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Kay's Edinburgh Portraits
William Forbes, Esq., of Callendar


This "son of fortune" was a native of Aberdeen, and brought up as a tinsmith. Having gone to London in early life, he was at length enabled to enter into business for himself, and was struggling to rise into respectability, when, by a fortunate circumstance, the path to opulence was invitingly opened to him.

In the course of the year 1780, various plans were proposed to preserve vessels from the effects of sea-water. The late Lord Dundonald, who died at Paris in 1831, having directed his attention to the subject, invented a species of coal-tar, which, on trial, was found to answer the purpose; and the ingenious contriver, after much waste of time and money, in 1785, obtained an act of Parliament securing the patent of his invention to him and his heirs for twenty years. His discovery, however, availed him nothing. In the meantime, the idea of sheathing the bottom of vessels with copper beginning to be entertained, and a hint of the intention of Government having been privately communicated to Mr. Forbes, he immediately speculated in the purchase of that article to an immense extent. A great demand almost immediately followed, the Admiralty having resolved, instead of using the coal-tar of Lord Dundonald, to have the ships of the line sheathed with copper. In consequence of this, Mr. Forbes not only reaped the benefit of greatly increased prices, but was almost the only one able to undertake the orders of Government.

Another unforeseen circumstance tended still farther to increase his good fortune. The copper having been fastened with iron nails, a speedy corrosion was the result; and the whole expensive experiments being hurriedly abandoned, Mr. Forbes is understood to have purchased the copper, which he had previously furnished, for one farthing per lb.! Soon after this, nails of the same material having been suggested, the project was resumed with greater energy than before. The workmen in the dockyards at first refused to go on, alleging that such nails would not drive; but, by a little finesse and a liberal supply of porter, Mr. Forbes got over all difficulties, and ultimately obtained the exclusive right of coppering the royal navy, and the East India Company's ships, for twenty years. At this period the domestic establishment of Mr. Forbes was limited to one private room : and he is said to have frankly admittted, before the committee, that his cash did not exceed £'1,600! His securities, however, one of whom was his good friend Admiral Byron, were unexceptionable.

Having realised a handsome fortune, Mr. Forbes began to look about him for an eligible land investment; and by the sale of the Cal-lendar estates, about 178G, a favourable opportunity presented itself. This property, forfeited in 1715, was in the hands of the York Buildings Company, and let to the Earl of Errol, for the annual rent, we believe, of £870. Here the Earl of Kilmarnock resided till the fatal crisis of 1745. His lady, who was a daughter of the attainted Earl of Linlithgow, and who succeeded eventually upon the death of her aunt to the title of Errol, was naturally desirous of recovering her father's possessions, but she only survived the execution of her husband a short time. Her descendants, it was said, entertained a similar anxiety for these estates, which, when brought to the hammer, were set up at a low price, to favour them. Forbes, however, did not fail to appear on the spot; and, with his copper " transmuted to gold," became the purchaser at a remarkably cheap rate : so much so, that he has been frequently afterwards heard jokingly to remark, that even the wood on the estate would have bought the whole.

The neighbourhood was much excited when this resiilt was known. The inhabitants of the ancient burgh of Falkirk, always noted for their clannish feeling, were in a paroxysm. The house of Callendar had ever been identified with "the bairns o' Fa'kirk," and kept up till a late period the old feudal dignity that had long distinguished it. So late as 1759, the following entries appear in the household accounts: —"4th Nov. Shoes to my Lord's pyper, 2s;" "3rd Dec. To my Lord's pyper, two weeks' kitchen money, 1s." This, we presume, must have been the piper of Kilmarnock.

Mr. Forbes and his brothers experienced this height of insult and abuse whenever they entered the town. His younger brother, James, in particular, was a favourite source of amusement to the then unchecked mob. He was not of the most shrewd intellect, and his simplicity subjected him to much rudeness. His coat-tails were cut away on one occasion; and on another, his queue was docked, from which he was ever afterwards named Rumpock. It is singular that the colliers, who had been the hereditary bondsmen of the old family, were the most devoted to them. One night in autumn, during the militia riots, in 1797, a great band of them, aided by a few of the town's lads, went out with a drum, and parading round the house, so alarmed Mr. Forbes and his brothers that they fled by a back door, and ran up through the wood. Looking round, from among the trees, they beheld the flickering blaze of Carron Works, and imagining that Callendar House was in flames, proceeded with all speed by the village of Redding to Linlithgow, from whence they posted to Edinburgh, where, applying to Lord Adam Gordon, the Commander-in-Chief, they caused a troop of the Lancashire Dragoons to be sent out to Falkirk, who inflicted their unwelcome presence on the inhabitants for nearly half-a-year. It is to this affair that Kay's caricature of Copper-bottom's Retreat alludes.

Not long after he became proprietor, numerous disputes occurred between Mr. Forbes and the tenants of the estate. The Rev. Mr. Bertram of Muiravonside and he disagreed about the rent of a park attached to Haining Castle. Forbes invited him one day to dinner, when, attempting to excuse his demand for increased rent, he observed that he was but a poor man—"Be content wi' your lot, sir," said Bertram. The latter had to yield, however; but took revenge by preaching for several Sundays against avarice, from the text—"Alexander the coppersmith has done me much evil: the Lord reward him according to his works!"

Mr. Forbes could never forget or forgive the treatment and bad feeling of the people of Falkirk. In dealing alms to the poor, as was his practice every Saturday from a back window, he used to be very particular in his inquiries, whether the hundreds that got their twopence each were natives of the town. Of course the cunning band were aware of this, and always represented themselves as belonging to the neighbouring villages, while a change of habiliments enabled them to assume two or three characters, and the twopence was always unsuspectingly forthcoming.

Although strict in exacting his rents, Forbes was universally esteemed as a good landlord. His master passion was the acquisition of cash, which he wisely invested in the purchase of land. His injunctions, even at the last, are said to have been fervently expressed in the exclamation—"Buy land—buy land!" As illustrative of his careful habits, it is told that upon one occasion only was he induced, by the persuasive eloquence of the Duchess of Gordon, to gratify his fashionable friends with a ball at Callendar House, which for that night resounded to the inspiring strains of Neil Gow and his band, with all the hilarity of former days.

In the improvement of the vast lauded property which had fallen into his possession, Mr. Forbes displayed great and successful efforts. The neglected state of the soil, under the slovenly agriculture of former days, and the easy rents of the paternal lords, left a wide field for his active determination to render the Callendar estates, what they soon became, among the first in Scotland. A valuable herd of noble stags, that had long added grandeur to the domain, were complained of by some of the surrounding farm tenants, for leaping the wall and destroying their crops. Instantly their doom was sealed ; and it was announced, by tuck of drum through Falkirk, that all who chose might shoot them. Of course the slaughter and route were complete. A score or two of red deer were nothing in comparison with the rent of a farm! He prided himself much on his farming system, which indeed soon rendered even the barren Caermuirs a richly cultivated property, although he used to say that before his time a kevy of hens kept upon it might have paid all the rent. He was much indebted to the late Dr. Coventry for what was done on the estate.

No less fortunate was Mr. Forbes in his legal disputes, which were neither few nor cheap. "When any dubious question arose about the particular rights to any parts of the estate, or the privileges of the town or individuals, he never closed a bargain without taking the parties, or being taken by them, to the Court of Session, or House of Lords; thus, at least, making good by their decision a questionable title.

Mr. Forbes died at Edinburgh on the 21st June, 1815. His figure, which was tall and handsome, is excellently represented in a capital full-length portrait, by Sir Henry Raeburn, which ornaments the dining-room at Callendar House. A splendid mausoleum was erected in a dark recess of the wood to his memory by his widow, a lady of considerable taste, who still survives.

Mr. Forbes was twice married—first to Miss Macadam of Craigengillan, whose unfortunate brother's fate made no little noise. She had no children, and, being consumptive, went out to Madeira, where she died. To her fortune her husband generously relinquished all claim. His second marriage, with Miss Agnes Chalmers of Aberdeen, realised his fond wish to become " the founder of a house." By her he had two sons and three daughters, who survived him—a sixth child dying in infancy. His eldest son, William, the successor to the entailed property, was married to the amiable and accomplished Lady Louisa, daughter of the Earl of Wemyss and March, and elected in 1835, and again in 1837, member of Parliament for Stirlingshire. Local animosities are now fast dying away, and the descendants of Mr. Forbes bid fair to take their place amid the aristocracy of the land.


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