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Annus Horribilissimus Forbessorum

Updated: Dec 19, 2021

While 2021 may be remembered as a horrible year for many people, Forbeses experienced another "annus horribilissimus" 450 years earlier. Clan Forbes Society historian Alex Forbes of Drumnnor Castle relates some of the background and calamities of the House of Forbes during that time. - Editor


Late 1571 saw by far the worst episode in the long history of the Forbes family. It was the climax of the great feud between the Forbeses and the Gordons. In 1567, Catholic Mary, Queen of Scots, abdicated the throne in favor of her one-year old son, James, who was to be raised as a Protestant. During the Marian civil war that followed, the Protestant Forbeses supported the Government led by Mary’s half-brother James Stewart, Earl of Moray, and the Catholic Gordons held out for the exiled Queen. This ended a 20-year spell in which relations between the families had been stable. This was helped when John, Master of Forbes and son of William Forbes, 7th Lord Forbes, married Lady Margaret Gordon, daughter of George Gordon, 4th Earl of Huntly, and sister of George Gordon, 5th Earl of Huntly.

However, this truce ended in 1571. The Earl of Huntly commanded the main Marian forces around Edinburgh and Stirling. Meanwhile, his brother Adam Gordon of Auchindoun was victorious over the Forbeses in the main battles in Tillieangus on 10th October and at Craibstane on 20th November. These were bitter, hard-fought, hand-to-hand battles, but with the Gordons always having the numerical superiority - roughly 1,000 to 300 men at Tillieangus and 1,000 to 800 men at Craibstane.

George Gordon, 5th Earl of Huntly, 1566

Black Arthur Forbes of Putachie, the inspirational leader of the Forbeses, was killed at Tillieangus. His brother, Lord Forbes, spent the whole Civil War in Leith, with the successive Regents and the main government army. His son, John Master of Forbes, was captured at Craibstane and spent the next 14 months imprisoned at Spynie palace, owned by Bishop Patrick Hepburn, the last Roman Catholic bishop at Spynie. Many other Forbes lairds were captured and imprisoned in Auchindoun, Spynie, and other Gordon castles. By the end of the Civil War in March 1573, the Gordons had killed about 400 men, including at least 30 Forbeses.

Adam Gordon’s victory at Craibstane gave him total control of the north. He consolidated this by taking possession of all the strongholds of the Forbeses and their allies. Some refused to submit and Gordon ordered massacres at Corgarff Castle and Kearn Kirk. Adam also conducted a frantic man-hunt to catch Lady Forbes (Elizabeth Keith), intending to kill her, but she eluded him. He blamed her for inciting the Forbeses to oppose the Gordons, thereby causing the failure of their plans to win the country back for Queen Mary.

Fear of Adam Gordon because of these atrocities made him completely dominant in the north for the rest of the Civil War. His army eventually numbered over 6,000 men and he conducted major forays into Angus and the Mearns. In June 1572, he defeated a royal army in Brechin, taking 210 prisoners. He then released them, publicly demonstrating his mercifulness: trying to undo the reputation he had acquired at Corgarff and Kearn.

But the main theatre of the war was around Edinburgh and its immensely strong castle. The castle held out to the end, but everywhere else the Marians gradually lost ground. By August 1572, the Marians were clearly losing and they agreed to a cease-fire to provide time for negotiationing a settlement. Prevented from military operations by this truce, Adam systematically demolished the Forbes castles and houses and devastated their lands.

The negotiations dragged on for six months, facilitated by Queen Elizabeth of England’s envoys. During the negotiations at Perth in February 1573, Huntly agreed to release the Master of Forbes Spynie. Hugh Fraser, 5th Lord Lovat, and Lachlan Mor Mackintosh, 16th chief of Mackintosh, with a guard of 400 Frasers and Mackintoshes, escorted Forbes to Aberdeen.

Regent James Douglas, 4th Earl of Morton

A few days later, key Marians Huntly; John Hamilton, 1st Marquess of Hamilton; and his younger brother Claud Hamilton (made Baron Paisley in 1587) signed the Pacification of Perth that ended the civil war.

The Regent at the time, James Douglas, 4th Earl of Morton, agreed that the Gordons would not be liable for any financial reparations for damage caused during the war. Thus the Forbeses received back their castles in ruins and their lands devastated, but with no compensation. While the Pacification succeeded in ending the civil war, the conditions guaranteed the continuation and intensification of the Forbes-Gordon feud.




  • July 24: Queen Mary abdicated in favour of her son, James VI. Her brother, James Earl of Moray, elected Regent.


  • May 13: Battle of Langside: Mary’s last shot at regaining the throne. She lost and fled to England.


  • January 23: Regent Moray assassinated.

  • April 15: Mr John Wood, secretary to Regent Moray, assassinated by John Forbes younger of Rires, who was also killed.

  • July 17: John Earl of Lennox appointed Regent, on Queen Elizabeth’s insistence.

  • August: A company of Adam Gordon’s men garrisoning Brechin were captured and Regent Lennox hanged half of them. Adam radicalised by this.


  • September 4: Regent Lennox assassinated by Lord Claud Hamilton, while in Huntly’s custody. John Earl of Mar was immediately elected Regent.

  • October 9: Siege of Edinburgh Castle began (Arthur Forbes younger of Rires was a Castilian).

  • October 10: Battle of Tillieangus. Black Athur Forbes killed.

  • November 20: Battle of Craibstane. John Master of Forbes captured and imprisoned in Spynie; 30 other Forbeses killed. Total losses 300, with 200 captured. Adam Gordon systematically captured all the strongholds of the Forbeses and their allies.

  • December: Massacre of Corgarff (27 burned to death).

  • December: Adam Gordon summoned the ministers of Aberdeen and harangued them for not supporting Queen Mary.

  • December 1271 to May 1572: Kindling of Kearn Kirk (the congregation burned to death), leading to the surrender of Castle Forbes. Margaret Gordon, Mistress of Forbes, lived there with Patrick Hepburn, “a notorious adulterer”.

  • Winter 1271/1272: The Hunt for Lady Forbes.


  • March 30 to April 4: Lord Forbes a Privy Councillor under Regent Mar, in Leith.

  • April 6: The Regent gave John Forbes of Towie the baronies of Auchindoun and Strathdee, forfeited by the Gordons, as compensation for Corgarff

  • May 4: Margaret Gordon reported "frolicking" at Rinallach with Patrick Hepburn.

  • July 5: The ‘Bourd of Brechin’. Adam Gordon swooped on a royal army occupying Brechin and trounced it, capturing 210. Rather than hanging them as expected he set them all free, after lecturing them at length about what a nice guy he was.

  • August 1: The Abstinence: cease-fire agreed, to allow peace negotiations to proceed.

  • October 28: Regent Mar died, of old age and overwork.

  • November 25: James Earl of Morton elected Regent. The same day, John Knox died.


  • January 1: The Abstinence ended. The Civil War started again immediately.

  • January 15: Parliament authorised the Regent to invade the north and release the Master of Forbes from Spynie. They also invited Queen Elizabeth of England to send heavy artillery north to force the surrender of Edinburgh Castle.

  • February 16: John Master of Forbes was released: but forced to acknowledge a debt of £705 for the costs of his captivity. Lord Lovat and Mackintosh escorted him to Aberdeen with a guard of 400 men.

  • February 18: Battle of Aberdeen. Adam Gordon attacked Forbes, Lovat and the Mackintosh: another victory. The Master of Forbes possibly recaptured.

  • February 23: Pacification of Perth. Huntly & the Hamiltons recognised King James and the Regent’s authority. In exchange, there would be no reparations for any acts between Mary’s abdication and the Abstinence. (Most of the damage to the Forbes properties was done after the Abstinence.)

  • May 16: The English siege artillery opened fire on Edinburgh Castle.

  • May 28: Fall of Edinburgh Castle, thanks to English artillery.

  • May: The Council annulled the Master’s £705 debt, and compensated him with the lands of the Priory of Monymusk.

  • June 24: The Master of Forbes began proceedings to divorce Margaret Gordon for her adultery with Patrick Hepburn.


  • March 16: Decree in the Forbes divorce case. The Council also confirmed the annulment of the Master’s £705 debt which the Gordons had gone to court to enforce.

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