I didn’t run off to the circus…they came to get me: Daredevil gran recalls glorious decade of lion-taming, elephant-riding adventure

Anne Fraser Reed, 71 from Inverness joined the circus at 15 and a half.
Anne Fraser Reed, 71 from Inverness joined the circus at 15 and a half.

In blockbuster musical The Greatest Showman, she is Anne Wheeler, a death-defying acrobat played by Zendaya, but, in real life, she had a Scots namesake lured by the circus when she was still in her teens.

Here grandmother Anne Fraser, 71, a retired linguist, of Inverness, tells Sally McDonald of the day the circus came to town…and how she left with it.


When I was a little girl of about five or six, the circus arrived and did a proper parade through the streets. It was so exciting.

I looked up at my mum and said: “When I am a big girl I am going to join the circus.”

I evetually did – but it wasn’t planned.

I grew up in Inverness and learned to drum as a young girl. I was with the Inverness Ladies Pipe Band from the age of nine and was later with the Callumdon Pipe Band, but not for long.

I had just turned 15 and had left the Millburn Junior Secondary School – now Millburn Academy – and went off to work for the then J Arthur Dixon colour-printers who made postcards.

Unknown to me, Bobby Black, a famous Scots accordionist and entertainment agent, had heard about the competing drummers and pipers in Inverness and came looking for us. He needed recruits for the Edinburgh Girl Pipers who mostly performed overseas.

Bobby and his wife came to our house one night when my mum was out working and it was just my dad and me at home.

They showed us wonderful pictures of the caravans I and the other girls would be staying in and said that for nine months of the year we would perform with the circus on the continent, and for part of the year we would do floorshows for American military bases there. It seemed like a dream come true to me.

My dad was happy to go with the flow but then my mum came home and said I was too young.

She wanted time to think about it. She was told she had to make her mind up quickly because they wanted me to travel a week later and I needed a passport.

Mum was up to the “high doh”. She shared her quandary with the local minister and he said she had two choices: not to let me go and have me say she cost me the opportunity of a lifetime, or let me go and have the experience. She let me go. A week later I was in the car with Bobby and his wife driving to Dover to take the ferry abroad. I performed in circuses and open-air cabarets all over the world, from Germany, Spain and Holland to South America and South Africa.

My first was the Fischer Circus followed shortly after by the Circus Belli. You were never allowed to do just one job. So, even though I was a drummer, I was also an usherette, a Highland dancer and had to stand in for the pipers. And, despite being just 15, I helped put up the Big Top and feed the animals, including the lions and tigers. I put meat into their cages with a long pole. It was thrilling.

I later joined the famous German Circus Franz Althoff. They told me and the other girls we were going to ride the elephants. We were petrified.

We knew just how easy it would be for one of these huge animals to trample us to death. We thought, “We didn’t come here to do this…” I was given Bonnie, an Indian elephant. Within a couple of days, I learned how to mount and ride her.

She would help me up by lifting one foot for me to climb on. I’d sit on her neck and when she went up on to her hind legs I’d stand.

I even learned to hang from her mouth by my leg while she walked around ring with me dangling there.

I was just 17. It was such an experience, and it must have been spectacular for the audience to watch the other girls and me perform with our elephants. Later, travelling with Circus Bennweiss in Denmark and Sweden, I worked with Zita – another Indian elephant.

The whole circus travelled by train and, as well as performing with her, it was my job to ride her through the town to the station and the train trailers – much as I’d seen the circus do all those years before in Inverness.

She’d always stop at the greengrocer and eat the fruit and veg on display outside. She must have cost the circus a fortune in food but I loved her and Bonnie. I never once saw an animal mistreated.

I was 25 when I left the circus. Towards the end of my time, I was with at the Coliseu dos Recreios in Lisbon, Portugal. It’s a giant auditorium – a bit like in the film The Greatest Showman.

Just like Zendaya in the film, I learned to master the high-flying “aerial”. I practised for hours and hours, and was ready after only a week.

I performed more than 40ft above the ground and without a net or safety harness, swinging from the rope by neck, wrist or angle straps, and dangling by my teeth while the James Bond theme tune Goldfinger blared from the speakers. It was terrifying but the adrenalin kicks in when you’re up there. I adored it.

I was 10 years with the circus until the age of 25. I never regretted my choice. My mum was glad she had made the right decision. It was the most amazing adventure. I picked up some languages, too, along the way. I speak mainly German and some Spanish.

Long after the circus, I got married, settled down and had three children, although I am no longer married. My kids gave me five grandchildren with one more on the way. When they tell their friends what I did in my youth they don’t believe it.

Over the years I have had many different jobs. I have worked in Harrods and John Lewis in London, I worked in a hotel and a factory – but I didn’t enjoy that much. My last job before retirement was as a linguist with Eurotunnel reservations using the skills I picked up on my travels.

I am 71 now and still a drummer and drum major. I play at the Berlin tattoo and the Rosenmontag festivals. I also play with the Targe of Gordon Drum and Pipe Band in Germany.

The pipe major has done some research and found that some of the circus elephants are still in a zoo there.

They live for a long time and have great memories. I will be in Germany this summer and I am hoping I will find Bonnie. I became very attached to her while caring for her and performing with her in the circus. It would be wonderful to see her after all this time.

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