A stone roughly carved into the shape of a bear’s head was discovered near the site where O’Conchar Forbhasach II is reputed to have killed a great bear. This is now embedded above the main fireplace at Castle Forbes.
Urquhart Castle on Loch Ness. Credit: VistScotland
Kingdom of Dal Riada (Dalriada) and Pictland in the early Middle Ages. Credit: Karl Craig.
James Ochoncar Forbes, 17th Lord Forbes (1765–1843), named after O’Conchar (or Ochonocar) Forbhasach.
Origins of the House of Forbes
The history of the House of Forbes is the history of Scotland itself. From ancient times to the present, the family has had an outsized impact on the events, politics, and culture that has shaped Scotland. As the House of Forbes has spread thoughout the world, it has continued to make unique contributions to its host counties.
While the impact of the House of Forbes is undisputed, its origins remain obscured by the mists of time. One belief is that the name “Forbes” is derived from the territory occupied by their ancestors based on the Gaelic word “forba” meaning “field.” Another popular, if anachronistic, explanation is that the name is a contraction of the latter-day English words “For Beast” since the founder of the house was reputed to have killed a savage bear. The word “beast” is from Middle English beeste or beste itself from Old French beste (French bête) and from Latin bēstia. The early Gael would not be familiar with any of these later languages or with Latin.
As noted in Highland Clans of Scotland: Their History and Tarditions (George Eyre-Todd, 1923), “there are traditions which trace back the genealogy of the Forbeses to the blood of the early Celtic kings of Scotland, and through them to a still more remote ancestry in the royal race of Ireland.” One of those traditions is related in the Annals of Scotland (Sir David Dalrymple, 1776.) The Annals repeats the claim made in Genealogical Collections (Martin of Clermont, 1750), that “one Salvathius Forbes married Moravilla, daughter of Gregory the Great, King of Scotland, about 870, and that all the Forbes’s <sic> in Scotland are descended from him.”
One legend relates that in around 775 A.D., the Dalriadic warrior O’Conchar Forbhasach killed a bear at the Nine Maidens’ Well at Logie, in the parish of Auchindore, near Castle Forbes. For this valiant achievement, he won the “duthchas” (the Gaelic word for domain by right) for a substantial estate in Aberdeenshire. His descendants later intermarried with the Pictish people. Note that the anglisized form of O’Conchar or Oconochar is “Alexander.”
Another oral history, recounted centuries later, involves Urquhart Castle. Memoirs of the House of Forbes (Mathew Lumsden of Tillikairn, 1580) claims that the progenitor was Ochonocar, the son of Ochonocar (or Ochoncar) who was a lord in Ireland. This son was “desirous to gain honour” came to Scotland which was then “infested with the Danes.” The Dalriadic king at the time gave him the land surrounding the Castle of Alas, later called Urquhart. Ochonocar died a battle against “those insulting and merciless Barbarians who then overanne these northern provinces.” His pregnant wife fled back to Ireland and gave birth to a son who was also called Ochonocar. When he came of age, this Ochonocar came to Scotland and claimed his father’s inheritance. Since the King had already given away the estates around Urquhart Castle, he gave Ochonocar instead “the lands of Logie upon the bank of the river Done, which in the Lord Forbes ancient evidents, are thus bounded between Essack, Massach, Bogie and Done.” Lumsden also relates that this Ochonocar killed a large bear. The king awarded him a knighthood and arms bearing three muzzled bears. He concludes that “from thence was surnamed Ochonchar Forbear or Forbass and by contraction Forbes.” Lumsden does not mention the meaning or the reason for the surnames.
This story is somewhat at odds with the first written record of Urquhart Castle in 1296, when it was captured by Edward I of England. The Scots had regained control of the castle by 1298. However, Sir Alexander de Forbes lost the castle to the English in 1303. Note that the Memoirs were written more than 280 years after the first documented mention of Urquhart Castle. No written evidence exists about the account of Ochonocar.
The most likely source of the name “Forbes” is from the descriptive Irish Gaelic name Forbhasach, “the man of courage” or, more litarally “man with a bold forehead.” Many Irish warriors and bishops are so named in the 7th and 8th centuries, as noted in the Annals of the Kingdom of Ireland by the Four Masters. In that age, patronymics did not exist and so the name cannot be said to have been that of a family, or succession of holders from father to son.
In the 6th and 7th centuries, Gaelic invaders from northern Ireland created the overkingdom of Dál Riata (also called Dalriada) in the western islands and highlands of Scotland. Dalriadic warriors pushed eastward into Pictland (part of which is now Aberdeenshire) and intermarried with the Picts.
The earliest surnames found in Scotland did not occur until the reign of David I, King of Scots (1124–1153). These were typically Anglo-Norman names which had become hereditary in England before arriving in Scotland. The Peerage of Scotland (Sir Robert Douglas, 1764) observes that the surname of Forbes was most likely derived from the lands in Aberdeenshire that have been in possession of the family since the time of King William the Lion (1142 – 1214, succeeded 1165.) The Peerage also notes that the earliest charter was granted by Alexander, Earl of Buchan, to Fergus, son of John de Forbes, in 1236. Other research has indicated that this charter refers, not to John de Forbes, but to John de Fothes or Fiddes. This charter came to Alexander, first Lord Forbes, when he bought the estate of Fiddes, in Foveran, in 1436.
The Highlanders of Scotland, Their Origin, History, and Antiquities (William Forbes Skene, 1837) states that Alexander III (1241–1286) made a grant of the lands and tenements of Forbes to Duncan de Forbes (or Forbeys) in the year 1271 (or 1272 based on the later Gregorian calendar.) John Forbes, the 8th Lord Forbes, produced the 1271 charter before Parliament in 1593 in order to prove that he was the true and lawful holder of his lands in Edinbanchrie (Edinbanchory) and Craiglogy.
The original charter was last seen and handled by William Forbes, 13th Lord Forbes, before he succeeded to the title and estates in 1716. In 1730, he described it in a letter to a French cousin as a parchment of two or three fingers breadth. The wording of the charter, as given by Skene, did not make clear whether the man was called after the lands, or the lands after the man.
Therefore, the most reasonable conclusions about the origins of the House of Forbes was that the name itself was derived from the Irish Gaelic “Forbhasach” for “man of courage,” families that frequently named their sons Forbhasach lived in the lands now called Aberdeenshire for many centuries, both the land and the families were called Forbes, and that the first documented individual to use “Forbes” or “Forbeys” as a surname was Duncan de Forbes who received a land grant from Alexander III in 1271.
However, the legend of the mighty Ochonocar who slew the great bear has proven to be very popular over the years. In fact, several members of the House of Forbes have been named after the legendary beast-killer:
James Ochoncar Forbes, 17th Lord Forbes (1765–1843), was the eldest son of James Forbes, 16th Baron Forbes, by Catherine, only daughter of Sir Robert Innes, baronet, of Orton. He began his military career in 1781 in the Coldstream Guards and rose to General in 1819. His daughter Charlotte Elizabeth married Sir John Forbes, 7th Baronet (1785–1846), and was the mother of William Forbes-Sempill, 17th Lord Sempill and James Ochoncar Forbes, of Corse Castle.
James Ochoncar Forbes (1837—1900) inherited Corse Castle while his brother William Forbes-Sempill, 17th Lord Sempill, had inherited Craigievar Castle and a peerage from a cousin. On the death of Forbes in 1900, the estate was inherited by his son John Walter Forbes, who died unmarried in 1912, and then by his younger son Lieutenant Colonel James Ochoncar Forbes (1867—1945), a Deputy Lieutenant for Aberdeenshire.
Rear-Admiral The Hon. Arthur Lionel Ochoncar Forbes-Sempill (1877 – 1962) was the fourth son and youngest child of William Forbes-Sempill, 17th Lord Sempill and Frances Emily Abercromby, daughter of Sir George Abercromby. Forbes Sempill commanded the cruisers HMS Blonde and HMS Cordelia, and was present in the latter at the surrender of the German navy in 1918. By 1919, he was in command of HMS Colossus.