, from the year 1558 to August 1637, ed. D. Laing, Wodrow Society, 4 (1842), 202
  • Edinburgh Deer presbytery records, NA Scot., CH2/89/1/1, fols. 4r–123r
  • F. H. Groome, ed., Ordnance gazetteer of Scotland, 3 vols. (1886), vol. 3, p. 59
  • J. Pinkerton, Iconographia Scotica (1797)



  • portrait, 1597, priv. coll. [see illus.]
  • eleventh earl of Buchan, pencil drawing (after unknown artist), Scot. NPG
  • J. Pinkerton, engraving, repro. in Pinkerton, Iconographia Scotica, vol. 2
  • oils, Craigston Castle, Aberdeenshire
National Archives of Scotland, Edinburgh
Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh
J. B. Paul, ed., , 9 vols. (1904–14)
private collection
W. Anderson, , 3 vols. (1859–63)
University of Aberdeen