Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Fraser, Simon Alexander (1845–1934)

by Joan Gillison

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (MUP), 1981

Simon Alexander Fraser (1845-1934), stockrider, whipmaker and bagpiper, was born on 13 February 1845 at Port Arthur, Van Diemen's Land, eldest son of the twelve children of Hugh Archibald Fraser (1796-1895) and his wife Mary, née Anderson (1827-1899). Hugh Fraser, a Scottish magistrate, migrated to New South Wales in 1828, later becoming an overseer in the penal settlement at Port Arthur where he earned a reputation for fairness and humanity. When Simon was a boy the family moved to Barwite, near Mansfield in Victoria; this district was Simon Fraser's home for much of his life although in 1908-09 he lived at Warrnambool, teaching and making and repairing bagpipes and fiddles.

The Frasers were all musical and Simon played the violin, flute, concertina, accordion and bagpipes. His mother, who claimed descent from the MacCrimmons, traditionally hereditary pipers to the clan MacLeod, taught him the piobaireachd (pibroch) vocables, secretly handed down by word of mouth and by lilting from mother to eldest son. These vocables are known as 'canntaireachd'. He was also taught the secret language of the pipers in which by inserting extra notes a warning could be given. About 1816 Simon's father had written down the canntaireachd direct from Iain Dubh MacCrimmon and these he handed on to his son. When an appeal came from folklorists in Scotland, seeking lost piobaireachd vocables, Simon Fraser sent tunes; many of these letters and manuscripts are now in the National Library of Scotland, Edinburgh.

Fraser thought nothing of riding from Mansfield to Benalla and back to take lessons from the famous piper Peter Bruce. When droving sheep to Melbourne he would dismount from his horse, leave his brother William to control the flock, and walk ahead playing. He made his own bagpipes and was reputedly the first to use kangaroo-skin in preference to the traditional sheep-skin. He won championship contests throughout Australia.

He learned the craft of making stock-whips from Nangus Jack, an Aboriginal stockman whose whips were treasured by pioneer stockmen. Fraser could plait sixteen strands of leather into a whip supple enough to pull through a ¼ in. (6 mm) auger-hole. He wove forty-four strands into the longest whip that had been made in Australia. Don Hassell of Benalla was only man able to crack this whip and performed the 'triple crack' before the Duke and Duchess of York in Melbourne in 1901. Fraser whips made by Simon and his son were taken by John Rymill in the early 1930s for sledge-team work on his polar expeditions.

Simon Fraser was an outstanding buck-jumper and steeplechase rider, winning many events. He once challenged any man in the world to compete with him in a triple event; playing the pipes, riding a buck-jumper and plaiting the longest whip. No one took up the challenge. A student of both Bible and Koran, he was a great reader and a radical thinker, always ready to enter a debate—which was frequently fiery.

On 25 November 1872 at Mount Battery station, Mansfield, he married Florence (Flora) MacMillan, a skilled Scottish dancer. With five of their eight children Fraser formed a band, touring Victoria and once playing on request at Government House. Two daughters played clarinet and piccolo; three sons, piano, second violin and harp; Simon played first violin. His son Hugh was a champion piper of Australia and, taught by his father, also made excellent stock-whips; both men declared that plaiting kept their fingers supple for fingering the pipes.

Described at 84 as lean and clear eyed, with a shock of snow-white hair, Simon lived in old age with his son and grandchildren in Melbourne. He died in hospital at Mansfield on 17 April 1934, survived by three sons and three daughters.

Select Bibliography

  • J. Gillison, Colonial Doctor and His Town (Melb, 1974)
  • B. Orme, The Piobaireachd of Simon Fraser with Canntaireachd (priv print, Edinburgh, 1979)
  • Mansfield Guardian, 13 Oct 1883
  • Herald (Melbourne), 11 Apr 1929.

Citation details

Joan Gillison, 'Fraser, Simon Alexander (1845–1934)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/fraser-simon-alexander-6238/text10737, published in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 31 October 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (MUP), 1981

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