Alexander John Forbes-Leith, 1st Baron Leith of Fyvie
Updated: Jul 12, 2022
The magnificent Fyvie Castle in Aberdeenshire was once a royal fortress. In about 1200 AD, the castle was simply a square wooden structure where Scottish kings would stay when traveling. According to legend, Sir Thomas de Ercildoun (now Earlston), also known as “Thomas the Rhymer” (who was alive in 1220 and died in 1298) was denied shelter in the castle on a stormy night and cursed the eldest sons of the owners. Sir Walter Scott printed several rhymes purported to be the Rhymer's prophecies in 1826, including the “Weeping Stones Curse:”
Fyvie, Fyvie thou'se never thrive,
lang's there's in thee stanes three :
There's ane intill the highest tower,
There's ane intill the ladye's bower,
There's ane aneath the water-yett,
And thir three stanes ye'se never get.
The curse decrees that until all three boundary marker stones are brought together, the firstborn sons of the families who live at Fyvie will never inherit the castle. Only one weeping stone is known to exist and is kept at the castle. The other two have never been found.
In 1370, King Robert II gave the castle to his son, the Earl of Carrick. When the Earl became Robert III in 1390, he transferred ownership to Sir Henry Preston. Sir Henry built the first and oldest surviving structure called Preston Tower at the south east corner.
In 1433, Sir Henry gave the castle to his eldest daughter who married Sir Alexander Meldrum. Sir Alexander built his own tower at the south west corner. In 1596, Sir Alexander’s great-great grandson Sir William Meldrum sold the castle to Sir Alexander Seton, who later became Earl of Dunfermline and Chancellor of Scotland. In 1599, he built the grand Seton tower that forms the entrance with a high arched doorway flanked by twin drum towers. In 1605, Seton also built a grand processional staircase which is decorated with heraldry. His grandson, James Seton, fourth Earl of Dunfermline, rebelled against the British government in the first Jacobite Rebellion of 1688. His lands were confiscated, and the castle was seized by the Crown in 1689.
In 1733 the Crown sold Fyvie Castle to William Gordon, 2nd Earl of Aberdeen. He intended to use the castle for his third wife Anne and her children because he planned to bequeath his Haddo House to his son by his second wife.
From 1770 to 1840, his son William Gordon of Fyvie demolished the old north and east wings, built a new vestibule, and, in 1777, erected the Gordon Tower on the north end of the castle.
Fyvie Castle remained in various lines of the Gordon family until Sir Maurice Duff-Gordon went bankrupt and sold the castle in 1889 for £170,000.
The new owner was Alexander John Forbes-Leith (1847 –1925), a local boy who had made his fortune in the steel industry in the United States. Born in Aberdeen, Alexander Leith was the youngest son of Rear-Admiral John James Leith and his wife Margaret Forbes, daughter and heiress of Alexander Forbes. She was a descendant of Duncan Forbes, second son of the second Lord Forbes. Alexander later assumed the additional surname of Forbes in honor of his mother’s distinguished heritage.
Alexander was educated at Berlin, Prussia, the École spéciale militaire de Saint-Cyr and Dr. Burney's Naval Academy at Gosport, Hampshire. He joined the Royal Navy in 1860 with the rank of Naval Cadet. He was rated Midshipman in 1861 and fought in the New Zealand Wars between 1864 and 1865. He was promoted to Lieutenant in 1869 and retired from military service in 1872.
In 1871, he married Mary Louise (also known as “Marie”) Forbes-Leith (1848 – 1930), daughter of Derrick Algernon January (1814 – 1879) and his first wife Mary Louisa Smith. January was a prominent businessman in St. Louis, Missouri, in the United States. January founded the successful wholesale grocery house of January, Stettinius & Co., built the Lindell Hotel, helped create the Merchants' Bank, and funded the United States Insurance Company.
Through his father-in-law’s connections, Forbes-Leith was employed by the Joliet Iron and Steel Company, for which he eventually became president. The company later merged into Illinois Steel and eventually the United States Steel Corporation. Forbes-Leith was a director of U.S. Steel and a partner in his father-in-law’s Merchant Bank.
In 1889, Forbes-Leith returned to Scotland. He and his wealthy wife purchased Fyvie Castle. They added the final Leith Tower to the immediate west of the Gordon Tower. They also restored the interiors and lavishly furnished the castle with his collection of paintings, tapestries, armor and furniture. Forbes-Leith became a Justice of the Peace and Deputy Lieutenant of Aberdeenshire. In 1905, he was raised to the peerage as Baron Leith of Fyvie, of Fyvie in the County of Aberdeen. The Forbes-Leiths had one son and two daughters (of which the youngest died as an infant). His only son Second Lieutenant Percy Forbes-Leith died in South Africa in 1900 while serving in the Second Boer War. Scotland. Business colleagues donated the Percy Forbes-Leith of Fyvie Tiffany Window Memorial to St. Peter's Church in Fyvie. This is the largest Tiffany stained glass window in Scotland.
Forbes-Leith died in 1925. He was cremated at Golders Green Crematorium and his ashes now rest in St Peter's Parish Church Cemetery, Fyvie, Aberdeenshire, Lady Leith of Fyvie died at Hartwell House in June 1930.
Since Forbes-Leith died without a male heir, the barony died with him. His estates, including Fyvie Castle, passed to his daughter and only surviving child, the Honourable Ethel Forbes-Leith, who married former Conservative Member of Parliament Sir Charles Rosdew Burn, 1st Baronet. In 1925, Sir Charles assumed the surname and arms of Forbes-Leith of Fyvie. This accommodation was expressly determined in his father-in-law's will.
The Forbes-Leiths’ son Sir Iain Forbes-Leith, 2nd Baronet (1902–1973) petitioned and received his own coat of arms that could then be inherited. His son Sir Andrew George Forbes-Leith, 3rd Baronet (1929–2000) was the last private owner of Fyvie Castle. During both World Wars, Fyvie Castle was used as hospital accommodation. While maintaining ownership of the estate, the family moved out of the castle in 1966. In 1984, Sir Andrew sold the castle and contents, along with the attached grounds, to the National Trust for Scotland (NTS.) Fyvie Castle is now one of the most popular NTS properties.
Learn more about visiting Fyvie Castle through the National Trust for Scotland.