Forbes Surname Meaning, History & Origin
Forbes is a Scottish clan name in Aberdeenshire. Originally it
was pronounced in two syllables, “for” and “bays,” but that is now lost.
Forbes is said to have come from the Gaelic term forb-ais, meaning “at the
land.” However, a number of other theories
origin of Forbes abound.
Clan tradition generally associates the name with the slaying of a wild
boar (the heads of three boars adorn their coat of arms).
Forbes gathering cry of “Lonach” comes from the name of a hill at
Strathdon in Aberdeenshire where the clan assembled in times of
trouble. Forbes men still march at the annual Lonach Highland
In Ireland, the Forbes name can be an anglicization of the Gaelic Firbhisigh, a personal name
composed of the elements “man” and “prosperity.” MacFirbhisigh was the name
of a celebrated family of historians and antiquarians in Connacht.
Forbes Resources on
- Clan Forbes. Forbes clan history.
- Clan Forbes. Forbes clan website.
- Forbes House Museum – Treasures of the
Forbes museum in Milton, Mass.
Forbes is a place-name in Aberdeenshire and the first Forbes of the
clan to hold that name was John de Forbes in the early 13th century.
Alexander de Forbes was made governor of Urquhart castle near Inverness
and defended it against Edward I of England in 1304. He was
forced to surrender with his garrison, but the English then put every
man alive to the sword – except for the governor’s pregnant wife:
opened and the English saw a beggar woman emerge, apparently
involuntarily. 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. The English believed this
account and allowed her to pass.”
She managed to escape to Ireland and there delivered a son. This
eventually returned to Scotland and it was from his son, Sir John of
the Black Lip, that
the various Forbes branches in Scotland traced their descent.
The main line of Forbes, from their stronghold at Druminor castle, were
prominent at various times in Scottish
history. They were early among the Highland clans to adopt the
Protestant faith, putting themselves at odds with their neighbors, the Gordons.
The present Lord Forbes is the 22nd of the line to bear the title.
Other Forbes lines were those of Corse (and Craigievar),
Pitsligo (and Newe), and Tolquhoun:
- the Corse line included early
planters in Ireland
- the Pitsligo Forbes supported the Jacobites and
were attainted after the battle of Culloden
- while the Tolquhoun Forbes lost everything in the Darien scheme
One branch of
Tolquhouns prospered as the lairds of Culloden House. They
John” Forbes, the wine lover, and Duncan Forbes, who was the
Justice of Scotland at the time of the 1745 uprising.
Banffshire, to the north of Aberdeen, produced two notable Forbeses:
Sir John, the distinguished doctor who was physician to Queen Victoria
from 1841 until his death in 1861; and his brother Alexander, an early
merchant and writer in what was then Spanish America. His California: A History of Upper and Lower
California was published in 1839.
Ireland. The MacFirbises, later anglicized as Forbes,
were the compilers of the Book of
Lecan in 1417 and of other important works on Irish
history. Their base was Lacken in county Sligo where Ciothruadh
MacFirbis had built a castle, now known as Forbes castle, in
1560. However, the last of these scholars, Duald MacFirbis, was
murdered by English troops in 1670 and their influence ended as the old
Gaelic order came down.
The Scots brought the Forbes name to Ireland and in particular to
county Longford, where Sir Arthur Forbes of Corse (later Lord Granard)
granted land in 1620 and the family built their own Castle Forbes
in what was to become Newtown-Forbes. They have remained in
Forbes was a British general in America in the 1750’s best known for
capturing from the French the town now known as Pittsburgh.
Forbes Avenue, the longest street in Pittsburgh, and Forbes Field, the
former baseball stadium, were named after him.
Forbes in Boston
The Forbes of Boston began with the Rev. John Forbes, a descendant of
the Scottish Newe Forbes, who married Dolly Murray in Milton,
Massachusetts on Boston’s south shore in 1769.
His descendants are considered part of the Boston Brahmins. It
was John’s grandson, John Murray Forbes, who built up the family
fortunes through trade in China and a judicious investment in
railroads. His son William Hathaway was an early backer of
Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone company and his son William Cameron
was the American Governor-General of the Philippines. The Forbes were
and are widely connected and include in their number John
the 2004 Presidential candidate.
Forbes in New York
Another Forbes dynasty was started by B.C. Forbes from Aberdeen who had
emigrated to New York in 1904 and worked as a newspaper writer and
editor before founding Forbes
magazine in 1917. He remained its editor-in-chief until his death
in 1954. The magazine then passed to his son Malcolm, a more
flamboyant character who lived life in the fast lane.
in Tangiers to host his 70th birthday party. Spending an
estimated $2.5 million, he chartered a Boeing 747, a DC-8, and a
Concorde to fly in eight hundred of the world’s rich and famous from
New York and London. The guests included his friend Elizabeth
Taylor, Gianni Agnelli, Barbara Walters, Henry Kissinger, half a dozen
US state governors, and a host of CEO’s likely to advertise in his
After Malcolm came his son Steve, a Republican candidate in the US
Presidential primaries of 1996 and 2000.
Forbes is an important name in the early history of California. James Alexander
Forbes had arrived there from Scotland via South America as
early as 1831, marrying and settling down near San Jose. In 1854
he built a flour mill there, now known as Forbes Mill, with hopes of
golden returns. Unfortunately the mill, poorly constructed, did
badly and Forbes was bankrupted.
Bermuda. In 1735 Dr.
George Forbes from Strathdon in Aberdeenshire arrived in Bermuda where
he fell in love with and married Mary Jones, the daughter of a local
merchant there, and became a prominent member of the community.
His grandson Francis, a lawyer, migrated to Australia in 1823 when he
was appointed Chief Justice of New South Wales.
Australia. Sir Charles
Forbes of Newe never visited Australia, but his name was honored there
Forbes, the scene of a convict uprising in 1833.
Another Forbes in NSW, this time in the Lachlan valley, was named after
its Chief Justice, Sir Francis Forbes.
Scottish immigrants Donald and Ethel Forbes began farming at Karadoc in
NW Victoria in 1911. Later Forbes diversified into winemaking in
1971 and the Forbes Zilzie wines are now well-established.
New Zealand. Robert and
Margaret Forbes from Aberdeenshire were early arrivals in New Zealand,
on the Slains Castle in 1841.
They settled in Onehunga near Auckland. Robert died in 1849 and
Margaret spent her remaining years battling poverty and injustice in
raising her six children.
Forbes Name Origins. The traditions regarding the origin of the Forbes surname are various; and some of them quite fanciful.
The principal tradition states that this name was first assumed by one
Ochonchar from Ireland who, having slain a ferocious bear in that
district, took the name of Forbear, now spelled and pronounced Forbes,
in two syllables; although the English, in pronunciation, made it only
one. In consequence of this feat the Forbes carry in their arms
the heads of three bears.
A variation of this story has it that the actor in this daring exploit
was desirous of exhibiting his courage to a young and beautiful heiress
named Bess. On receiving her hand as his reward, he assumed it to
commemorate his “having the bear ‘for Bess.'”
Another tradition maintains that the name of the founder of the family
originally Bois, a follower of one of the early Scots kings. On
granting him certain lands for some extraordinary service, his Majesty
observed that they were “for Boice.” The surname here is
territorial and said to be Celtic from the Gaelic word ferbash or ferbasach, a bold man.
It seems more likely to have been originally forbois, of Latin-French
derivation, signifying a wild wood country where bears abounded.
According to Skene in his treatise De
Verborum Significatione, Duncan Forbois got from King Alexander
(but from which of the three kings of that name is not mentioned) a
of the lands and heritage of Forbois in Aberdeenshire, whence the
In the reign of King William the Lion, John de Forbes possessed the lands of that name. His son, Fergus de Forbes, had a charter of the same from Alexander Earl of Buchan, around 1296.
Bumper John Forbes. In 1625 Duncan Forbes purchased Culloden House in Inverness from
the Macintosh chieftain and the Forbes family began their nearly 300
year history with it. Descended from the Forbes of Tolquhoun, he
was an example of a wealthy urban merchant leaving trade to set his
family up as landowners and lairds.
The Forbes were known for their lavish lifestyle and generous
hospitality. The 4th Laird of Culloden’s nickname “Bumper John”
came from his fondness for French wines. Around 1730, the author
of the book Letters from A Gentleman in the North of Scotland wrote
the following about Bumper John:
“There lives in a house or castle
called Culloden, a gentleman whose hospitality is almost without
bounds. It is the custom of that house at the first visit or
introduction to take up your freedom by cracking his nut (as he terms
it), – that is a coconut shell which holds a pint filled with champagne
or such other sort of wine as you shall choose.
You may guess that few go away
sober at any time; and for the greatest part of his guests, in that
conclusion, they cannot go at all. A hogshead of fine claret was
kept in the hall so that guests or even passer-bys could refresh
themselves with a pint of claret.”
Castle Forbes’ Graveyard. Behind the castle in Newtown-Forbes in county
Longford was the legendary graveyard. In early times the deceased
of the parish were buried there. However, the 4th Earl of Granard
passed a rule that said that only his family could be buried there.
The law made a lot of
people angry. Some even buried their relatives there under the
cover of darkness. Usually Lord Granard found out about this and had
the corpse thrown off the castles property and onto the roadside.
There was one man of
the parish who fell sick and, when dying, asked his sons to bury him in
the graveyard where his father had rested before him. He also
requested that a blackthorn stick be put in his right hand so that if
anyone should disturb him people would hear about it. The man
died and his directions were faithfully carried out. Lord Granard
found the corpse and ordered it to be removed. The next day the
people learnt that the Earl of Granard was dead.
The Forbes and the Emersons. Edward Waldo Emerson, Ralph Waldo Emerson’s son, published a biography
of John Murray Forbes in the September 1899 issue of Atlantic
magazine. The Emerson and Forbes families were close. John
Murray’s son, William Forbes, had married Ralph’s daughter, Edith
In Letters and Social Aims, Ralph Waldo Emerson had written
somewhat flatteringly of Forbes as follows:
“Never was such force, good meaning,
good sense, good action, combined with such domestic lovely behavior,
such modesty and persistent preference for others. Wherever he
moved he was the benefactor. How little this man suspects,
with his sympathy for men and his respect for lettered and scientific
people, that he is not likely, in any company, to meet a man superior
to himself. I think this is a good country that can bear such a
creature as he.”
James Alexander Forbes in California. In 1834 James married Ana María Galindo, daughter
of the majordomo of Mission Santa Clara de Asis. The Forbes family lived on
Rancho Potrero de Santa Clara, a 1,940 acre Mexican land grant near San
Jose received from Governor Micheltorena in 1844. The rancho and cattle
were sold in 1847
to American Commodore Robert F. Stockton for $10,500, a high price for
The couple had a total of twelve
children, three daughters and nine sons. In 1851 he persuaded the
establish a school at Mission Santa Clara to educate his sons.
formed the basis of what would become Santa Clara University. Five of the Forbes sons were
the first class at Santa Clara College.
However, his principal commercial venture, the flour mill that he built
outside San Jose, ended in failure.
Castle Forbes, Australia. In Aberdeen James Mudie was given the opportunity for a new life when
Sir Charles Forbes offered him a free passage to New South
Wales. Grateful to Forbes, Mudie arrived there with his
four children in July 1822. He soon received a land grant in the
Hunter valley which he named Castle Forbes in honor of his patron.
Mudie was reportedly a cruel man to his servants and in 1833 Castle
Forbes was the scene of a convict uprising that was savagely put
down. The incident, however, led to a lot of publicity about the
cruel treatment to convicts.
The Castle Forbes estate was broken up and sold off in small lots
Select Forbes Names
Sir John Forbes is generally
considered the forebear of the various Forbes clan
branches in Scotland. He lived in the 14th century.
Duncan Forbes of Culloden was
the fair-minded Lord Justice of Scotland at the time of the 1745
John Murray Forbes was the
Boston businessman who made his fortune in the 19th century through
trade with China and railroad investing.
George Forbes was Prime
Minister of New Zealand from 1930 to 1935.
Malcolm Forbes was the
flamboyant owner and editor of Forbes
magazine from 1954 until his death in 1980.
Select Forbes Numbers Today
- 18,000 in the UK (most numerous
- 12,000 in America (most numerous in California)
- 18,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Canada)
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