Highland Heritage – the Forbes Family and their Scottish Roots

Eleanor Boba

I believe, although he would scarcely have admitted it, that the well-known Scotch feeling of “pride in being a Scotchman” lay hidden in a corner of his heart. (Sarah Forbes Hughes on her father, John Murray Forbes)

The Forbes family was Scottish. Scottish as a thistle. Although by the time the Forbes House was built in 1833 the family had been in the Americas for the better part of a century, there is no denying its Scottish origins. The names Forbes, Murray, and Bennet are well represented throughout the extended family, testifying to the tight-knit clan relationships where cousins often married cousins.

Brothers Robert Bennet Forbes (1804-1889) and John Murray Forbes (1771-1831) maintained a fondness for the ancestral home of their grandparents. The Forbes House Museum has, among its many artifacts from around the globe, a number of pieces of Scottish origin or inspiration. The painting above, “Ghillie’s Charge,” depicts a young lad in Scottish attire attending to a party of hunting dogs. A ghillie or gillie was a young servant of the hunt. The painter is W.W. Morris of the Scottish School; the painting is dated about 1868.

A Forbes chief from The Clans of the Scottish Highlands, 1845. The clan’s motto is “Grace, me guide.”

The history of Clan Forbes in the old country reads like a Shakespearean play (particularly the Scottish Play!), full of bloody deeds, fatal alliances, burned castles, proud women, and a bear.

The story goes that an Irishman named Ochonchar (or O’Chonchar), upon arriving in the north of Scotland in the 13th century, slew a fierce bear and gave himself the honorific “For Bear.” It should be noted that in early days the name Forbes was pronounced in two syllables – “For-bes.” It should also be noted that there are at least a half-dozen variations of the story.

By the next century, the Forbes were established in the North of Scotland around Aberdeenshire, alternately in and out of favor with the Scottish kings. The family was well-endowed with wealth and property, although one branch came close to losing it all. It seems that in 1303 Sir Alexander de Forbes defended Urquhart Castle on Loch Ness from Edward I and an English invasion. The castle fell, the defenders were massacred, and this branch of the Forbes family might have ended right there had not a pregnant Mistress Forbes slipped out of the besieged fortress disguised as a beggarwoman and fled to Ireland where she gave birth to a Forbes heir, or so the story goes.

It is tempting to see an Irish connection in the stories of O’Chonchar and Lady Forbes – one that might have given the Forbes brothers sympathy for the plight of the Irish during the Great Famine and inspired their relief mission of 1847.

The Jacobite Uprising of 1745 was a watershed moment in the history of the clans. As Protestants, Clan Forbes chose to support the Hanoverians against the forces of Bonnie Prince Charlie. As a result, the Forbes family avoided the fate of most Highland clans who paid a large price for their support of the failed rebellion, including loss of lands and titles.

Brothers John Murray Forbes and Robert Bennet Forbes were also descended from Clan Murray on their grandmother’s side. The Murrays, also a long-established Highland clan, had a more complicated history with the Jacobites – some members being prominently associated with the Young Pretender, while others opposed the rebellion. Dolly Murray, Robert and John’s grandmother, was born in the very year of the rebellion, in London. It is interesting to note that her father, James Murray, beat it out of Great Britain shortly after the rebellion, taking his young family to the not-yet-United States about 1750.

The tartan of Clan Murray, the Atholl branch. The clan’s motto is “Furth, Fortune, and Fill the Fetters.”

Both clans boast of castles in the old country, some intact, others, like Urquhart Castle, in ruins. Castle Forbes, located in Alford, Aberdeenshire, is the home of the current Chief of Clan Forbes. Although medieval in design, the castle was built about 1815 on the site of, and incorporating, an older home. The structure is an example of the Gothic Revival.

An engraving of Castle Forbes in the Museum collection taken from a drawing by John Preston Neale (1780-1847), a renowned landscape draughtsman. The engraver was John Bishop.

The Scottish Legacy

So, what did the Forbes boys inherit from their Scottish forebears? Traditionally, it is said that Scots are dour, hard-working, and, shall we say, thrifty. From this distance it is, of course, dangerous to make assumptions about the character of John and Robert or any of their kin. We can perhaps say that they were hard-working and, at least later in life, not profligate of their hard-won wealth.

And while the term “clannish” has taken on a negative connotation, Sarah Forbes’ words about her father, John Murray Forbes, and his generosity to family put a positive spin on the attribute.

“At least one trait came to him from the old Highland clan, namely, an intense interest in all his relatives far and near, and a feeling of his responsibility towards them to the sixth generation. The thought of a relation’s becoming bankrupt was horrible to him, and many a plunge he took into distasteful business in order to prevent such a catastrophe, or to remedy it, as far as possible, if it had already occurred.” (Letters and Recollections of John Murray Forbes, Vol.I, edited by Sarah Forbes Hughes, 1899, p. 2)

We know, for example, that John Murray Forbes arranged a post for his brother Robert Bennet in China at a time when the elder brother was in financial straits.

The Forbes House Museum includes this Scottish-themed armorial punch bowl in its collection. Dated approximately 1805, the bowl is embellished with the Scottish thistle, as well as the crest and mottoes of the Forbes family “Non temere” (Do not fear!) and ‘The Forbes’s for Ever.’

Mrs. Hughes also cites her father’s tendency toward romanticism, a common sentiment among Scottish emigrant families during the 19th century and one fanned by the literary works of the Big Three: Sir Walter Scott, Robert Burns, and Robert Louis Stevenson.

“This showed itself in his regard for Sir Walter Scott’s novels and poems, which had been the delight of his youth. There seemed to be, so to speak, an atmosphere of Scott about the place. Horses were named Ivanhoe, Redgauntlet, Douglas, Bruce, Rob Roy, and Mosstrooper; we children had Scott read to us from seven years old onward; and I can remember his coming frequently to my bed side, and half reciting, half chanting, the ballads, until I grew too sleepy to listen.” (Ibid., pp. 27-28)

The Forbes brothers did not confine themselves to dreaming of a romanticized Scotland. Robert Bennet Forbes traveled to Scotland and visited the graves of his ancestors. In his memoirs he writes:

“I have several times visited the place where their dust remains, on the occasion of my last visit, in 1869, I ordered a tablet erected within the walls of Strathdon Church, in commemoration of them.” (Personal Reminiscences, Robert Bennet Forbes, 1882, p. 2)

The Forbes brothers might have agreed with the sentiment expressed by Robert Burns:

“My heart’s in the Highlands wherever I go.”

A Scottish lass and laddie, complete with bagpipes, appear scrimshawed on sperm whale teeth. Scrimshaw is the process of carving on ivory or bone, often of whales a form of art practiced notably by sailors from the 18th through the 20th century. Today the practice of scrimshaw, like whaling, is largely frowned upon. (From the Museum Collection)