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.
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.
Theories on the Derivation of Forbes
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.” This theory does not account for the fact that the land of Forbes rests in the foothills of the Cairngorm Mountains and includes Lonach Hill, Cothiemuir Hill, and Bennachie Mountain.
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.
Legends of Forbes
One legend of the origin of the family of Forbes recounts 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.” (Dalrymple, David; Annals of Scotland, 1776; and Martin, George; Genealogical Collections, 1750.) No surnames existed in that age, unless as patronymic, "son of." No daughter of Giric mac Dúngail, the Gaelic form of Gregory, son of Dúngail, is mentioned in The Chronicle of the Kings of Alba which covers the period from Kenneth MacAlpin (Cináed mac Ailpín) who died in 858 to the reign of Kenneth II (Cináed mac Maíl Coluim) who ruled from 971 to 995.
Another legend relates that in around 775 A.D., the Dalriadic warrior O’Conchar (or Ochonchar) killed a bear at the Nine Maidens’ Well at Logie, in the parish of Auchindore, near the present-day Castle Forbes. For this valiant achievement, he won the “dúthchas” (the Gaelic word for domain by right) for a substantial estate in Aberdeenshire. He was then called "Forbhasach," Gaelic for "forward leaning" or "bold." His descendants later intermarried with the Pictish people.
Yet another legend claims that Ochonocar (or Ochoncar) was a lord in Ireland who was “desirous to gain honour” and came to Scotland which was then “infested with the Danes.” (Lumsden, Mathew; Memoirs of the House of Forbes, 1580). 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.” (Ibid.) This Ochonocar also killed a large bear and 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.” (Ibid.) Of course, heraldry did not develop until the 12th century and by then the family of Forbes had long been established in their “dúthchas.”
The author may have been confused 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.
Forbhasach, the Bold
The most likely source of the name “Forbes” is from the descriptive Irish Gaelic name Forbhasach. Literally, this meant a "large head" and was an idiom for "forward leaning" or “bold.” Today, the Gaelic definition is "top heavy." 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.
Dal Riada and Pictland
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 Irish missionary Columcille or Saint Columba (521 –597) recounted: “Moirsheiser do Cruitline clainn, Eaindset Albain i seclit raind, Cait, Cé, Cirig, cethach clanii. Fib, Fidach, Fotla, Fortrenn. The English translation is “Seven children of Cruthne divided Alban (Scotland) into seven divisions. Cait, Ce, Cirig, a warlike clan. Fib, Fidach, Fotla, Fortrenn.” (Skene, William Forbes, Editor; Chronicles of the Picts, Chronicles of the Scots, and Other Early Memorials of Scottish History, 1867)
Rise of Clan Forbes
The people in these Pictish regions were ruled by hereditary chiefs, later known as mormaers and earls. The Forbes dúthchas, or ancestral land, was located in the mormaerdom of Mar within the region of Cé. The people of Forbes were governed by the Earl of Mar, their first chief.
As the family of Forbes grew and gained power, they established their own clan. In the year 1271 (or 1272 in the later Gregorian calendar), Alexander III (1241–1286) officially granted the ancestral lands of Forbes to Duncan de Forbes (or Forbeys.) (Skene, William Forbes; The Highlanders of Scotland, Their Origin, History, and Antiquities, 1837) He was the first laird of Forbes and the first clan chief.
In 1429, King James II, granted Duncan’s descendant Sir Alexander de Forbes a royal charter that consolidated most of the estates he had accumulated into the Barony of Forbes. In 1445, Lord Forbes is first specifically mentioned as sitting in Parliament. His brothers established other branches: William becamse the laird of Kynaldy and Pitsligo, John became the laird of Tolquhon, and Alistair Cam became the laird of Brux. Lord Forbes’s personal coat of arms or armorial achievement includes a shield with three muzzled bear heads and a crest depicting a stag’s head. This crest, surrounded by a belt, may be displayed by all members of Clan Forbes.
Forbes as Surname
The use of surnames in Scotland was first commanded by Malcolme Canmore, also known as Máel Coluim mac Donnchada, King of the Scots. In 1061, he rewarded his supporters with lands and "commandit, that ilk man half his office and landis namit efter his surname. He maid mony erlis, lordis, baronis, and knichtis." (History and Chronicles of Scotland: Written in Latin by Hector Boece, translation by John Bellenden, published 1536, reprint 1821.)
However, surnames were still not common in the next century. "No surnames appear in the charters of Alexander I (1106-1153), but in the reign of his brother and successor, David I (1124-1153), we find them coming into use. (Black, George F, and Black, Mary Elder; The Surnames of Scotland, 1946.)
Even in as late as 1296, the use of surnames had not been universally embraced. In the documents known as the “Ragman Rolls” some names, Scottish nobles are refenced both by a surname and by the land to which they own title. (Excerpta Ex Instrumento Publico Sive Processu Super Fidelitatibus Et Homagiis Scotorum Domino Regi Anglie Factis A. D. MCCXCI, Etc.)
The common use of Forbes as a surname seems to have started within the lifetime of Alexander, 1st Lord Forbes (circa 1380 - 1448.) In 1402, the charter of the lands of Edinbanchory and Craiglogy, was granted by Isabel Douglas, Countess of Mar, to "Alexander de Forbes, Miles" (soldier.) In 1423, Alexander Stewart, Earl of Mar, granted the lands of Alford to "dilecto consanguineo sui Alexandrae Forbes, milite, et carissimo consanguinee Elizabeth de Douglas" ("beloved cousin Alexander Forbes, soldier, and dear cousin Elizabeth of Douglas," Alexander's fiancée and granddaughter of Robert III.)
By the time of his death in 1448, Alexander, 1st Lord Forbes, had greatly expanded the family fortune, land, and influence.
James Ochoncar Forbes, 17th Lord Forbes (1765–1843), named after O’Conchar (or Ochonocar) Forbhasach.
Legend of Ochoncar
In spite of having no basis in written records, 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.