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Sir William Forbes


Sir William Forbes FORBES, SIR WILLIAM, of Pitsligo, an eminent banker and citizen, was born at Edinburgh on the 5th of April, 1739. He was descended by the father’s side, from a younger branch of the ancient and respectable family of Forbes of Monmusk, the proprietors, at the close of the seventeenth century, of the noble barony of that name, on the banks of the Don, in Aberdeenshire; and by his paternal grandmother, from the still older and more dignified family of the lords Pitsligo, in the same county. His mother was also a branch of the family of Forbes of Monmusk, one of the first families in Scotland who were invested with the badge of Nova Scotia baronets, which still is worn by their descendents.

His father, who was bred to the bar, and was rising into eminence in that profession, died when he was only four years of age, leaving his mother, then a young woman, with two infant sons, and very slender means of support. She lived at first at Milne of Forgue, on the estate of Bogny in Aberdeenshire, with the proprietor of which territory she was connected through her mother, and afterwards fixed her residence at Aberdeen, with her two sons, where she remained for several years, superintending their education. While there, the younger son, who is represented as having been a most engaging boy, died, to the inexpressible grief of his mother, leaving her remaining hopes to centre on Sir William, then her only child.

Though reared in confined and straitened circumstances, Sir William had not only the benefit of an excellent education, but was under the immediate care and superintendence of the most respectable gentlemen in Aberdeenshire. His guardians were lord Forbes, his uncle lord Pitsligo, his maternal uncle Mr Morrison of Bogny, and his aunt’s husband Mr Urquhart of Meldrum, who were not only most attentive to the duties of their trust, but habituated him from his earliest years to the habits and ideas of good society, and laid the foundation of that highly honourable and gentlemanlike character which so remarkably distinguished him in after life.

It has been often observed, that the source of every thing which is pure and upright in subsequent years, is to be found in the lessons of virtue and piety instilled into the infant mind by maternal love; and of this truth the character of Sir William Forbes affords a signal example. He himself uniformly declared, and solemnly repeated on his death bed, that he owed every thing to the upright character, pious habits, and sedulous care of his mother. She belonged to a class formerly well known, but unhappily nearly extinct in this country, who, though descended from ancient and honourable families, and intimate with the best society in Scotland, lived in privacy, and what would now be deemed poverty, solely engaged in the care of their children, and the discharge of their social and religious duties. Many persons are still alive, who recollect with gratitude and veneration these remnants of the olden times; and in the incessant care which they devoted to the moral and religious education of their offspring, is to be found the pure and sacred fountain from which all the prosperity and virtue of Scotland has flowed.

Both Sir William’s father and his mother were members of the Scottish episcopal church; a religious body which, although exposed to many vexatious and disabilities since the Revolution in 1688, continued to number among its members many of the most respectable and conscientious inhabitants of the country. To this communion Sir William continued ever after to belong, and to his humane and beneficent exertions, its present comparatively prosperous and enlarged state may be in a great measure ascribed. It is to the credit of that church, that it formed the character, and trained the virtues, of one of the most distinguished and useful men to whom the Scottish metropolis has given birth.

As soon as the education of her son was so far advanced as to permit of his entering upon some profession, his mother, lady Forbes, removed to Edinburgh in October, 1753, where an esteemed and excellent friend, Mr Farquharson of Haughton, prevailed on the Messrs Coutts soon after to receive him as an apprentice into their highly respectable banking house—among the earliest establishments of the kind in Edinburgh, and which has for above a century conferred such incalculable benefit on all classes, both in the metropolis and the neighbouring country. The mother and son did not in the first instance keep house for themselves, but boarded with a respectable widow lady; and it is worthy of being recorded, as a proof of the difference in the style of living, and the value of money between that time and the present, that the sum paid for the board of the two was only forty pounds a year.

At Whitsunday, 1754, as Sir William was bound an apprentice to the banking house, she removed to a small house in Forrester’s Wynd, consisting only of a single floor. From such small beginnings did the fortune of this distinguished man, who afterwards attained so eminent a station among his fellow citizens, originally spring. Even in these humble premises, this exemplary lady not only preserved a dignified and respectable independence, but properly supported the character of his father’s widow. She was visited by persons of the very first distinction in Scotland, and frequently entertained them at tea parties in the afternoon; a mode of seeing society which, although almost gone into disuse with the increasing wealth and luxury of modern manners, was then very prevalent, and where incomparably better conversation prevailed, than in the larger assemblies which have succeeded. At that period also, when dinner or supper parties were given by ladies of rank or opulence, which was sometimes, though seldom the case, their drawing rooms were frequented in the afternoon by the young and the old of both sexes; and opportunities afforded for the acquisition of elegance of manner, and a taste for polite and superior conversation, of which Sir William did not fail to profit in the very highest degree.

It was an early impression of Sir William’s, that one of his principal duties in life consisted in restoring his ancient, but now dilapidated family; and it was under this feeling of duty, that he engaged in the mercantile profession. The following memorandum, which was found among his earliest papers, shows how soon this idea had taken possession of his mind:—"The slender provision which my father has left me, although he had, by great attention to business and frugality, been enabled in the course of that life, to double the pittance which originally fell to him out of the wreck of the family estate, rendered it absolutely necessary for me to attach myself to some profession, for my future support and the restoration of the decayed fortunes of my family."—In pursuance of this honourable feeling, he early and assiduously applied to the profession which he had embraced, and by this means, was enabled ultimately to effect the object of his ambition, to an extent that rarely falls to the lot even of the most prosperous in this world.

His apprenticeship lasted seven years, during which he continued to live with lady Forbes in the same frugal and retired manner, but in the enjoyment of the same dignified and excellent society which they had embraced upon their first coming to Edinburgh. After its expiry, he acted for two years as clerk in the establishment, during which time his increasing emoluments enabled him to make a considerable addition to the comforts of his mother, whose happiness was ever the chief object of his care. In 1761, his excellent abilities and application to business, induced the Messrs Coutts to admit him as a partner, with a small share in the banking house, and he ever after ascribed his good fortune in life, to the fortunate connexion thus formed with that great mercantile family But without being insensible to the benefits arising from such a connexion, it is perhaps more just to ascribe it to his own undeviating purity and integrity of character, which enabled him to turn to the best advantage those fortunate incidents which at one time or other occur to all in life, but which so many suffer to escape from negligence, instability, or a mistaken exercise of their talents.

In 1763, one of the Messrs Coutts died; another retired from business through ill health, and the two others were settled in London. A new company was therefore formed, consisting of Sir William Forbes, Sir James Hunter Blair and Sir Robert Herries; and although none of the Messrs Coutts retained any connexion with the firm, their name was retained out of respect to the eminent gentlemen of that name who had preceded them. The business was carried on on this footing till 1773, when the name of the firm was changed to that of Forbes, Hunter, & Co., which it has ever since been; Sir Robert Herries having formed a separate establishment in St James street, London. Of the new firm, Sir William Forbes continued to be the head from that time till the period of his death; and to his sound judgment and practical sagacity in business, much of its subsequent prosperity was owing. His first care was to withdraw the concern altogether from the alluring but dangerous speculations in corn, in which all the private bankers of Scotland were at that period so much engaged, and to restrict their transactions to the proper business of banking. They commenced issuing notes in 1783, and rapidly rose, from the respect and esteem entertained for all the members of the firm, as well as the prudence and judgment with which their business was conducted, to a degree of public confidence and prosperity almost unprecedented in this country.

In 1770, he married Miss Elizabeth Hay, eldest daughter of Dr (afterwards Sir James) Hay; a union productive of unbroken happiness to his future life, and from which many of the most fortunate acquisitions of partners to the firm have arisen. This event obliged him to separate from his mother, the old and venerated guide of his infant years, as her habits of privacy and retirement were inconsistent with the more extended circle of society in which he was now to engage. She continued from that period to live alone. Her remaining life was one of unbroken tranquillity and retirement. Blessed with a serene and contented disposition, enjoying the kindness, and gratified by the rising prosperity and high character which her son had obtained; and fortunate in seeing the fortunes of her own and her husband’s family rapidly reviving under his successful exertions, she lived happy and contented to an extreme old age, calmly awaiting the approach of death, to which she neither looked forward with desire nor apprehension. After a life of unblemished virtue and ceaseless duty, she expired on the 26th December, 1789.

The benevolence of Sir William Forbes’s character, his unwearied charity and activity of disposition, naturally led to his taking a very prominent share in the numerous public charities of Edinburgh. The first public duty of this kind which he undertook, was that of a manager of the charity work-house, to which he was appointed in 1771. At this period the expenditure of that useful establishment was greater than its income, and it was necessary for the managers to communicate for several years after with the magistrates and other public bodies, as to providing for the deficits, and the state and management of the poor. Sir William Forbes was one of the sub-committee appointed by the managers to arrange this important matter, and upon him was devolved the duty of drawing up the reports and memorials respecting that charity, which during the years 1772 and 1773, were printed and circulated to induce the public to come forward and aid the establishment; a duty which he performed with equal ability and success. The means of improving this institution, in which he ever through life took the warmest interest, occupied about this period a very large share of his thoughts, and in 1777, he embodied them in the form of a pamphlet, which he published in reference to the subject, abounding both in practical knowledge and enlightened benevolence.

Another most important institution, about the same period, was deeply indebted to his activity and perseverance for the successful termination of its difficulties. The late high school having become ruinous, and unfit for the increasing number of scholars who attended it, a few public-spirited individuals formed a committee in conjunction with the magistrates of the city, to build a new one. Of this committee, Sir William Forbes was chairman; and besides contributing largely himself, it was to his activity and perseverance that the success of the undertaking was mainly to be ascribed. The amount subscribed was 2,300, a very large sum in those days, but still insufficient to meet the expenses of the work. By his exertions the debt of 1,100 was gradually liquidated, and he had the satisfaction of laying the foundation stone of the edifice destined to be the scene of the early efforts of Sir Walter Scott, and many of the greatest men whom Scotland has produced.

He was admitted a member of the Orphan Hospital directory on the 8th of August, 1774, and acted as manager from 1783 to 1788, and from 1797 to 1801. He always took a warm interest in the concerns of that excellent charity, and devoted a considerable part of his time to the care and education of the infants who were thus brought under his superintendence. He was become a member of the Merchant Company in 1784, and in 1786 was elected master; an office which though held only for a year, was repeatedly conferred upon him during the remainder of his life. He always took an active share in the management of that great company, and was a warm promoter of a plan adopted long after, of rendering the annuities to widows belonging to it a matter of right, and not favour or solicitation. The same situation made him a leading member of the committee of merchants, appointed in 1772, to confer with Sir James Montgomery, then lord advocate, on the new bankrupt act, introduced in that year, and many of its most valuable clauses were suggested by his experience. In that character he took a leading part in the affairs of the Merchant Maidens’ Hospital, which is governed by the officers of the Merchant Company, and was elected governor of that charity in 1786. The same causes made him governor of Watson’s hospital during the year that he was president or assistant of the Merchant Company, and president of the governors of Gillespie’s hospital, when that charity was opened in 1802. He faithfully and assiduously discharged the duties connected with the management of these hospitals during all the time that he was at their head, and devoted to these truly benevolent objects a degree of time which, considering his multifarious engagements in business is truly surprising, and affords the best proof how much may be done even by those most engaged, by a proper economy, in that important particular.

From the first institution of the Society of Antiquaries, and the Royal Society in 1783, he was a constituted member of both, and took an active share in their formation and management. From 1785 downwards he was constantly a manager of the Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh, and was indefatigable in his endeavours to ameliorate the situation and assuage the sufferings of the unfortunate inmates of that admirable establishment. At his death he left 200 to the institution, to be applied to the fund for the benefit of patients.

In 1787, he was appointed one of the trustees for the encouragement of manufactures and fisheries, of which his friend Mr Arbuthnot was secretary, and he continued for the remainder of his life to be one of its most active and efficient members.

One of the greatest improvements which Edinburgh received was the formation of the South Bridge in 1784, under the auspices and direction of his friend Sir James Hunter Blair. In the management and guidance of this great work that enterprising citizen was mainly guided by the advice of his friend Sir William Forbes, and he was afterwards one of the most active and zealous trustees, who under the 25. Geo. III. c. 28. carried into full execution after his death that great public undertaking. In selecting the plan to be adopted, the more plain design which afforded the accommodation required was preferred to the costly and magnificent one furnished by the Messrs Adams: and with such judgment and wisdom was the work carried into effect, that it was completed not only without any loss, but with a large surplus to the public. Of this surplus 3000 was applied to another very great improvement, the draining of the Meadows, while the ten per cent addition to the land tax, which had been levied under authority of the act as a guarantee fund, and not being required for the purposes of the trust, was paid over to the city of Edinburgh for the use of the community. When these results are contrasted with those of similar undertakings of the present age, the sagacity of the subject of this memoir and his partner, Sir James Hunter Blair, receives a new lustre, far above what was reflected upon them, even at the time when the benefits of their exertions were more immediately felt.

In 1785, he was prevailed on to accept the situation of chairman of the sub-committee of delegates from the Highland counties, for obtaining an alteration of the law passed the year before, in regard to small stills within the Highland line. Nearly the whole labour connected with this most important subject, and all the correspondence with the gentlemen who were to support the desired alteration in parliament, fell upon Sir William Forbes. By his indefatigable efforts, however, aided, by those of the late duke of Athol, a nobleman ever alive to whatever might tend to the improvement of the Highlands, the object was at length attained, and by the 25. Geo. III. this important matter was put upon an improved footing.

Ever alive to the call of humanity and the sufferings of the afflicted, he early directed his attention to the formation of a Lunatic Asylum in Edinburgh; an institution the want of which was at that time severely felt by all, but, especially the poorer classes of society. Having collected the printed accounts of similar institutions in other places, he drew up a sketch of the intended establishment and an advertisement for its support, in March, 1788. Though a sufficient sum could not be collected to set the design on foot at that time, a foundation was laid, on which, under the auspices of his son, the late Sir William, and other benevolent and public spirited individuals, the present excellent structure at Morningside was ultimately reared.

The late benevolent Dr Johnston of Leith having formed, in 1792, a plan for the establishment of a Blind Asylum in Edinburgh, Sir William Forbes, both by liberal subscription and active exertion, greatly contributed to the success of the undertaking. He was the chairman of the committee appointed by the subscribers to draw up regulations for the establishment, and when the committee of management was appointed, he was nominated vice president, which situation he continued to hold with the most unwearied activity till the time of his death. Without descending farther into detail, it is sufficient to observe that, for the last thirty years of his life, Sir William was either at the head, or actively engaged in the management of all the charitable establishments of Edinburgh, and that many of the most valuable of them owed their existence or success to his exertions.

Nor was it only to his native city that his beneficent exertions were confined. The family estate of Pitsligo, having been forfeited to the crown in 1746, was brought to sale in 1758, and bought by Mr Forbes, lord Pitsligo’s only son. His embarrassments, however, soon compelled him to bring the lower barony of Pitsligo to sale, and it was bought by Mr Garden of Troup: Sir William Forbes being the nearest heir of the family, soon after purchased 70 acres of the upper barony, including the old mansion of Pitsligo, now roofless and deserted. By the death of Mr Forbes in 1781, Sir William succeeded to the lower barony, with which he had now connected the old mansion house, and thus saw realized his early and favourite wish of restoring to his ancient family, their paternal inheritance.

The acquisition of this property, which, though extensive, was, from the embarrassments of the family, in a most neglected state, opened a boundless field for Sir William’s active benevolence of disposition. In his character of landlord, he was most anxious for the improvement and happiness of the people on his estates, and spared neither time nor expense to effect it. He early commenced their improvement on a most liberal scale, and bent his attention in an especial manner to the cultivation of a large tract of moss which still remained in a state of nature. With this view he laid out in 1783, the village of New Pitsligo, and gave every assistance, by lending money, and forbearance in the exaction of rent, to the incipient exertions of the feuars. Numbers of poor cottars were established by his care on the most uncultivated parts of the estate, most of whom not only paid no rent for the land they occupied, but were pensioners on his bounty: a mode of proceeding which, although it brought only burdens on the estate at first, has since been productive of the greatest benefit by the continual application of that greatest of all improvements to a barren soil, the labour of the human hand. The value of this property, and the means of improvement to the tenantry, were further increased by the judicious purchase, in 1787, of the contiguous estates of Pittullie and Pittendrum, which by their situation on the sea-shore, afforded the means of obtaining in great abundance sea-ware for the lands. The liberal encouragement which he afforded soon brought settlers from all quarters: the great improvements which he made himself served both as a model and an incitement to his tenantry: the formation of the great road from Peterhead to Banff which passed through the village of New Pitsligo, and to which he largely contributed, connected the new feuars with those thriving sea ports; and before his death he had the satisfaction of seeing assembled on a spot which at his acquisition of the estate was a barren waste, a thriving population of three hundred souls, and several thousand acres smiling with cultivation which were formerly the abode only of the moor-fowl or the curlew.

In order to encourage industry on his estate, he established a spinning school at New Pitsligo, introduced the linen manufacture and erected a bleach-field: undertakings which have since been attended with the greatest success. At the same time, to promote the education of the young, he built a school house, where the Society for the Propagation of Christian Knowledge established a teacher; and in order to afford to persons of all persuasions the means of attending that species of worship to which they were inclined, he built and endowed not only a Chapel of Ease, with a manse for the minister, connected with the established church, but a chapel, with a dwelling house for an episcopal clergyman, for the benefit of those who belonged to that persuasion. Admirable acts of beneficence, hardly credible in one who resided above two hundred miles from this scene of his bounty, and was incessantly occupied in projects of improvements or charity in his own city.

To most men it would appear, that this support and attention to these multifarious objects of benevolence, both in Edinburgh and on his Aberdeenshire estates, would have absorbed the whole of both his fortune and his time, which could be devoted to objects of beneficence. But that was not Sir William Forbes’s character. Indefatigable in activity, unwearied in doing good, he was not less strenuous in private than in public charity; and no human eye will ever know, no human ear ever learn, the extensive and invaluable deeds of kindness and benevolence which he performed, not merely to all the unfortunate who fell within his own observation, but all who were led by his character for beneficence to apply to him for relief. Perhaps no person ever combined to so great a degree the most unbounded pecuniary generosity with delicacy in time bestowal of the gift, and discrimination in the mode in which it was applied. Without giving way to the weakness of indiscriminately relieving all who apply for charity, which so soon surrounds those who indulge in it with a mass of idle or profligate indigence, he made it a rule to inquire personally, or by means of those he could trust, into the character and circumstances of those who were partakers of his bounty: and when he found that it was really deserved, that virtue had been reduced by suffering, or industry blasted by misfortune, he put no bounds to the splendid extent of his benefactions. To one class in particular, in whom the sufferings of poverty is perhaps more severely felt than by any other in society, the remnants of old and respectable families, who had survived their relations, or been broken down by misfortune, his charity was in a most signal manner exerted; and numerous aged and respectable individuals, who had once known better days, would have been reduced by his death to absolute ruin, if they had not been fortunate enough to find in his descendents, the heirs not only of his fortune but of his virtue and generosity.

Both Sir William’s father and mother were of episcopalian families, as most of those of the higher class in Aberdeenshire at that period were; and he was early and strictly educated in the tenets of that persuasion. He attended chief baron Smith’s chapel in Blackfriars’ Wynd, of which he was one of the vestry, along with the esteemed Sir Adolphus Oughton, then commander-in-chief in Scotland. In 1771, it was resolved to join this congregation with that of two other chapels in Carrubber’s Close and Skinner’s Close, and build a more spacious and commodious place of worship for them all united. In this undertaking, as in most others of the sort, the labouring oar fell on Sir William Forbes; and by his personal exertions, and the liberal subscriptions of himself and his friends, the Cowgate chapel was at length completed, afterwards so well known as one of the most popular places of worship in Edinburgh. At this period it was proposed by some of the members of the congregation, instead of building the new chapel in the old town, to build it at the end of the North Bridge, then recently finished after its fall, near the place where the Theatre Royal now stands. After some deliberation the project was abandoned, "as it was not thought possible that the projected new town could come to any thing "—a most curious instance of the degree in which the progress of improvement in this country has exceeded the hopes of the warmest enthusiasts in the land.

Being sincerely attached to the episcopalian persuasion, Sir William had long been desirous that the members of the English communion resident in this country should be connected with the episcopal church of Scotland: by which alone they could obtain the benefit of confirmation, and the other solemn services of that church. He was very earnest in his endeavours to effect this union: and although there were many obstacles to overcome, he had succeeded in a great degree during his own lifetime in bringing it to a conclusion. On this subject he had much correspondence with many leading men connected with the church of England, archbishop Moore, bishop Porteous, and Sir William Scott, as well as bishop Abernethy Drummond, and the prelates of the Scottish episcopal church. In 1793, it was arranged that Mr Bauchor, vicar of Epsom, should, on the resignation of bishop Abernethy Drummond, be elected bishop, and the congregation of the Cowgate chapel were to acknowledge him as bishop. The scheme, however, was abandoned at that time, from a certain degree of jealousy which subsisted on the part of the established church of Scotland: but it was renewed afterwards, when that feeling had died away; and to the favourable impressions produced by his exertions, seconded as they subsequently were by the efforts of his son, afterwards lord Medwyn, the happy accomplishment of the union of the two churches, so eminently conducive to the respectability and usefulness of both, is chiefly to be ascribed.

His son-in-law, the late able and esteemed Mr M’Kenzie of Portmore, having prepared a plan for establishing a fund in aid of the bishops of the Scottish episcopal church, and of such of the poorer clergy as stood in need of assistance, he entered warmly into the scheme, and drew up the memoir respecting the present state of the episcopal church, which was circulated in 1806, and produced such beneficial results. He not only subscribed largely himself, but by his example and influence was the chief cause of the success of the subscription, which he had the satisfaction of seeing in a very advanced state of progress before his death.

He was, from its foundation, not only a director of the Cowgate chapel, but took the principal lead in its affairs. A vacancy in that chapel having occurred in 1800, he was chiefly instrumental in bringing down the Rev. Mr Alison, the well known author of the Essay on Taste, then living at a remote rectory in Shropshire, to fill the situation. Under the influence of that eloquent divine, the congregation rapidly increased, both in number and respectability, and was at length enabled in 1818, through the indefatigable exertions of lord Medwyn, by their own efforts, aided by the liberality of their friends, to erect the present beautiful structure of St Paul’s chapel in York place. At the same time, Sir William Forbes, eldest son of the subject of this memoir, effected by similar exertions the completion of St John’s chapel in Prince’s Street; and thus, chiefly by the efforts of a single family, in less than half a century, was the episcopal communion of Edinburgh raised from its humble sites in Blackfriars’ Wynd and Carrubber’s Close, and placed in two beautiful edifices, raised at an expense of above 30,000, and which must strike the eye of every visitor from South Britain, as truly worthy of the form of worship for which they are designed.

Sir William had known Mr Alison from his infancy: and from the situation which the latter now held in the Cowgate chapel, they were brought into much closer and more intimate friendship, from which both these eminent men derived, for the remainder of their lives, the most unalloyed satisfaction. Mr Alison attended Sir William during the long and lingering illness which at length closed his beneficent life, and afterwards preached the eloquent and impressive funeral sermon, which is published with his discourses, and pourtrays the character we have here humbly endeavoured to delineate in a more detailed form.

When the new bankrupt act, which had been enacted only for a limited time, expired in 1783, Sir William Forbes was appointed convener of the mercantile committee in Edinburgh, which corresponded with the committees of Glasgow and Aberdeen, of which provost Colquhoun and Mr Milne were respectively conveners; and their united efforts and intelligence produced the great improvement upon the law which was effected by that act. By it the sequestration law, which under the old statute had extended to all descriptions of debtors, was confined to merchants, traders, and others properly falling under its spirit; the well known regulations for the equalization of arrestments and poindings within sixty days, were introduced; sequestrations, which included at first only the personal estate, were extended to the whole property; and the greatest improvement of all was introduced, namely, the restriction of what was formerly alternative to a system of private trust, under judicial control. Sir William Forbes, who corresponded with the London solicitor who drew the bill, had the principal share in suggesting these the great outlines of the system of mercantile bankruptcy in this country; and accordingly, when the convention of royal burghs who paid the expense attending it, voted thanks to the lord advocate for carrying it through parliament, they at the same time (10th July, 1783,) directed their preses to "convey the thanks of the convention to Sir William Forbes, Ilay Campbell, Esq., solicitor-general for Scotland, and Mr Milne, for their great and uncommon attention to the bill."

On the death of Mr Forbes of Pitsligo, only son of lord Pitsligo, in 1782, whose estate and title were forfeited for his accession to the rebellion in 1745, Sir William Forbes, as the nearest heir in the female line of the eldest branch of the family of Forbes, claimed and obtained, from the Lyon court, the designation and arms of Pitsligo. He was the heir of the peerage under the destination in the patent, if it had not been forfeited.

Hitherto Sir William Forbes’s character has been considered merely as that of a public-spirited, active, and benevolent gentleman, who, by great activity and spotless integrity, had been eminently prosperous in life, and devoted, in the true spirit of Christian charity, a large portion of his ample means and valuable time to the relief of his fellow creatures, or works of public utility and improvement; but this was not his only character: he was also a gentleman of the highest-breeding, and most dignified manners; the life of every scene of innocent amusement or recreation; the head of the most cultivated and elegant society in the capital; and a link between the old Scottish aristocratical families, to which he belonged by birth, and the rising commercial opulence with which he was connected by profession, as well as the literary circle, with which he was intimate from his acquirements.

In 1768, he spent nearly a twelvemonth in London, in Sir Robert, then Mr. Herries’ family; and such was the opinion formed of his abilities even at that early period, that Sir Robert anxiously wished him to settle in the metropolis in business; but though strongly tempted to embrace this offer, from the opening which it would afford to London society, of which he was extremely fond, he had sufficient good sense to withstand the temptation, and prefer the more limited sphere of his own country, as the scene of his future usefulness. But his residence in London at that time had a very important effect upon his future life, by introducing him to the brilliant, literary, and accomplished society of that capital, then abounding in the greatest men who adorned the last century; Dr Johnson, Mr Burke, Sir Joshua Reynolds, Mr Gibbon, Mr Arbuthnot, and a great many others. He repeatedly visited London for months together at different times during the remainder of his life, and was nearly as well known in its best circles as he was in that of his own country. At a very early period of his life he had conceived the highest relish for the conversation of literary men, and he never afterwards omitted an occasion of cultivating those whom chance threw in his way; the result of which was, that he gradually formed an acquaintance, and kept up a correspondence, with all the first literary and philosophical characters of his day. He was early and intimately acquainted with Dr John Gregory, the author of the "Father’s Legacy to his Daughters," and one of the most distinguished ornaments of Scotland at that period, both when he was professor of medicine at Aberdeen, and after he had been removed to the chair of the theory of medicine in Edinburgh; and this friendship continued with so much warmth till the death of that eminent man, that he named him one of the guardians to his children; a duty which he discharged with the most scrupulous and exemplary fidelity. At a still earlier period he became intimate with Mr Arbuthnot; and this friendship, founded on mutual regard, continued unbroken till the death of that excellent man, in 1803. His acquaintance with Dr Beattie commenced in 1765, and a similarity of tastes, feelings, and character, soon led to that intimate friendship, which was never for a moment interrupted in this world, and of which Sir William has left so valuable and touching a proof in the life of his valued friend, which he published in 1805. So high an opinion had Dr Beattie formed, not only of his character, but judgment and literary acquirements, that he consulted him on all his publications, and especially on a "Postscript to the second edition of the Essay on Truth," which he submitted before publication to Dr John Gregory, Mr Arbuthnot, and Sir William.

He formed an acquaintance with Mrs Montague, at the house of Dr Gregory in Edinburgh, in 1766; and this afforded him, when he went to London, constant access to the drawing-room of that accomplished lady, then the centre not only of the whole literary and philosophical, but all the political and fashionable society of the metropolis. He there also became acquainted with Dr Porteous, then rector of Lambeth, and afterwards bishop of London, not only a divine of the highest abilities, but destined to become a prelate of the most dignified and unblemished manners, with whom he ever after kept up a close and confidential correspondence. Sylvester Douglas, afterwards lord Glenbervie, was one of his early and valued friends. He also was acquainted with Dr Moore, then dean, afterwards archbishop of Canterbury; and Bennet Langton, a gentleman well known in the highest literary circles of London. Sir Joshua Reynolds early obtained a large and deserved share of his admiration and regard, and has left two admirable portraits of Sir William, which convey in the happiest manner the spirit of the original; while Dr Johnson, whose acquaintance with him commenced in 1773, on his return from his well known tour in the Hebrides, conceived such a regard for his character, that he ever after, on occasion of his visits to London, honoured him with no common share of kindness and friendship. With Mr Boswell, the popular author of the "Life of Johnson," he was of course through his whole career on intimate terms. Miss Bowdler, well known for her valuable writings on religious subjects; lord Hailes, the sagacious and enlightened antiquary of Scottish law; Mr Garrick, and Mr Burke, were also among his acquaintances. But it is superfluous to go farther into detail on this subject; suffice it to say, that he was an early member of the Literary Club in London, and lived all his life in terms of acquaintance or intimacy with its members, which contained a list of names immortal in English history; Samuel Johnson, Edmund Burke, Joshua Reynolds, Oliver Goldsmith, Thomas Warton, Edward Gibbon.

The friendship and acquaintance of such men necessarily led Sir William Forbes into a very extensive and interesting literary correspondence, a species of composition then much more usual than at this time, and which, if it sometimes engrossed time which might have been employed to more advantage, always exhibited a picture of thoughts and manners which future ages will look for in vain in the present generation of eminent men. His papers accordingly, contain a selection of interesting letters from great men, such as it rarely fell to the lot of any single individual, how fortunate or gifted soever, to accumulate. He was employed after the death of his esteemed and venerable friend, Mr Carr, of the Cowgate chapel, by his bequest, in the important duty of arranging and preparing the sermons for publication, which were afterwards given to the world; and he prepared, along with Dr Beattie and Mr Arbuthnot, the simple and pathetic inscription, which now stands over the grave of that excellent man, at the west end of St Paul’s chapel, Edinburgh.

His intimate acquaintance with the first literary characters of the day, and the extensive correspondence which had thus fallen into his hands, probably suggested to Sir William Forbes the idea of writing the life of Dr Beattie, one of his earliest and most valued friends, and whose eminence was not only such as to call for such an effort of biography, but whose acquaintance with all the eminent writers of the time, rendered his life the most favourable opportunity for portraying the constellation of illustrious men who shed a glory over Scotland at the close of the eighteenth century. He executed this work accordingly, which appeared in 1805, shortly before his death, in such a way as to give the most favourable impression of the distinction which he would have attained as an author, had his path in general not lain in a more extended and peculiar sphere of usefulness. It rapidly went through a second edition, and is now deservedly ranked high among the biographical and historical remains of the last century. Independent of the value and interest of the correspondence from the first characters of the day which it contains, it embraces an admirable picture of the life and writings of its more immediate subject, and is written in a lucid and elegant style, which shows how well the author had merited the constant intercourse which he maintained with the first literary characters of the age. Of the moral character of the work, the elevated and Christian sentiments which it conveys, no better illustration can be afforded, than by the transcript of the concluding paragraph of the life of his eminent friend; too soon, and truly, alas! prophetic of his own approaching dissolution:

"Here I close my account of the Life of Dr Beattie; throughout the whole of which, I am not conscious of having, in any respect, misrepresented either his actions or his character; and of whom to record the truth is his best praise.

"On thus reviewing the long period of forty years that have elapsed since the commencement of our intimacy, it is impossible for me not to be deeply affected by the reflection, that of the numerous friends with whom he and I were wont to associate, at the period of our earliest acquaintance, all, I think, except three, have already paid their debt to nature; and that in no long time, (how soon is only known to Him, the great Disposer, of all events) my grey hairs shall sink into the grave, and I also shall be numbered with those who have been. May a situation so awful make its due impression on my mind! and may it be my earnest endeavour to employ that short portion of life which yet remains to me, in such a manner, as that, when that last dread hour shall come, in which my soul shall be required of me, I may look forward with trembling hope to a happy immortality, through the merits and mediation of our ever blessed Redeemer !"

Nor was Sir William Forbes’s acquaintance by any means confined to the circle of his literary friends, how large and illustrious soever that may have been. It embraced also, all the leading fashionable characters of the time; and at his house were assembled all the first society which Scotland could produce in the higher ranks. The duchess of Gordon, so well known by her lively wit and singular character; the duke of Athol, long the spirited and patriotic supporter of Highland improvements; Sir Adolphus Oughton, the respected and esteemed commander-in-chief, were among his numerous acquaintances. Edinburgh was not at that period as it is now, almost deserted by the nobility and higher classes of the landed proprietors, but still contained a large portion of the old or noble families of the realm; and in that excellent society, combining, in a remarkable degree, aristocratic elegance, with literary accomplishments, Sir William Forbes’s house was perhaps the most distinguished. All foreigners, or Englishmen coming to Scotland, made it their first object to obtain letters of introduction to so distinguished a person; and he uniformly received them with such hospitality and kindness as never failed to make the deepest impression on their minds, and render his character nearly as well known in foreign countries as his native city.

Of the estimation in which, from this rare combination of worthy qualities, he was held in foreign countries, no better proof can be desired than is furnished by the following character of him, drawn by an Italian gentleman who visited Scotland in 1789, and published an account of his tour at Florence in the following year.—"Sir William Forbes is descended from an ancient family in Scotland, and was early bred to the mercantile profession, and is now the head of a great banking establishment in Edinburgh. The notes of the house to which he belongs circulate like cash through all Scotland, so universal is the opinion of the credit of the establishment. A signal proof of this recently occurred, when, in consequence of some mercantile disasters which had shaken the credit of the country, a run took place upon the bank. He refused the considerable offers of assistance which were made by several of the most eminent capitalists of Edinburgh, and by his firmness and good countenance soon restored the public confidence. He has ever been most courteous and munificent to strangers; nor do I ever recollect in any country to have heard so much good of any individual as this excellent person. His manners are in the highest degree both courteous and dignified; and his undeviating moral rectitude and benevolence of heart, have procured for him the unanimous respect of the whole nation. An affectionate husband, a tender and vigilant father, his prodigious activity renders him equal to every duty. He has not hitherto entered upon the career of literature or the arts; but he has the highest taste for the works of others in these departments, and his house is the place where their professors are to be seen to the greatest advantage. He possesses a very fine and well chosen selection of books, as well as prints, which he is constantly adding to. Nothing gives him greater pleasure than to bring together the illustrious men of his own country and the distinguished foreigners who are constantly introduced to his notice; and it was there accordingly, that I met with Adam Smith, Blair, Mackenzie, Ferguson, Cullen, Black, and Robertson; names sufficient to cast a lustre over any century of another country." -_Letters sur Inghilterra, Scozia et Olanda, ii. 345.

Besides his other admirable qualities, Sir William Forbes was accomplished in no ordinary degree. He was extremely fond of reading, and notwithstanding his multifarious duties and numerous engagements, found time to keep up with all the publications of the day, and to dip extensively into the great writers of former days. He was a good draughtsman, and not only sketched well from nature himself, but formed an extensive and very choice collection of prints both ancient and modern. He was also well acquainted with music, and in early life played with considerable taste and execution on the flute and musical glasses. His example and efforts contributed much to form the concerts which at that period formed so prominent a part of the Edinburgh society; and his love for gayety and amusement of every kind, when kept within due bounds, made him a regular supporter of the dancing assemblies, then frequented by all the rank and fashion of Scotland, and formed in a great measure under his guidance and auspices.

Friendship was with him a very strong feeling, founded on the exercise which it afforded to the benevolent affections. He often repeated the maxim of his venerated friend and guardian, lord Pitsligo,— "It is pleasant to acquire knowledge, but still more pleasant to acquire friendship."—No man was ever more warm and sincere in his friendships, or conferred greater acts of kindness on those to whom he was attached; and none left a wider chasm in the hearts of the numerous circles who appreciated his character.

He was extremely fond of society, and even convivial society, when it was not carried to excess. The native benevolence of his heart loved to expand in the social intercourse and mutual good will which prevailed upon such occasions. He thought well of all, judging of others by his own singleness and simplicity of character. His conversational powers were considerable, and his store of anecdotes very extensive. He uniformly supported, to the utmost of his power, every project for the amusement and gratification of the young, in whose society he always took great pleasure, even in his advanced years; insomuch, that it was hard to say whether he was the greatest favourite with youth, manhood, or old age.

No man ever performed with more scrupulous and exemplary fidelity the important duties of a father to his numerous family, and none were ever more fully rewarded, even during his own lifetime, by the character and conduct of those to whom he had given birth. In the "Life of Dr Beattie," ii. 136, and 155, mention is made of, a series of letters on the principles of natural and revealed religion, which he had prepared for the use of his children. Of this work, we are only prevented by our limits from giving a few specimens.

He was intimately acquainted with lord Melville, and by him introduced to Mr Pitt, who had frequent interviews with him on the subject of finance. In December, 1790, he was, at Mr Pitt’s desire, consulted on the proposed augmentation of the stamps on bills of exchange, and many of his suggestions on the subject were adopted by that statesman.

No man could have more successfully or conscientiously conducted the important banking concern entrusted to his care. The large sums deposited in his hands, and the boundless confidence universally felt in the solvency of the establishment, gave him very great facilities, if he had chosen to make use of them, for the most tempting and profitable speculations. But he uniformly declined having any concern in such transactions; regarding the fortunes of others entrusted to his care as a sacred deposit, to be administered with more scrupulous care and attention than his private affairs. The consequence was, that though he perhaps missed some opportunities of making a great fortune, yet he raised the reputation of the house to the highest degree for prudence and able management, and thus laid the foundation of that eminent character which it has ever since so deservedly enjoyed.

One peculiar and most salutary species of benevolence, was practised by Sir William Forbes to the greatest extent. His situation as head of a great banking establishment, led to his receiving frequent applications in the way of business for assistance, from young men not as yet possessed of capital. By a happy combination of caution with liberality in making these advances, by inquiring minutely into the habits and moral character of the individuals assisted, and proportioning the advance to their means and circumstances, he was enabled, to an almost incredible extent, to assist the early efforts of industry, without in the least endangering the funds committed by others to his care. Hundreds in every rank in Edinburgh were enabled, by his paternal assistance, to commence life with advantage, who otherwise could never have been established in the world; and numbers who afterwards rose to affluence and prosperity, never ceased in after years to acknowledge with the warmest gratitude, the timely assistance which first gave the turn to their heretofore adverse fortunes, and laid the foundation of all the success which they afterwards attained.

The benevolence of his disposition and the warmth of his heart seemed to expand with the advance of life and the increase of his fortune. Unlike most other men, he grew even more indulgent and humane, if that were possible, in his older than his earlier years. The intercourse of life, and the experience of a most extensive business, had no effect in diminishing his favourable opinion of mankind, or cooling his ardour in the pursuit of beneficence. Viewing others in the pure and unsullied mirror of his own mind, he imputed to them the warm and benevolent feelings with which he himself was actuated; and thought they were influenced by the same high springs of conduct which directed his own life. It was an early rule with him to set aside every year a certain portion of his income to works of charity, and this proportion increasing with the growth of his fortune, ultimately reached an almost incredible amount. Unsatisfied even with the immense extent and growing weight of his public and private charities, he had, for many years before his death, distributed large sums annually to individuals on whom he could rely to be the almoners of his bounty; and his revered friend, bishop Jolly, received in this way 100 a year, to be distributed around the remote village of Fraserburgh, in Aberdeen-shire. These sums were bestowed under the most solemn promise of secrecy, and without any one but the person charged with the bounty being aware who the donor was. Numbers in this way in every part of the country partook of his charity, without then knowing whose was the hand which blessed them; and it frequently happened, that the same persons who had been succoured by his almoners, afterwards applied to himself; but on such occasions he invariably relieved them if they really seemed to require assistance; holding, as he himself expressed it, that his public and private charities were distinct; and that his right hand should not know what his left hand had given.

Lady Forbes having fallen into bad health, he was advised by her physician to spend the winter of 1792-3 in the south of Europe; and this gave him an opportunity of enjoying what he had long desired, without any probable prospect of obtaining—a visit to the Italian peninsula. He left Scotland in autumn, 1792; and returned in June, 1793. His cultivated taste made him enjoy this tour in the very highest degree; and the beneficial effect it produced on lady Forbes’s health, permitted him to feel the luxury of travelling in those delightful regions without any alloy. In going up the Rhine, he was arrested by a sentinel, while sketching the splendid castellated cliffs of Ehrenbreitzen; and only liberated on the commanding officer at the guard-house discovering that his drawings had nothing of a military character. The English society at Rome and Naples was very select that year, and he made many agreeable acquaintances, both in the Italian and British circles; to which he always afterwards looked back with the greatest interest. During the whole tour he kept a regular journal, which he extended when he returned home, at considerable length.

He was frequently offered a seat in parliament, both for the city of Edinburgh, and the county of Aberdeen; but he uniformly declined the offer. In doing so, he made no small sacrifice of his inclinations to a sense of duty; for no man ever enjoyed the society of the metropolis more than he did; and none had greater facilities for obtaining access to its most estimable branches, through his acquaintance with Dr Johnson, the Literary Club, the archbishop of Canterbury, and the bishop of London. But he felt that the attractions of this refined and intellectual society might withdraw him too much from his peculiar and allotted sphere of usefulness in life; and, therefore, he made a sacrifice of his private wishes in this particular to his conscientious feelings: a proceeding which, though strictly in unison with what his character would lead us to expect, is a greater instance of self-denial, than most men under similar temptations could have exerted.

His high character, extensive wealth, and old, and once ennobled family, naturally pointed him out as the person, in all Scotland, most worthy of being elevated to the peerage. In 1799, accordingly, his friend lord Melville wrote to him, that Mr Pitt proposed to recommend to his majesty to bestow an Irish peerage upon him. Though highly flattered by this unsolicited mark of regard in so high a quarter, his native good sense at once led him to see the disadvantages of the glittering offer. After mentioning it to lady Forbes, who entirely concurred with him, he resolved, however, to lay the matter before his eldest son, the late Sir William, whom he justly considered as more interested in the proposed honour, than he could be at his advanced years. He communicated the proposal, accordingly, to Mr Forbes, without any intimation of his opinion, and desired him to think it maturely over before giving his answer. Mr Forbes returned next day, and informed him, that personally he did not desire the honour; that he did not conceive his fortune was adequate to the support of the dignity; and that, although he certainly would feel himself bound to accept the family title of Pitsligo, if it was to be restored, yet, he deemed the acceptance of a new title too inconsistent with the mercantile establishment with which his fortunes were bound up, to render it an object of desire. Sir William informed him that these were precisely his own ideas on the subject; that he was extremely happy to find that they prevailed equally with one so much younger in years than himself; and that he had forborne to express his own ideas on the subject, lest his parental influence should in any degree interfere with the un-biassed determination of individual more particularly concerned than himself. The honour, accordingly, was respectfully declined; and at the same time so much secrecy observed respecting a proposal, of which others would have been ready to boast, that it was long unknown to the members even of his own family, and only communicated shortly before his death, by the late Sir William, to his brothers, lord Medwyn, and George Forbes, Esq., on whose authority the occurrence is now given.

So scrupulous were his feelings of duty, that they influenced him in minutest particulars, which by other men are decided on the suggestion of the moment, without any consideration. An instance of this occurred at Rome, in spring, 1793. Sir William was at St Peter’s when high mass was performed by cardinal York. He naturally felt a desire to see the last descendant of a royal and unfortunate family, in whose behalf his ancestors had twice taken the field; and was in the highest degree gratified by seeing the ceremony performed by that notable individual. After the mass was over, it was proposed to him to be presented to the cardinal; but though very desirous of that honour, he felt at a loss by what title to address him, as he had taken the title of Henry IX., by which he was acknowledged by France and the pope. To have called him, "your majesty," seemed inconsistent with the allegiance he owed, and sincerely felt, to the reigning family in Britain; while, to have addressed him as "your eminence," merely, might have hurt the feelings of the venerable cardinal, as coming from the descendant of a house noted for their fidelity to his unfortunate family. The result was, that he declined the presentation; an honour which, but for that difficulty, would have been the object of his anxious desire.

But the end of a life of so much dignity and usefulness, the pattern of benevolence, refinement, and courtesy, was at length approaching. He had a long and dangerous illness in 1791, from which, at the time, he had no hopes of recovery; and which he bore with the resignation and meekness which might have been expected from his character. Though that complaint yielded to the skill of his medical friends, it left the seeds of a still more dangerous malady, in a tendency to water in the chest. In 1802, he had the misfortune to lose lady Forbes, the loved and worthy partner of his virtues; which sensibly affected his spirits, though he bore the bereavement with the firmness and hope which his strong religious principles inspired. In May, 1806, shortly after his return from London, whither he had been summoned as a witness on lord Melville’s trial, he began to feel symptoms of shortness of breath; and the last house where he dined was that of his son, lord Medwyn, on occasion of the christening of one of his children, on the 28th of June, 1806. After that time, he was constantly confined to the house; the difficulty of breathing increased, and his sufferings for many months were very severe. During all this trying period, not a complaint ever escaped his lips. He constantly prayed for assistance to be enabled to bear whatever the Almighty might send; and at length death closed his memorable career, on the 12th November, 1806; when surrounded by his family, and supported by all the hopes and consolations of religion, amidst the tears of his relations, and the blessings of his country.

Sir William Forbes was succeeded in his title and estates by his son, the late Sir William, a man of the most amiable and upright character, who having been cut off in the middle of his years and usefulness, was succeeded by his son, the present Sir John Stuart Forbes. The subject of our memoir left two sons, Mr. John Ray Forbes (lord Medwyn) and Mr George Forbes, and five daughters, four of whom were married: lady Wood, wife of Sir Alexander Wood; Mrs Macdonald of Glengarry; Mrs. Skene of Rubislaw; and Mrs Mackenzie of Portmore. We close this notice of Sir William Forbes in the words of Sir Walter Scott, who, in his notes to "Marmion," remarks of him, that he was "unequalled, perhaps, in the degree of individual affection entertained for him by his friends, as well as in the general esteem and respect of Scotland at large;" and who, in that noble poem, commemorates his virtues with equal truth and tenderness:—

"Far may we search, before we find
A heart so manly and so kind!"


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