Phuket, Monday

A FORMER public schoolboy and son of a famous Scottish naturalist, who ''imagined he had been reborn as Roman Emperor Nero'', was the talk of the expat community on the Thai island of Phuket over his frolickings with naked sea gipsy children, a court heard today.

But James Fraser-Darling, son of Sir Frank Fraser-Darling, naturalist, ornithologist, and authority on the Scottish Highland and Hebrides, was just a ''lonely man'' interested in their culture, and the impact of tourism on their lives, a witness said.

The defence opened in the case against Fraser-Darling, who faces a total of 18 charges of indecency with young boys.

The 47-year-old academic from Edinburgh, who had a job teaching English in Thailand, protested that he was not the J Darling who had written an essay for a paedophile magazine about sex with boy pearl divers in the times of the Roman Empire.

''My name is Fraser-Darling, not Darling,'' he said after a book, allegedly found in his rented house, was presented to the court for the second time.

Fraser-Darling, whose brother Richard is a senior Foreign Office diplomat, had, according to earlier prosecution testimony, lured a number of young boy sea gipsies, who live by begging, fishing, and diving for pearl oysters, to commit sexual acts with him after he showered them with gifts.

After academic appointments in Brazil and India, he had secured a teaching post at the Prince of Songkhla University, Phuket, in the Andaman Sea. He rented a house next to the village of sea gipsies and spent his weekends with boys aged seven to 14, taking them to secluded nearby islands where they stripped naked. The prosecution claims it was on these trips and in his home that the sexual acts occurred.

But Bruce Stanley, 49, a Canadian who described himself as a teacher and journalist, told the court that he went on several trips with Fraser-Darling and the young boys and never saw anything untoward happening. The boys, he said, always took off their clothes. But there was nothing unusual in it.

Pictures were shown by defence counsel to Stanley of naked gipsy boys in tourist magazines. ''Yes, this is how they normally are,'' he said. The prosecution then showed an explicit photograph allegedly taken by Fraser-Darling of a naked boy and asked if it was pornographic.

''It's not one I care for,'' Stanley replied.

Stanley described his university colleague as a ''lonely man who wanted to become in-volved in the life of the village.''

''James was in charge of the English curriculum,'' he said. ''He was very popular with the students, who would come to see him after school for extra help. I took him home several times, and on one occasion there were 'chao lae' (sea gipsies) in his house. But this seemed to be irritating to him.

''I think the children were like his family. He was like an uncle to them. When someone died in their village he paid for the funeral. He also bought one family a boat. And he bought uniforms for those who went to school. He was very interested in their culture and worried about the impact of tourism on their village.

''There was concern in the local expat community. I told James: 'People are talking about how much time you spend with the chao lae. Why are you doing it? It is unusual.'

''But I never saw him doing anything to the children.''

Stanley said he exchanged books frequently with Fraser-Darling but he had not seen a book that carried an article by J Darling describing Roman orgies with young boys.

Outside the court, Stanley said: ''James is just eccentric. He imagines he is Emperor Nero, that he has been reborn as Emperor Nero. But he is a very educated man.''

The case against Fraser-Darling was investigated by the Children's Rights Protection Centre in Bangkok, Phu-ket Child-Watch, and the Coalition to Fight Against Child Exploitation, who notified the Thai police.

The case is being monitored by the Thai Interior Ministry, which is concerned about the targeting of Thailand by foreign paedophiles.

Fraser-Darling had earlier claimed he was a victim of a witch-hunt against paedo-philes by non-government or-ganisations. ''My family are not talking to me because of the publicity,'' he said.