Back to Fiona's Finding Service
Back to Index | Previous page | Next page


BADGE: Bealaidh (spartium scorparium) common broom

SLOGAN: Lonach

PIBROCH: Cath Glen Eurainn

As in the case of many other of the Highland clans, there are traditions which trace back the genealogy of the Forbeses to the blood of the early Celtic kings of Scotland, and through them to a still more remote ancestry in the royal race of Ireland. These traditions, in so far as they concern the Clan Forbes, are detailed at length in a brochure by the Honourable Mrs. Forbes of Brux, published at Aberdeen in 1911, and entitled Who was Kenneth I, King of Scots ? This pamphlet claims a descent for the chiefs of the clan from Kenneth II - he who finally defeated the Picts at Cambuskenneth in 838, and united the kingdoms of Picts and Scots - and behind him, through a more or less hazy ancestry of individuals whose relationships are difficult to make out, such as Forbhasach, son of a Lord of Ossory, slain in 755, Forbasa, Abbot of Rath Aedha in the sixth century, and the like, to the misty chiefs of the early Irish Hy Nial. That these traditions have been held by the Clan for hundreds of years is shown by the facts that the Chiefs, down to the battle of Duplin in 1332, were known by the name O'Choncar, that more than one later chief, like James O'Chonacar the 17th Baron, at the end of the eighteenth century, bore the name of those early Celtic ancestors, that a son of the second Lord Forbes in 1476 had his lands on Deeside erected into the barony of O'Neil, and that a Master of Forbes as long ago as 1632, in the report of an interview, made an allusion to relationship, believed to date from early Celtic times, between his own race and the race of the MacKays, of which Lord Reay was the head. The descriptive name Forbhasach, "bold forehead", appears to have been common in those times; but as patronymics did not then exist, the name cannot be said to have been that of a family, or succession of holders from father to son.

Whatever may be the truth about the remotest ancestry of the clan, and whatever might be the relationship of early individuals bearing names more or less resembling that of Forbes, it seems dear that the cognomen at present borne by the chiefs and others of the race was derived from the lands of Forbes in Aberdeenshire. In the brochure already alluded to it is claimed that these lands have been possessed uninterruptedly by the Forbes chiefs in right of their descent from the early Scottish kings, who personally owned them. In 1736 the fifteenth baron wrote: "We know of no person by tradition, nor the history of anyone, who possessed the lands of Forbes before ourselves". At any rate, in the days of William the Lion the lands were in possession of the family, the first of the name upon record being John de Forbes. From Fergus de Forbes, the son of this individual, all the Scottish families of the name are believed to have descended. The lands were formally granted by charter to the head of the house by King Alexander II about the middle of the thirteenth century, and towards the close of that century the owner played a part in a striking episode which brought his race into prominence on the page of Scottish history.

This owner was Alexander, eldest son of Fergus de Forbes, above mentioned. As governor of the royal castle of Urquhart on Loch Ness, he made a spirited defence of that stronghold against the army of Edward I of England in 1303. The Scottish garrison was hard pressed, and presently it became evident that it would be starved into surrender. The governor did not regard his own fate, but he had with him in the castle his wife, then about to become a mother, and for her safety and the preservation of the succession of his family he was most anxious that a means should be found of conveying her through the English lines. One day the gate of the castle opened, and the English saw a beggar woman driven forth. The tale she told was that she had happened to be inside the castle when the siege began, but that now, as provisions were running short, the garrison were no longer willing to feed a useless mouth, and had driven her out. Believing this tale, the English allowed her to pass, and the governor had the satisfaction of seeing her make her way to safety. Shortly afterwards the castle fell, and Forbes with his entire garrison was put to the sword. His wife, however, shortly afterwards gave birth to a son, and the succession of the Forbes family was preserved. The gallant governor who thus fell is said to have been otherwise known as O'Chonochar, and according to tradition he, or a predecessor, was buried under a rock in Glen Urquhart, known to this day as Innis O'Connochar, The name is said to have been used by the chiefs of Clan Forbes down to a recent period.

To the posthumous son of the brave governor of Urquhart Castle, King Robert the Bruce granted certain lands adjoining those already owned by him in Aberdeenshire. This head of the house, who was also named Alexander was with the host under the Regent Earl of Mar which was surprised by Edward Baliol at Duplin in 1332, and he was among those who fell in that disastrous battle. His son, Sir John Forbes, was a distinguished personage in the reigns of Robert II and Robert III. His wife was a daughter of Kennedy of Dunure, ancestor of the noble house of Ailsa, and, of their four sons, the second, Sir William, became ancestor of the Lords Pitsligo; the third, Sir John, of the Forbeses of Culloden, Watertown and Foveran; and the youngest, Alexander, of the Forbeses of Brux.

The eldest son, Sir Alexander de Forbes, when King James I was a prisoner in England, led a following of a hundred horse and forty spearmen to France, where he fought against the English under Henry V at the battle of Beauge in 1421 and is immortalised by the poet Ariosto. Later in life - some time between 1436 and 1442 - he was created a Lord of Parliament by James II. His wife was a daughter of George, Earl of Angus, and a granddaughter of King Robert III, and his eldest son, the second baron, married a daughter of William, first Earl Marischal, and granddaughter of the first Lord Hamilton and the Princess Mary, daughter of King James II. Of this second baron's three sons, Duncan of Corsindie became ancestor of the Forbeses of Pitsligo and other families, while Patrick of Corse, who was armour-bearer to James III, became ancestor of the Forbeses of Craigievar and the Forbes Earls of Granard in Ireland.

According to Macfarlane's Genealogical History, the Forbes Chiefs had the whole ruling and guiding of the King's affairs in the district between Forfar and Caithness shires down to the year 1500. Alexander, the fourth baron, in 1488, after the death of James III at Sauchieburn, where Forbes himself had taken part, displayed the bloody shirt of the murdered king on a spear, and, marching through the north country, summoned all loyal subjects to rise and execute vengeance. He succeeded in getting together a large force, but on learning of the defeat of the Earl of Lennox in the south, he laid down his arms, and was pardoned and received into favour by the youthful James IV.

John, the sixth Lord Forbes, was three times married. His first wife was Catherine, daughter of John Stewart, Earl of Athol, the half-brother of James II, her mother being the famous Fair Maid of Galloway, heiress of the great race of the Black Douglases, who had first been successively married to her cousin William, Earl of Douglas, stabbed by James II in Stirling Castle, and afterwards to his brother James, last of the Douglas Earls, who was overthrown by King James II and ended his days as a monk in the Abbey of Lindores. By his first wife Lord Forbes had one surviving daughter, who married the Laird of Grant. By his second wife, a daughter of the Laird of Lundin, he had two sons, John and William. Of these, the elder, John, was that Master of Forbes whose dark and turbulent career furnishes one of the most outstanding episodes in the reign of James V.

Already, in 1527, a fierce feud between the families of Forbes and Lesley had, with its ramifications through the districts of Mar, Garioch, and Aberdeen, plunged the country in blood. Among others of the lawless acts of the Master of Forbes was his murder of Seton of Meldrum, and he was known to have lent his services to further the schemes of Henry VIII against Scotland. The Master had married a sister of the Earl of Angus, the ambitious chief of the Douglases, who had married the widow of James IV and for long exercised royal power during the boyhood of James V. On the midnight escape of James from Falkland, to assume royal power, and banish the Douglases from the kingdom, the Master of Forbes took a vigorous part in the schemes by which their friends endeavoured to secure their return. He appears in particular to have been the moving spirit who induced the Scottish lords at Wark to mutiny against the Regent Albany, and in 1536 he was accused by the Earl of Huntly of a design to shoot King James himself as he passed through Aberdeen. Upon these charges he and his father, Lord Forbes, were both imprisoned. The father was acquitted amid much popular rejoicing, but the Master was condemned and executed, declaring himself innocent of treason, but acknowledging that he ought to die for the murder of the Laird of Meldrum. The trial and execution of the Master of Forbes took place on 14th July 1538, and two days later the beautiful Janet Douglas, Lady Glamis, sister of the banished Earl of Angus, was condemned and burnt to death for conspiring to poison the king. An account of these mysterious events is to be found in Pitcairn's Criminal Trials of Scotland. That the king believed the Forbes family, apart from the Master of Forbes, to have no part in the crime is shown by the fact that Lord Forbes was speedily set at liberty, that no attempt was made to forfeit the family estates, and that William, the Master's younger brother, was appointed to an office in the royal household.

In the reign of James V's daughter, Mary Stewart, the feud between the Forbeses and their neighbours the Gordons came to a height. The Gordons were the great upholders of the Roman Catholic Church in the north, while the Forbeses were steady supporters of the Reformation. In the transactions of the time Adam Gordon of Auchendoun, the Earl of Huntly's brother, played a conspicuous part. After Gordon had defeated the Forbeses in one hard-fought battle, the Regent Earl of Mar gave the Master of Forbes some horsemen and five companies of foot to support an attempt at dislodging the Gordons, who had taken possession of Aberdeen. Forbes, however, fell into an ambuscade laid for him by Gordon, a certain Captain Carr with a party of hagbutters doing great execution among his ranks, along with a company of bowmen from Sutherlandshire in the service of Auchendoun, On this occasion the Master of Forbes was defeated and taken prisoner.

It is worth noting here, as a clue to some of the ill-feeling between the Forbeses and the Gordons, that the Master of Forbes here mentioned, and who afterwards became eighth Lord, had married a daughter of the Earl of Huntly, and had divorced her, as the notorious Earl of Bothwell had divorced her sister, Lady Jean Gordon, in order to marry Queen Mary.

Another episode of the strife between the two clans was even more dramatic than that above mentioned. Part of it is related in one of the best known Scottish ballads, "Edam 0' Gordon". It was in 1571, when Adam Gordon was Acting Deputy-Lieutenant for Queen Mary's party in the north, and in the late autumn following the incident above narrated. The Gordons summoned the House of Tavoy or Corgarf, belonging to John Forbes to yield. Forbes' lady, a daughter of Campbell of Cawdor, refused to do this without her husband's instructions, and thereupon the Gordons fired the house and she and her family and attendants, twenty-seven persons, were burnt within. The ballad relates in true folk-song fashion the lady's proud colloquy from her towerhead with the enemy and its cruel answer:

Out, then, spake the Lady Margaret
As she stood on the stair;
The fire was at her gowd garters
The lowe was at her hair.

But the climax is reached when the lady's daughter, suffocating in the smoke, begs to be rolled in a pair of sheets, and dropped over the wall. The fair burden is received on the point of Gordon's spear.

Oh, bonnie, bonnie, was her mouth,
And cherry were her cheeks,
And clear, clear was her yellow hair,
Whereon the red bluid dreeps.

Then wi' his spear he turned her ower -
Oh, gin her face was wan !
He said, "You are the first that e'er
I wished alive again !"

He turned her ower and ower again -
Oh, gin her skin was white !
He said, "I might ha'e spared thy life,
To ha'e been some man's delight ! "

The burning of Corgarf, thus chronicled, had a sequel which affords a striking illustration of the manners of feudal times. The incident is related in Picken's Traditional Stories of Old Families, from which it may be quoted: "Subsequent to this tragical affair", says the writer, "a meeting for reconciliation took place between a select number of the heads of the two houses in Lord Forbes' castle of Druminor. The difference being at length made up, both parties sat down to a feast. The eating being ended, the parties were at their drink.

"Now", said Huntly to his neighbour chief, "as this business has been satisfactorily settled, tell me, if it had not been so, what it was your intention to have done". "There would have been bloody work", said Forbes, "bloody work, and we would have had the, best of it. I will tell you. See, we are mixed one and one, Forbeses and Gordons; I had only to give a sign by the stroking down of my beard, and every Forbes was to have drawn the skean from under his left arm, and stabbed to the heart his right-hand man". As he spoke, Forbes suited the sign to the word, and stroked down his flowing beard. In a moment a score of skeans were out, flashing in the light of the pine torches held behind the guests. In another moment they were buried in as many hearts; for the Forbeses, whose eyes constantly watched their chief, mistaking this involuntary motion for the agreed sign of death, struck their weapons into the bodies of the unsuspecting Gordons. The chiefs looked at each other in silent consternation. At length Forbes said, "This is a sad tragedy we little expected; but what is done cannot be undone, and the blood that now flows on the floor of Druminor will just help to slocken the auld fire of Cargarf".

After the murder of the Bonnie Earl of Moray at Dunnibristle in 1592, Lord Forbes, who was Moray's close friend and the feudal enemy of his murderer, the Earl of Huntly, marched with the slain man's bloody shirt on a spear's head through his territories, and incited his followers to revenge.

John, son of the Lord Forbes who played a part in so many tragic incidents, and of Lady Margaret Gordon, above referred to, was much revered for his pious life. He adhered to the Roman Catholic Church, and his fame is remembered to the present day under the name he took of "Father Archangel". His escape from Scotland to Antwerp in the disguise of a shepherd's boy was one of the romances of that time. He took the habit of a Capuchin friar at Tournay in 1593, and is said to have converted 300 Scottish soldiers to Catholicism at Dixmude. In 1606, only six weeks after succeeding to the peerage, he died of the plague at Ghent while visiting those attacked by that disease. A Latin life of him by Faustinus Cranius was translated into English, French, and Italian.

The tenth Lord Forbes was one of the Scottish nobles and soldiers of fortune who in the first half of the seventeenth century won fame under the banners of Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden. In those wars he attained the rank of Lieutenant General, and after his return to Scotland, he was sent to Ireland in 1643 as one of the commanders entrusted with the suppression of the rebellion there against Charles I.

The twelfth baron was a Lieutenant-Colonel of the Horse Guards in the latter years of the seventeenth century, and was made a. member of the Privy Council by King William III. His elder son, the thirteenth baron had his own troubles in the events of his time, since his wife, a daughter of William Dale of Covent Garden, lost no less a sum than £20,000 through rash investment in the great South Sea Bubble. The sixteenth baron was appointed Deputy-Governor of Fort William in 1764, and the post was evidently not altogether a sinecure, since he died there forty years later.

The seventeenth baron, already mentioned as bearing the name James O'Choncar, distinguished himself as Colonel of the 21st Fusiliers. He served with the Coldstream Guards in Flanders under the Duke of York, and at the Helder under Sir Ralph Abercromby in 1799, attained the rank of General in the Napoleonic wars, and was made a Knight of the Royal Sicilian Order of St.Januarius. He was a representative peer for Scotland, acted as High Commissioner to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland from 1825 till 1830, and was created a baronet of Nova Scotia. His son, again, Walter, the eighteenth baron, commanded a company of the Coldstream Guards at Waterloo, and took part in the terrific struggle at the Chateau of Hougomont.

The nineteenth Lord, who succeeded in 1868, was premier baron of Scotland, a representative peer, and a Deputy-Lieutenant of Aberdeenshire.

Among the cadet branches of the family it is uncertain whether that of Pitsligo or that of Craigievar was the elder, there being a doubt as to which of their ancestors, Duncan and Patrick respectively, was second son and third son of the second Baron Forbes.

Pitsligo is said to have been acquired by marriage with a daughter of Fraser of Philorth in the middle of the sixteenth century; but a hundred years earlier, in 1448, John Forbes of Pitsligo was among those slain in the battle between the Lindsays and the Ogilvies over the justiciarship of the Abbey of Arbroath. The fourth and last Baron Forbes of Pitsligo was a noted Jacobite, who played a conspicuous part in the Earl of Mar 's rising in 1715. After living abroad for five years he was allowed to return, but having raised a regiment for Prince Charles Edward at the Jacobite rebellion of 1745, he was attainted, and lived in hiding till his death in 1762.

Meanwhile the second son of the union with the heiress of Pitsligo had founded another family. His eldest son, William Forbes, married Margaret, daughter of the ninth Earl of Angus, and their eldest son, another William, was created a baronet of Nova Scotia in 1626. The fourth baronet married a daughter of the Earl of Kintore, and John, the eldest son of this union, married Mary Forbes, daughter of the third Lord Forbes of Pitsligo, through whom, on the decease of John, Master of PitsJigo in 1781, her descendants became nearest heirs and representatives of that noble family. The sixth baronet, Sir William Forbes, was the famous Edinburgh banker of the eighteenth century. His second son was a Judge of the Court of Session under the title of Lord Medwyn, and the eighth baronet, who married a daughter of the sixth Marquess of Lothian, assumed the additional surname and arms of Hepburn, as heir of entail to the barony of Invermay, and as heir at law to the estate of Balmanno, on the death of Alexander Hepburn Murray Belshes.

The Forbeses of Newe are also descended from Duncan, son of the second Lord Forbes. Their immediate ancestor was William Forbes of Dauch and Newe, younger brother of Sir John Forbes created Lord Forbes of Pitsligo in 1633. The baronetcy dates from 1823, its first holder having been a merchant at Bombay. Ten years later, Sir Charles Forbes was served nearest heir-male general to Alexander, third Lord Pitsligo, and in the same year the Pitsligo arms and supporters were granted him by the Lord Lyon.

The Forbeses of Craigievar, again, are descended from Patrick of Corse, armour-bearer to James III, who for his services had bestowed upon him the barony of O'Neill. The second baron of O'Neill and laird of Corse was known significantly as Trail the Axe. The fifth took an active part in the settlement of the Church after the Reformation and was for seventeen years Bishop of Aberdeen; and his son, Dr. John Forbes of Corse, was Professor of Theology in King's College, Aberdeen, and author of many valuable works. The present line is descended from the brother of the Bishop, William Forbes of Craigievar, which, by the way, means the "Rock of Mar". It was his son who, in 1630, was created a baronet of Nova Scotia. He commanded a troop of horse on the Parliament side in the Civil Wars, and was active otherwise in the public business of his time. His son, again, known as "the Red Sir John", did much to repair the fortunes of his house, which had suffered seriously during the Civil Wars, and he sat repeatedly in the Scottish Parliament. Later heads of the house also distinguished themselves, and Sir William, the eighth baronet, inherited the Sempill peerage as representative of the Hon. Sarah Sempill, eldest daughter of John, twelfth Lord Sempill and wife of Sir William, the fifth baronet of Craigievar. The next representative of the house, his son, Sir John Forbes Sempill, eighteenth Baron Sempill, served through the Sudan and South African campaigns.

Still another notable family of the clan has been that of the Earls of Granard in Ireland who are descended from Sir Arthur, sixth son of Trail the Axe above referred to. Sir Arthur settled in Ireland in 162~ and obtained extensive territorial possessions from the crown in the county of Longford. These were erected into the Manor of Castle Forbes, and Sir Archibald was made a baronet of Nova Scotia in 1628. Four years later, as Lieutenant-Colonel, he accompanied his regiment to take part in the wars of Gustavus Adolphus, and was killed in a duel at Hamburg. His eldest son distinguished himself under the Marquess of Montrose in the Civil Wars, and after the Restoration was made a Privy Councillor, Marshal of the Army in Ireland, and one of the Lords Justices, before he was raised to the peerage in 1673. A year later he raised the eighteenth Royal Irish Regiment, and was made Earl of Granard. The second Earl was imprisoned by William the Third in the Tower, served in Turenne, and took part at the battle of Saspach and the siege of Buda. The third Earl, distinguished in public service, naval, military, and political, died senior admiral of the British Navy. The sixth Earl, who opposed the Union with Great Britain, was made a peer of the United Kingdom as Baron Granard of Castle Donington in Leicestershire, a mansion which figured conspicuously in the public eye as the place of internment of German officer prisoners during the war of 1914. And the present Earl of Granard, eighth of his line, has highly distinguished himself in public service as a Lord in Waiting, Assistant Postmaster-General, and Master of the Horse, as well as special Ambassador to announce the accession of King George V at the courts of Lisbon, Madrid, the Hague, Brussels, Copenhagen, Stockholm, and Christiania.

Among other distinguished bearers of the name of Forbes, the most famous was Duncan Forbes of Culloden, President of the Court of Session, whose exertions at the time of the last Jacobite rebellion did much to prevent a general rising of the Highland clans, and to preserve the throne for George II. Duncan Forbes was descended, through the family of Tolquhon in Aberdeenshire, from Sir John, third son of Sir John de Forbes, who died in 1405. He purchased Culloden from the laird of MacIntosh in 1726, and, according to Marshal Wade, could count upon a Highland following of 200 men.

Altogether, from first to last, there is perhaps no Highland family which can boast so many branches highly distinguished in so many spheres of public life as that which has sprung from the stem of this ancient Aberdeenshire house.


Bannerman Fordyce Michie

Back to Fiona's Finding Service
Back to Index | Previous page | Next page