The House of Forbes first met the Lindsays on the battlefield at Arbroath on 24 January 1445/46. The conflict was between rival claimants to the post of Baillie of the Regality.
The monks of the Abbey of Abroath appointed Alexander Lindsay, Master of Crawford and Chief of the Lindsays, as the "Bailie of the Regality" who was tasked with dispensing justice. The Lindsays were allied with the Douglases who were the most powerful family in Angus at the time. The Master of Crawford as known as the “Tiger Earl” for his ferocity and as “Earl Beardie” for his for his long bushy beard. Crawford used his position to quarter a large number of his boisterious men in the abbey. Consequently, the monks replaced him with Alexander Ogilvy, 2nd Baron of Inverquharity, who was a member of another powerful family in Angus and had a hereditary claim to the office.
The Master of Crawford disputed the appointment of Ogilvy and appeared before the Abbey with an army of a thousand men, from the Hamiltons and Lindsays. Ogilvy musterd his vassals and forces from his allies such as Sir Alexander Seton of Gordon (later Earl of Huntly), Sir John Oliphant of Aberdagie, James Maxwell of Tealing, Brucklay of Gartley, Gordon of Borrowfield, and Sir William Forbes, 1st Lord Pitsligo, second son of Sir John Forbes of the Black Lip, and immediate younger brother of the 1st Lord Forbes of That Ilk.
According to George Hay (History of Arbroath to the Present Time, 1876), the David Lindsay, 3rd Earl of Crawford, the Master of Crawford’s father, hastened from Dundee to Arbroath and was “desirous to make a last attempt to prevent those hostilities the prospect of which his ‘Tiger' son probably enjoyed. With this purpose he rode between the lines, in order to confer with Ogilvy, when one of the latter's men threw a spear, which struck the Earl in the mouth, so that he instantly fell dead.” The Earl’s death “put an end to all hope of an amicable solution of the difficulty.”
George Buchanan (The History of Scotland, 1562, translated from Latin by James Aikman, 1827) relays the story that one of the combatants cried out “why do you bring these goads (spears) as if you meant to engage with oxen, let us throw them aside, and sword in hand, with true bravery, decide our quarrel as becomes men.” For some season, both armies cast away their spears, except about a hundred men of Clydesdale, sent by Douglas to assist the Lindsays. They brought up the spears when within reach of the Ogilvy forces, which were “terrified by the unexpected appearance of the weapons, broke their ranks, and fled in disorder.”
The Ogilvys and their allies were driven from the field but rallied about three miles from the town, near what is now the village of Leysmill. That battles resulted in the death of the Alexander Ogilvy, Earl of Crawford; Brucklay of Gartley, Gordon of Borrowfield, Sir John Oliphant of Aberdalgie, and Sir William Forbes, 1st Lord Pitsligo. The battle of Arbroath was commemorated in an old ballad, only four lines of which have come down to this age:–
“At Arbrodyett the pley began,
To the Loan o' the Leys they did rin,
An' there the battle did begin,
An' the Lindsays ower the Ogilbys ran.'
The Forbeses did not forget the death of Lord Pitsligo at the hands of the Lindsays – and they took their revenge for Arbroath by utterly defeating “Earl Beardie” Crawford and the Lindsays at the Battle of Brechin in 1452.
In 1449, King James II raised Alexander Seton to the office of lieutenant-general of the kingdom and to the peerage by styling him first Earl of Huntly and the Lord of Badenoch, Gordon, Strathbogie and Cluny. Huntley later adopted the family name of Gordon in about 1457.
James, 2nd Lord Forbes, had long been friendly with William Douglas, 8th Earl of Douglas, to whom he was third cousin once removed. Even when Douglas was banished, Forbes “scorned to desert at this lowebb of his fortunes,” accoring to the House of Forbes manuscript. Therefore, “Douglas entirely loved him, not only as his near relation in blood, but also for those many excellent vertues and attractive qualities decerned in him."
When Douglas returned from banishment in 1451, Douglas began intriguing against King James II with John Macdonald, 11th Earl of Ross (and Lord of the Isles) and Alexander Lindsay, 4th Earl of Crawford and Chief of the Lindsays. He attempted to also recruit Forbes, who steadfastly refused, “wisely considering that the most honest and loyal engagements are commonly the safest at the Long run, and that it would be but coarse politiques to abandon the fortune of his family, which was so well and peaceably settled.” He may have also chosen against siding with Douglas because he was related to the King. Since his grandmother was the King’s aunt Princess Mary, he was first cousin once removed to the King.
In 1452, King James II accused the Douglas of conspiring with the Earl of Ross and the Earl of Crawford. When Douglas refused to break the bond with Ross, James became enraged, stabbed Douglas and pushed his body out of a window. Angered by the death of Douglas, Crawford rallied the branch of “Black Douglases” and the “Red Douglases” (headed by the Earl of Angus) and took up arms against the King. On the 18th of May 1452, he met the royal forces of the Earl of Huntley on a muir (moor) northeast of the parish of Brechin. Among his army were both James Forbes, 2nd Lord Forbes and his son William (“Grey Willie”) Forbes.
Huntley’s forces won this Battle of Brechin, largely as the result of the defection of Colossie of Bonnymoon, who commanded the left wing of the Earl of Crawford’s army with the Earl of Angus hill-men. Among the dead were Huntley’s brother and nearly sixty gentlemen of rank. Huntly lost his two sons, five barons, and a small number of yeomen. However, Crawford submitted to the king, leaving the Black Douglases more out of favor.
According to Matthew Lumsden (Genealogy of the Family of Forbes), Grey Willie “gave such uncontested proofs of his resolution and bravery, exposing himself to the greatest hazards and danger where the Battel was hottest, reinforcing those of his side and party by his personal courage and daring forwardness when they were beginning to give ground, so animating their staggering resolutions with new file and vigour, that the victory in a great measure was ascribed to his fortitude and the undauntedness of his followers, so that all spake liberally to his advantage and praise.”
The Earl of Huntley apparently agreed with this assessment since he approved “Grey Willie” Forbes’s marriage to his daughter Dame Christian Gordon “by which honourable match the family of Forbes did first contract Allyancc with the Earle of Huntley and the illustrious sirname of Gordone,” according to Lumsden.