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
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
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
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.