Forbes Surname Meaning, History & Origin

Forbes Surname Meaning

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 about the 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).

The 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 Gathering.

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 Surname Resources on The Internet

Forbes Surname Ancestry

  • from Scotland (Aberdeenshire) and from Ireland (Sligo)
  • to America, Bermuda, South Africa and New Zealand

Scotland.  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:

“One day the gate of the castle had 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 son 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 Scottish 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 disaster.

One branch of Tolquhouns prospered as the lairds of Culloden House. They included Bumper John” Forbes, the wine lover, and Duncan Forbes, who was the Lord Chief 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) was granted land in 1620 and the family built their own Castle Forbes in what was to become Newtown-Forbes. They have remained in residence there.

America.  John 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 included in their number John Forbes Kerry, 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 Forbes, a more flamboyant character who lived life in the fast lane.

“In 1989, he chose the Palais Mendoub 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 magazine.”

After Malcolm came his son Steve, a Republican candidate in the US Presidential primaries of 1996 and 2000.

California. 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.

South Africa.  Two Forbes brothers, Alexander and David, were Scottish Byrne company migrants to Natal in 1850, with another brother James following them nine years later.

The brothers were active in farming, first in Natal and then in Transvaal where David acquired farms both from the Government and privately.  After David’s death in 1905, the next generation of Forbes took over.  They are remembered today for the preserved migrant letters that they wrote over a long period between 1850 and 1922.

Australia. Sir Charles Forbes of Newe never visited Australia, but his name was honored there in Castle 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 Surname Miscellany

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 was 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 charter of the lands and heritage of Forbois in Aberdeenshire, whence the surname.

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 Emerson.

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 time.

The couple had a total of twelve children, three daughters and nine sons.  In 1851 he persuaded the Jesuits to establish a school at Mission Santa Clara to educate his sons.  This school formed the basis of what would become Santa Clara University.  Five of the Forbes sons were part of the first class at Santa Clara College.

However, his principal commercial venture, the flour mill that he built outside San Jose, ended in failure.

Forbes and Licorice.  Robert McAndrew, Scottish owner of a shipping company, was on the lookout for profitable produce to ship.  In 1850 he heard about a licorice root being grown near Smyrna in Asia Minor and decided to send one of his sons, 18 year old Edward, and his 21 year old Scottish friend William Forbes from Montrose to investigate.

On the basis of their findings, a licorice factory was set up at Soke.  Edward McAndrew returned to England in 1857, but William Forbes remained.  In fact William was joined in Smyrna by four of his brothers – Andrew, John, David and George.

There was tragedy about the eldest brother Andrew.  Unmarried and getting tired of the company, he left in 1864 to go back home to Scotland. He briefly met and married a young girl nearly 30 years his junior.  She immediately got pregnant in 1868 and delivered a baby son named David.  However, the father Andrew would never see his son.  Deeply disturbed, he left for his mother’s old family home in Montrose and took his own life.

Back in Smyrna, William retired from McAndrew & Forbes (as their company was known) in 1869.  The next brother John took over until his retirement in 1885.

Curiously it was young David Forbes, born in Scotland in such sad circumstances in 1868, who was to take over the mantle of sole owner of their Levantine business.  David was known at this time for his love of race horses and adventure.  Indeed in 1909 he was reputed to have driven a car from Iskenderun in southern Turkey to Baghdad in Iraq which must have been some journey in those days!

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 around 1840. 

The Forbes Brothers – from Scotland to South Africa.  Their father Adam Forbes and his brother-in-law Peter Sim owned a timber-yard in Pitlochry near Perth that exported timber. In 1840 the business failed when their uninsured ship sank. In 1842 both Adam and his wife Ellen died. 

Their daughters became upper servants, Lizzie a housekeeper, and Jemima a lady’s maid; while their sons Alexander and David did laboring jobs, including spells in Ireland and Liverpool.  Then in 1850 they became Byrne migrants to Natal, with James following later. 

The brothers and their families are remembered because they were prolific writers to and from Scotland.  The Forbes collection contains no fewer over 4,000 letters over a period from 1850 to 1922.


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 Jacobite uprising.
  • 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.

Forbes Numbers Today

  • 18,000 in the UK (most numerous in Aberdeen)
  • 12,000 in America (most numerous in California)
  • 18,000 elsewhere (most numerous in Canada)

Forbes and Like Surnames

The Scottish Highlands were Gaelic-speaking and their clan names appeared first in Gaelic and only later in an English version.  Each clan controlled its own local territory and frequently fought with neighbors.  Many, however, took the clan name in order to receive clan protection.

The clan downfall came following the 1715 and 1745 uprisings with the Battle of Culloden when the clan culture was broken up and clan tartans banned (although they came back into fashion with Queen Victoria a hundred years later).  The Highland clearances, supplanting people for sheep, was a further blow and many Highlanders were forced into emigration, still speaking their native Gaelic, to Canada and then to Australia and New Zealand.

Here are some of the clan surnames that you can check out.



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Written by Colin Shelley

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