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Kay's Edinburgh Portraits
Sir William Forbes of Pitsligo, Banker in Edinburgh


The words of the engraving, "The good shall mourn a brother—all a friend," were never more appropriately applied than in allusion to the character of Sir William Forbes. In the language of the Rev. Mr. Alison, there was no person of the age "who so fully united in himself the same assemblage of the most estimable qualities of our nature; the same firmness of piety, with the same tenderness of charity; the same ardour of public spirit, with the same disdain of individual interest; the same activity in business, with the same generosity in its conduct; the same independence towards the powerful, and the same humanity towards the lowly; the same dignity in public life, with the same gentleness in private society."

Sir William Forbes was born at Edinburgh on the 5th of April, 1739. He was descended (both paternally and maternally) from the ancient family of Monymusk, and by his paternal grandmother from the Lords Pitsligo. His father, who was bred to the bar, died when Sir William was only four years of age. His mother, thus left with two infant sons, and very slender means of support, retired among her friends in Aberdeenshire. His younger brother did not long survive. Though nurtured in rather straitened circumstances, Sir William by no means lacked an excellent education, which he received under the superintendence of his guardians—Lord Forbes, his uncle; Lord Pitsligo, his maternal uncle; Mr. Morrison of Bogny; and Mr. Urquhart of Meldrum, among whom he was trained to the habits and ideas of good society; but it was principally to the sedulous care of his widowed mother, who instilled into his young mind the sentiments of rectitude and virtue, that, as he frequently in after life declared, he "owed everything." Both his parents belonged to the Scottish Episcopal Church, to which communion Sir William remained during his life a steady and liberal adherent.

In 1753 Lady Forbes returned to Edinburgh, with the view of choosing some profession for her son, who had now attained his fourteenth year. Fortunately, through the influence of a friend, Mr. Farquhar-son of Haughton, he was taken into the banking-house of Messrs. Coutts, and bound apprentice to the business the following year.

Sir William's term of servitude lasted for seven years, on the expiry of which he acted for two years more in the capacity of a clerk in the establishment. During this time he continued to reside with his mother, and felt much satisfaction in being enabled, from the gradual increase of his salary, to contribute to her comforts. By his undeviating rectitude, steady application, and the display of very superior qualifications for the profession, he had early attracted the notice of Messrs. Coutts, with whom he was, in 1761, admitted into partnership, with only a small share in the profits. Owing to the death of one of these gentlemen, and the retirement of the other, on account of bad health (the other two brothers being settled in London), a new company was formed in 1763, consisting of Sir William Forbes, Mr. James Hunter (afterwards Sir James Hunter Blair), and Sir Robert Herries. Although neither of the Messrs. Coutts had any share in the new concern, the firm continued under the old name until 1773, when, on the withdrawal of Sir Robert Herries, who formed a separate establishment in London, the name of the firm was changed to that of Forbes, Hunter, & Co. Sir William was at the head of the concern, over which he ever after continued to preside, and the uncommon success which attended its operations is in no small degree attributable to his peculiar sagacity and prudence. In 1783 the Company commenced to issue notes, which obtained an extent of credit almost without parallel.

Sir William married, in 1770, the eldest daughter of Dr. (afterwards Sir James) Hay, which event obliged him to separate from the "venerated guide of his infant years," who lived to a good old age, happy in the growing prosperity and kind attention of her son.

Sir William had now fairly commenced that career of usefulness which so much distinguished his long life. Naturally of a benevolent disposition, his attention was early directed to the charitable institutions of the city, many of which, previous to his taking an interest in them, were in a languishing state. The Charity Workhouse, of which he became a Manager in 1771, felt, in an especial manner, the effects of his persevering solicitude. In 1777 he published a pamphlet on the improvement of this institution, which was characterized as "full of practical knowledge and enlightened benevolence; and he continued through life to take an active interest in its welfare. Of the Orphan Hospital, too, he was a Manager for many years, and always, from 1774, one of its most zealous and efficient directors.

The erection of the late High School, in which Sir Walter Scott and other eminent men were educated, is another proof of Sir William's public spirit as a citizen, and his active perseverance and power of overcoming difficulties. He was a zealous Manager of the Royal Infirmary, to which, at his death, he left .200. The Lunatic and Blind Asylums owed much to his exertions; and, in short, no improvements were contemplated, and no benevolent work projected, which did not find in Sir William ready and efficient support.

In accordance with a long-cherished desire of restoring his family, which had been reduced by attainder, to its former dignity and fortune, Sir William embraced a favourable opportunity of purchasing seventy acres of the upper barony of Pitsligo, including the old mansion-house, at that time roofless and deserted. By the death of Mr. Forbes, 1781, Sir William succeeded as heir to the lower barony also, and thus had his early dreams almost realized. The property he had acquired was extensive, but, from the misfortunes of the family, sadly out of condition. Sir William immediately set about its improvement: He established numbers of poor cottars on the most uncultivated portions of the estate, erected the village of New Pitsligo, and, by the utmost liberality as a landlord, induced settlers to come from a distance. In the course of a short space of time he had the satisfaction of seeing a thriving population, and "several thousand acres smiling with cultivation, which were formerly the abode only of the moor-fowl or the curlew." He also established a spinning-school at New Pitsligo, introduced the linen manufacture, and erected a bleachfield; he built a school-house, a chapel of ease connected with the Established Church, and a chapel for those of the Episcopal persuasion. To the estate of Pitsligo, Sir William soon after added, by purchase, those of Pittoulie and Pittindrum, which were contiguous, and from their proximity to the sea-shore, afforded excellent facilities of improvement.

In 1774 Sir William became a member of the Merchant Company, and was elected Master in 1786, a situation which he was frequently afterwards called upon to fill. He was a warm promoter of the plan adopted by that body for rendering annuities to widows a matter of right, instead of a gift of charity, as formerly. But his attention was by no means confined to local matters: He was one of the committee of merchants appointed to confer with Sir James Montgomery, then Lord Advocate, "on the new Bankrupt Act introduced in 1772, and many of its most valuable clauses were suggested by his experience;" again, in 1783, on the expiry of the new Act, he was Convener of the Mercantile Committee in Edinburgh, when further improvements were effected in the Bankrupt laws.

As we have already mentioned, Sir William was by descent attached to the Episcopal communion. Under his fostering management the Cowgate chapel was built, "afterwards known as the most popular place of worship in Edinburgh;" and, in 1800, he was chiefly instrumental in bringing the Rev. Mr. Alison to that chapel, then settled in a remote rectory in Shropshire.

Sir William was a gentleman of the most polished and dignified manners; and although much of his time must necessarily have been occupied in the prosecution of those manifold pursuits which conferred so much benefit on his native city and the country in general, he still found leisure to indulge in a taste for literature, and to make himself acquainted with the progress of science. He was one of the original members of the Antiquarian Society, instituted chiefly by the exertions of the Earl of Buchan; and so early as 1768 he had spent nearly twelve months in London, in the family of Sir Robert Hemes, where he became a member of the London Literary Club, and formed an acquaintance with the principal literary characters of that period, among whom was Sir Joshua Reynolds, who executed two admirable portraits of Sir William, and received a considerable portion of his esteem.

By such an extended circle of acquaintance, Sir William was led into an interesting and extensive correspondence, for which he evidently had a high relish, although almost the only relic of his talents in composition is an "Account of the Life and Writings of James Beattie, LL.D.," author of the "Essay on Truth" (in answer to some of the Essays of David Hume, the celebrated philosopher and historian) —"The Minstrel," &c. This work was published in 180G, and has passed through three or four editions. It includes many original letters of his early and esteemed friend, and is an excellent specimen of what might have been expected from Sir William's pen, had not perhaps higher and more important duties engrossed the greater portion of his time.

Sir William's circle of friends, however, was by no means confined to men of professional literary talents, or to those who might benefit by his patronage: he was intimately acquainted with Lord Melville and with Mr. Pitt, who had frequent interviews with Sir William on subjects of finance. In short, his house in Edinburgh was the resort of all ranks ; and few foreigners of distinction visited Scotland without having letters of introduction to him. He was frequently offered a seat in Parliament, both for the city of Edinburgh and the county of Aberdeen, but he uniformly declined the honour; in doing so he sacrificed the gratification of a laudable ambition to a sense of duty, which he conceived to be limited to the sphere in which he had already been the promoter of so many benefits. From similar praiseworthy motives, he also declined the honour of an Irish Peerage, proposed to him by Mr. Pitt in 1799.

The health of Sir William began to decline in 1791, at which period he had a severe illness, and in 1802 Lady Forbes died, a circumstance which sensibly affected his spirits. On his return from London in 180G, whither he had been summoned as a witness on Lord Melville's trial, he began to feel symptoms of decay; and after having been confined to the house from the 28th June, he expired on the 12th November, 1806, surrounded by his friends, and inspired by every hope which a virtuous and useful life is so capable of affording. Sir William had a large family; besides his eldest son and successor, he left Lord Medwyn, Mr. George Forbes, and five daughters, four of whom are now married—Lady Wood, Mrs. M'Donnell of Glengarry, Mrs. M'Kenzie of Portmore, and Mrs. Skene of Rubislaw. His successor, Sir William, was cut off in the middle of his years and usefulness, leaving three sons. The eldest, Sir John Stuart Forbes, who succeeded him in the title and estates, married a daughter of the late Marquis of Lothian; the second, Charles, is a banker in the firm of Sir William Forbes & Co.; and the third, James, is at present Professor of Natural Philosophy in the University of Edinburgh.

The scene represented in the background of the Print is referable to the charity almost daily bestowed by Sir William on a number of "pensioners," who were in the habit of frequenting the Parliament Square at stated periods, where they were certain of meeting their benefactor as he entered or retired from the banking-house. The same practice is still continued by several of the partners of that respectable firm.


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