Select Forbes Surname Genealogy

Forbes is a Scottish clan name in Aberdeenshire.  Originally it was pronounced in two syllables, "for" and "bays," but that is now lost.

Forbes is said to have come from the Gaelic term forb-ais, meaning "at the land."  However, a number of other theories about the origin of Forbes abound.  Clan tradition generally associates the name with the slaying of a wild boar (the heads of three boars adorn their coat of arms).   The Forbes gathering cry of "Lonach" comes from the name of a hill at Strathdon in Aberdeenshire where the clan assembled in times of trouble.  Forbes men still march at the annual Lonach Highland Gathering.   

In Ireland, the Forbes name can be an anglicization of the Gaelic Firbhisigh, a personal name composed of the elements "man" and "prosperity."  MacFirbhisigh was the name of a celebrated family of historians and anitiquarians in Connacht.

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Scotland.  Forbes is a place-name in Aberdeenshire and the first Forbes of the clan to hold that name was John de Forbes in the early 13th century.  

Alexander de Forbes was made governor of Urquhart castle near Inverness and defended it against Edward I of England in 1304.  He was forced to surrender with his garrison, but the English then put every man alive to the sword - except for the governor's pregnant wife:

"One day the gate of the castle had opened and the English saw a beggar woman emerge, apparently involuntarily.  The tale she told was that she had happened to be inside the castle when the siege began, but that now, as provisions were running short, the garrison were no longer willing to feed a useless mouth and had driven her out.  The English believed this account and allowed her to pass."

She managed to escape to Ireland and there delivered a son.  This son eventually returned to Scotland and it was from his son, Sir John of the Black Lip, that the various Forbes branches in Scotland traced their descent.

The main line of Forbes, from their stronghold at Druminor castle, were prominent at various times in Scottish history.  They were early among the Highland clans to adopt the Protestant faith, putting themselves at odds with their neighbors, the Gordons.  The present Lord Forbes is the 22nd of the line to bear the title.

Other Forbes lines were those of Corse (and Craigievar), Pitsligo (and Newe), and Tolquhoun:
  • the Corse line included early Scottish planters in Ireland
  • the Pitsligo Forbes supported the Jacobites and were attainted after the battle of Culloden
  • while the Tolquhoun Forbes lost everything in the Darien scheme disaster. 
One branch of Tolquhouns prospered as the lairds of Culloden House.  They included "Bumper John" Forbes, the wine lover, and Duncan Forbes, who was the Lord Chief Justice of Scotland at the time of the 1745 uprising.    

Banffshire, to the north of Aberdeen, produced two notable Forbeses: Sir John, the distinguished doctor who was physician to Queen Victoria from 1841 until his death in 1861; and his brother Alexander, an early merchant and writer in what was then Spanish America.  His California: A History of Upper and Lower California was published in 1839.   

The MacFirbises, later anglicized as Forbes, were the compilers of the Book of Lecan in 1417 and of other important works on Irish history.  Their base was Lacken in county Sligo where Ciothruadh MacFirbis had built a castle, now known as Forbes castle, in 1560.  However, the last of these scholars, Duald MacFirbis, was murdered by English troops in 1670 and their influence ended as the old Gaelic order came down.

The Scots brought the Forbes name to Ireland and in particular to county Longford, where Sir Arthur Forbes of Corse (later Lord Granard) was granted land in 1620 and the family built their own Castle Forbes in what was to become Newtown-Forbes.  They have remained in residence there.

America.   John Forbes was a British general in America in the 1750's best known for capturing from the French the town now known as Pittsburgh.  Forbes Avenue, the longest street in Pittsburgh, and Forbes Field, the former baseball stadium, were named after him.
Forbes in Boston  The Forbes of Boston began with the Rev. John Forbes, a descendant of the Scottish Newe Forbes, who married Dolly Murray in Milton, Massachusetts on Boston's south shore in 1769. 

His descendants are considered part of the Boston Brahmins.  It was John's grandson, John Murray Forbes, who built up the family fortunes through trade in China and a judicious investment in railroads.  His son William Hathaway was an early backer of Alexander Graham Bell's telephone company and his son William Cameron was the American Governor-General of the Philippines.  The Forbes were and are widely connected and include in their number John Forbes Kerry, the 2004 Presidential candidate.

Forbes in New York  Another Forbes dynasty was started by B.C. Forbes from Aberdeen who had emigrated to New York in 1904 and worked as a newspaper writer and editor before founding Forbes magazine in 1917.  He remained its editor-in-chief until his death in 1954.  The magazine then passed to his son Malcolm, a more flamboyant character who lived life in the fast lane.

"In 1989, he chose the Palais Mendoub in Tangiers to host his 70th birthday party.  Spending an estimated $2.5 million, he chartered a Boeing 747, a DC-8, and a Concorde to fly in eight hundred of the world's rich and famous from New York and London.  The guests included his friend Elizabeth Taylor, Gianni Agnelli, Barbara Walters, Henry Kissinger, half a dozen US state governors, and a host of CEO's likely to advertise in his magazine."

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

California  Forbes is an important name in the early history of California.  James Alexander Forbes had arrived there from Scotland via South America as early as 1831, marrying and settling down near San Jose.  In 1854 he built a flour mill there, now known as Forbes Mill, with hopes of golden returns.  Unfortunately the mill, poorly constructed, did badly and Forbes was bankrupted.     

Bermuda.  In 1735 Dr. George Forbes from Strathdon in Aberdeenshire arrived in Bermuda where he fell in love with and married Mary Jones, the daughter of a local merchant there, and became a prominent member of the community.  His grandson Francis, a lawyer, migrated to Australia in 1823 when he was appointed Chief Justice of New South Wales.

Australia.  Sir Charles Forbes of Newe never visited Australia, but his name was honored there in Castle Forbes, the scene of a convict uprising in 1833.  Another Forbes in NSW, this time in the Lachlan valley, was named after its Chief Justice, Sir Francis Forbes.

Scottish immigrants Donald and Ethel Forbes began farming at Karadoc in NW Victoria in 1911.  Later Forbes diversified into winemaking in 1971 and the Forbes Zilzie wines are now well-established. 

New Zealand.  Robert and Margaret Forbes from Aberdeenshire were early arrivals in New Zealand, on the Slains Castle in 1841.  They settled in Onehunga near Auckland.  Robert died in 1849 and Margaret spent her remaining years battling poverty and injustice in raising her six children.

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If you would like to read more, click on the miscellany page for further stories and accounts:

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Sir John Forbes is generally considered the forebear of the various Forbes clan branches in Scotland.  He lived in the 14th century.
Duncan Forbes of Culloden was the fair-minded Lord Justice of Scotland at the time of the 1745 Jacobite uprising. 
John Murray Forbes was the Boston businessman who made his fortune in the 19th century through trade with China and railroad investing.
George Forbes was Prime Minister of New Zealand from 1930 to 1935.
Malcolm Forbes was the flamboyant owner and editor of Forbes magazine from 1954 until his death in 1980.

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

PS.  You might want to check out the surnames page on this website.  It covers surname genealogy in this and companion websites for more than 800 surnames.

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