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Issue 68 - The clan Forbes

Scotland Magazine Issue 68
April 2013


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The clan Forbes

James Irvine Robertson looks at one of Scotland's great families

Clan Forbes takes its name from the lands and barony of Forbes by the river Don in Aberdeenshire. The word derives from the Gaelic forba, a field or district. According to James VI who reissued the charter to 'his trusty and well beloved cousin' Lord Forbes in 1582, the barony and lands had 'been in continued possession of his family in times past the memory of man.'

Alexander Forbes of Forbes was made Lord Forbes in 144O, which makes today's chief the 22nd Lord Forbes, the possessor oldest such title in Scotland and likely possessor of his lands for more than a millennium. He is a Lord of Parliament, the Scots equivalent of a baron.

The chief's arms are three bears heads muzzled. This commemorates an incident when a badtempered bear killed nine virgins and suffered the ultimate penalty at the hands of an early Forbes chief. But the animal in question may have been a boar so the clan crest shows this animal instead.

The origins of the Forbes family are obscure, but it was probably a branch of the Celtic royal dynasty, which by 1150 had become Earls of Mar. When the last of the Celtic Earls of Mar died in 1373, the Forbeses immediately took their place as hereditary leaders of the native people of Mar.

When Edward I swept through Scotland in 1304, Sir Alexander Forbes was in charge of Castle Urquhart on Loch Ness. Edward laid siege, took the castle and slaughtered all those within. A few days earlier, the castle gates had been opened and a beggar woman was expelled. When interrogated by the English, she said that provisions inside were all but exhausted and she was thrown out as being unnecessary mouth to feed. She was allowed to go on her way. She was, in fact, Sir Alexander's wife and she sought refuge in Ireland where she bore a posthumous son, another Sir Alexander, who received further grants of land from King Robert Bruce before dying at the Battle of Dupplin in 1332, fighting beside King David II.

His son and grandson continued to be amongst the great men of the nation and their offspring founded cadet houses of the clan in the northeast. In 1420 the chief took 150 spearmen to fight against the English in France. They fought in the Battle of Baugé, the Scots victory that led the Pope to remark 'The Scots are well-known as an antidote to the English."

But the clan was not immune to the debilitating feuds and petty politicking with neighbours that plagued the country. Forbes of Druminnor was betrothed to the Fair Maid of Kenmay, a Miss Bisset. But she ran off with Andrew Leslie of Pitscurry, so Forbes attacked the Leslie castle of Balquain and burnt it. Leslie then raised his followers, devastated Forbes lands and burnt Druminnor. The feud lasted a couple of centuries.

During the 15th and 16th centuries the clan was engaged in another long feud against the Gordons, each fighting to be the dominant clan in the North East. It reached a climax in the 1520s with murders committed by both sides occurring constantly. One of the most prominent of those killed by a Forbes action, Seton of Meldrum, was a close connection of the chief of the Gordons, the Earl of Huntly. He became involved in a plot aimed at the Master of Forbes (son of John, the 6th Lord Forbes), who was heavily implicated in the Seton murder.

In 1536 Huntly accused the Master of Forbes of conspiring to assassinate King James V while visiting Aberdeen by shooting at him with a cannon. The Master of Forbes was tried and executed, but within days his sentence was revoked and the Clan Forbes family restored to favour. But attacks by each family and their supporters were carried out more or less continuously throughout the remainder of the century, reducing Aberdeenshire to anarchy.

The Gordons were Catholic, the Forbeses Protestant and they took opposing sides in the civil war that erupted during the reign of Queen Mary. In 1571, two full-scale battles between the clans and their allies took place, the Battles of Tillieangus and Craibstone. Both resulted in defeats for Clan Forbes. The Gordons followed this up with the massacre of 27 Forbeses of Towie at Corgarff castle. Lady Forbes was in charge in her husband's absence and she refused to surrender without his authority. The castle was set on fire and all those inside burned. In an attempt to escape the flames Lady Forbes's daughter was lowered from the walls and received on the point of a spear.

Two acts of Parliament were required to force the clans to lay down their arms. King James VI confirmed the Forbes in their estates in 1582 but the cost of the struggles with the Gordons had created debts and much of the Forbes land had to be sold.

Of the many members of the clan who have served their nation, perhaps the greatest contribution was made by Duncan Forbes of Culloden. He was appointed Lord Advocate in 1725 and President of the Court of Session in 1737. As one of the most powerful men in country he did much to preserve the distinctiveness and integrity of Scotland after the Union. He foresaw the problems that would be created by the Highland warrior culture and advocated the formation of the Black Watch and further Highland regiments to absorb the young men into the British army.

At the outbreak of the Rising of 1745, he was largely instrumental in persuading the majority of the clans to avoid joining the Prince's army. He was vociferous in his opposition to Cumberland’s brutality and oppression afterwards and died in 1747 having never recovered from his despair at the government's actions. ‘One of the greatest that ever Scotland bred, both as a judge, a patriot, and a Christian.’