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Duthchas of Forbes

Long before the building of the 13th century “Old Tower” of the original Castle Forbes (now called Druminnor Castle), our Gaelic and Pictish ancestors spread throughout what is called Scotland today.

After sheets of ice from the Ice Age started to melt away, humans started migrating into the British Isles. The first immigrants were likely the “Bell Beaker” people, named from the shape of their pottery jars. Starting in about 2,500 B.C., the Bell Beaker people migrated over the land mass known as Doggerland that connected what is now the British Isles to the rest of the Europe land mass. Most likely, the Bell Beaker people moved into northern Scotland and were the origins of the Caledonii, called the “Picts” by the Romans.

About the middle of the second century, a chieftain called Carbry Riada crossed from Ireland (called “Scotia” by the Romans) to the western shores of Alba or Albyn (now called Scotland.) The area he claimed was called “Dál Riata,” meaning Riada’s share or portion. By 503, the settlement was overwhelmed by the native Picts. As reported by A. M. Sullivan: “At length, in the year 503, the neglected colony was utterly overwhelmed by the Picts, whereupon a powerful force of the Irish Dalraids, under the leadership of Leom, Aengus, and Fergus, crossed over, invaded Albany, and gradually subjugating the Picts, reestablished the colony on a basis which was the foundation eventually of the Scottish monarchy of all subsequent history.” Sullivan, A.M. 1909. The Story of Ireland, New Edition. Dublin: M.H. Gill & Son Ltd. and Waterford.) The land was given the name Scotia Minor and Ireland was called Scotia Major. The Dalriadans pushed further into to Pictland with ongoing battles. They later shared cultures and intermarried with the Picts.


So strong had Scotia Minor become that the colony demanded independence from Scotia Major. The colonists turned to Irish cleric Columcille or Saint Columba (521 –597) to plead their cause. In 573, he attended a great convention at Drum Ceit, now known as the Mound of Drumceat near the present town of Limavady in County Londonderry, Northern Ireland. “Long and ably was the question of the Scottish colony debated” but “the result was arrived at, the independence of the young Caledonian nation was recognized and voted by the convention through the exertions of St. Columba.” (Ibid.)

Saint Columba was first who noted that all of Scotia Minor was settled by “clanna” or children of chiefs from Scotia Major (“Cruthne” or “Cruthin”): “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 Ireland 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) These Pictish lands slowly came under the control of the Gaelic hereditary chiefs, later known as mormaers.

At that time, people were known by who their father was (“mac” meant “son of), a physical feature (such “Reid” or red-haired), occupation (such as smith), or the land that they owned. 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.


One 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. The dúthchas of Forbes was located in the mormaerdom of Mar within the region of Cé.

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, first 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.)


As Alexander’s family 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 dúthchas 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 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 became the laird of Kynaldy and Pitsligo, John became the laird of Tolquhon, and Alistair Cam became the laird of Brux.


Once a great estate, the name of Forbes is now a hamlet and incorporated into the Parish of Tullynessle and Forbes in Aberdeenshire.

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