Aberdeen Salmon War

John Forbes was born in 1472 as the third and youngest son of "Grey Willie," 3rd Lord Forbes, and of Christian, daughter of Sir Alexander Seton, Lord Gordon. At age of 21, John succeeded his two childless brothers as the 6th Lord Forbes. His tenure of over 50 years was troubled by intensified feuds with the Leslies and Gordons – and a battle with the city of Aberdeen over salmon.

The Rivers Dee and Don flowed through the ancestral Barony of Forbes and was the spawning ground of salmon, or “black fish” (as opposed to “white fish” which were caught in the sea.) According to David Ditchburn (“Cargoes and Commodities: Aberdeen's Trade with Scandinavia and the Baltic, c.1302 - c.1542,” Scottish Society for Northern Studies, 1990) “Aberdeen dominated the Scottish salmon trade, its custumars accounting for between just over a third and just over a half of customable salmon exports in each decade between the 1460s and the 1530s.”


The Forbes family traditionally protected the fishing rights for Aberdeen fishermen and in return received a tun of wine every year. However, according to the Annals of Aberdeen, “In the year 1521, John, Lord Forbes, first commenced offensive operations against the town and community, by using every expedient to interrupt and destroy the salmon fishings of the rivers Dee and Don.” (Council Register, Volume X, page 335.)

As a result, the city of Aberdeen started withholding the wine payment. On May 20th, 1530, the Council of Aberdeen sent a letter stating the following (with modern spelling and according to the Annals of Aberdeen): "In it yr Lordship desires the tun of wine we promised to your Lordship… Please your Lordship give us your bond and your Lordship's seal and subscription to cause the black fish to be keipit, in undue season and to punish the slayers thereof by justice and our Sovereign lords authority, which your Lordship has. And your Lordship shall have our bond, which was promised and is lying in our Clerk's bands, and thankful payment yearly.”


Lord Forbes apparently ignored the letter and so on July 29th, 1530, the Council charged the Provost and baillies “to make ready all the artillery of the town and lay the same to the ports and other necessary places and that powder and all things necessary be furnished and made ready for the defence of the good town; and if it should happen the Lord Forbes or his friends to come to the said town with convocation of the King's lieges in any great number, that the common bell be rung incontinent and call all the neighbours and stop them to enter within the said burgh except they leave their multitudes and come with their daily train."


Lord Forbes, John Forbes of Pitsligo, Arthur Forbes of Brux, and several clansmen and servants did indeed invade the town of Aberdeen. The citizens drove the Forbes party to take refuge in the Grey Friars section of Gallowgate, home of the Order of Friars Minors of the Observance of St. Francis. One of the Forbes' adherents and several citizens were killed, and the assailants were eventually allowed to retreat.


According to the Annals of Aberdeen (Council Register, Volume XII, page 876), “On the side of the townsmen several were killed; the loss on the part of the Forbeses amounted to one servant slain, an arm hewn from one clansman, a finger from another and two from a third.” The citizens also seized the Forbes horses. Alexander Forbes of Brux filed a “breach of peace” lawsuit against the Aberdeen Provost and citizens. However, the defendants were acquitted by the High Court of Justiciary at Linlithgow.


Lord Forbes was then obliged on December 12th, 1530, to give a bond to the Aberdeen Council by which he became bound for himself and his sons that the magistrates and citizens of Aberdeen and their ally, Alexander Fraser of Philorth, should be harmless at the hands of himself and his sons, under penalty of £5,000 to be paid to the king. In the end, Lord Forbes had his wine, and the salmon were protected in spawning time. As Lewis Smith (The Book of Bon-Accord: Or A Guide to the City of Aberdeen, 1839) reported “Thus constrained to peace, their friendly intercourse with the city was in no long time renewed.”

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