Sir William Forbes of Monymusk
Fatherless and poor at the age of four, William Forbes (1739–1806) worked his way up from a being a bank apprentice and clerk to becoming one of Scotland’s greatest bankers and philanthropists of the 18th century.
His family was no stranger to financial difficulties. His great-grandfather William, 4th Baronet, was forced to sell the Monymusk estates. His grandfather, John, married Mary Forbes of Pitsligo, sister of Alexander Forbes, 4th Lord Pitsligo, whose title was attainted and his estates seized due to his support of Charles Edward Stuart (Bonnie Prince Charlie) in both the 1715 and 1745 Jacobite Uprisings. John died before his father, the 4th Baronet, and so his son William inherited the Baronetcy – and little else.
As the 5th Baronet, he married Christian Forbes of Upper Boyndlie in in 1731. Her father, John Forbes, had been shipwrecked and drowned on the coast of Holland in 1715. Their eldest son and only surviving child, also named William, was born in 1739. When young William was only 4 years old, his father died in 1743 at Putachie House (later named Castle Forbes), the seat of his stepfather, Lord Forbes. William inherited the title of 6th Baronet at the age of four. While his father had provided four guardians for his wife Christiana and son William, among them Lord Forbes.
However, the person with the greatest influence on young William’s life was Sir Francis Farquharson of Haughton. Later William would write that to Farquharson, “I owe my whole success in the world.” Sir Francis arranged with Messrs. Coutts, a prominent firm of bankers in Edinburgh, to admit Forbes as an apprentice, and he entered their service in 1754.
Sir William and his mother bought a small house in Forrester's Wynd in Edinburgh which consisted of a couple of rooms, a bed-closet, and kitchen, all on the same floor. They paid rent of £7 a year and employed a single maidservant. He wrote later that “I look back with no common interest on this early period of our domestic history, as it reflects the highest credit on my mother's prudence and exemplary conduct, when thus left to herself, and deprived of my father's assistance.”
The apprenticeship lasted four years, was a clerk in the counting-house for two years more, and then was given a small share in the business as a partner. In 1761, Sir William took over the Edinburgh office when John Coutts, the principal partner of the Edinburgh firm, died. His sons were all based out of the London office. A new partnership was established in 1763 called Forbes, Blair & Herries, Bankers. By 1773 he had become the head of the new house of Forbes, Hunter & Co. The house became one of the most trusted in Scotland, and remained stable in the financial crises and panics of 1772, 1788, and 1793. In 1838, the company merged with the Glasgow Union Banking Company to become the Union Bank of Scotland. In 1955, this bank merged with the Bank of Scotland.
On September 21st, 1770, when 31, Sir William married Elizabeth, daughter of Sir James Hay of Hayston, M.D., by whom he had a numerous family, nine sons and seven daughters. Of the sons, only three lived to grow up: Sir William, his successor; John, Lord Medwyn; and George, of West Coates. Of the daughters who survived, Christian married Alexander Wood, Secretary of the Ionian Isles. Rebecca married Alexander Macdonell of Glengarry. Elizabeth married Colin Mackenzie of Portmore, Clerk of Session. Jane married James Skene of Rubislaw, the friend of Sir Walter Scott and author of The Memories of Sir Walter Scott.
Sir William worked to acquire some of the lost possessions of his ancestors. Lord Pitsligo's only son, the Hon. John Forbes, had bought the Pitsligo estates. When he died in 1781, the estates passed on to Sir William. He improved the estate and laid out the village of New Pitsligo in 1783. In that same year, Sir William was a co-founder of the Royal Society of Edinburgh. Forbes was also involved in philanthropic projects in Edinburgh including the High School, the Merchant Company, the Morningside Lunatic Asylum, and the Blind Asylum.
His wife died in 1802 and he himself died in 1806 at 39 George Street in Edinburgh. He is buried in a vault in Greyfriars Kirkyard. His some of writings include An Account of the Life and Writings of James Beattie, LL.D., the Narrative of the last Sickness and Death of Dame Christian Forbes, and Memoirs of a Banking-House. His grandchildren include the physicist and glaciologist James David Forbes and Sir John Stuart Hepburn Forbes. His great-grandchildren include George Forbes, the well-known electrical engineer, astronomer, explorer, author and inventor.
Left, top: Portrait of Sir William Forbes, 6th Bt. of Pitsligo (1739-1806), Half-Length, Wearing Black and The Order of Nova Scotia, oil by Sir Henry Raeburn, R.A.
Left, center: Illustration from "Memoirs of a Banking-House"
Left, bottom: Burial vault in Greyfriars Kirkyard, Edinburgh, Scotland