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John “Ian Roy” Forbes of Skellater: Counsellor of War

Updated: Aug 4, 2023

John “Ian Roy” Forbes lived up to the Forbes of Skellater motto "Solus inter plurimos” ("Alone among many”) by forging his own path as a skilled warrior outside the country of his birth.

John “Ian Roy” Forbes of Skellater

The lands of Skellater were granted to George Forbes, second son of William Forbes, 2nd Laird of Barnes which was a cadet of Towie, itself a cadet of Brux. His son William Forbes, 2nd laird of Skellater, (1615 – c. 1695) was a Royalist in his support of King Charles I during the Civil War of 1642 to 1651, contrary to most other Forbeses who were anti-Royalist Covenanters. The Forbes of Skellater again broke with most of their family with their support of claim to the throne by James Francis Edward Stuart, son of the deposed James VII and II, and thus were termed as “Jacobites,” based on Jacobus, the Latin version of James.


John Forbes was born in about 1733 as the second son of George Forbes, 5th laird of Skellater, and his wife Christian, daughter of Jacobite John Gordon of Glenbucket. He was nicknamed “Ian Roy” at an early age with the Gaelic form of “John” and “roy being the anglisized version of the Gaelic word "ruadh" or red due to his ginger hair.

Skellater House

As a devoted Jacobite, father George Forbes was commissioned as a Lieutenant-Colonel in the army of Charles Edward Stuart, grandson of the deposed James VII and II. He fought in the Battle of Culloden but escaped to France after the Jacobite defeat. After the battle, a regiment of dragoons, commanded by British Lieutenant-Colonel William Henry Kerr, 4th Marquess of Lothian and Earl of Ancram, marched on Skellater House. George's wife Christian met the soldiers outside the house with her six children. She presented the keys of the house to Lord Ancram in token of submission. Ancram returned the keys to the lady and allowed her to bring her children back to the house, which remained unscathed. Among the children that day was 13-year-old John “Ian Roy” Forbes. (Neil, James. 1902. Ian Roy of Skellater: A Scottish Soldier of Fortune. Aberdeen: D. Wylie and Son)

Soon after, Ian Roy joined his father who had joined thousands of Jacobites who had fled to France with Charles Edward Stuart. Contemporary accounts described him as “Tall, handsome, and athletic to a striking degree; high-spirited, fearless, and prompt to act, he seemed marked out by nature for a career of adventure and distinction.” (Neil, James. 1902. Ian Roy of Skellater: A Scottish Soldier of Fortune. Aberdeen: D. Wylie and Son.) As a volunteer in the French army, Ian Roy served under Lieutenant-General David Ogilvy, who was styled as “Earl of Airlie” although the title was attainted. Ian Roy participated in the siege and capture of Maastricht in 1748, during the War of the Austrian Succession, and earned a commission as a lieutenant.


He returned briefly to Scotland in 1754 with his cousin Captain John Macdonell of Lochgarry, son of his aunt Isabel (John Gordon of Glenbucket’s daughter) and Donald Macdonell of Lochgarry. As noted in the State Papers of the Scottish government for eptember 24, 1754, the two French officers appeared before Bailie Inglis, of Edinburgh: “Compeared also, the before-mentioned Lieutenant John Forbes, second son to George Forbes of Skellater, who declares as to the time of his service, the intent of his coming to this country, and his having no letters to any person whatever, in the same manner as Captain Macdonald's foregoing declaration.” He returned to France and fought in a series of battles during the Seven Years War (1756 to 1763.) By August 1763, he had been promoted to captain in the Royal Ecossais, the Royal Scots, or 103rd regiment of French infantry.


At the end of the war, Ian Roy found a target for his natural temper in the person of John Wilkes. In the January 15, 1763, edition number 30 of The North Briton, Wilkes wrote that the Prime Minister’s Tory government was a Scottish takeover of the English government. “Shew me a TORY, and I will shew you a JACOBITE.” In a speech given on April 19, 1763, King George III praised the peace as “so honourable to My Crown, and so beneficial to My People.” In the April 23, 1763, number 45 edition of the The North Briton, Wilkes attacked the Treaty as having “drawn the contempt of mankind on our wretched negotiators” and charged the King made “unjustifiable declarations” that approved “the most odious measures” contained within the Treaty. This was seen as attacking the monarch directly and a few days later, George Montagu-Dunk, 2nd Earl of Halifax, one of the Secretaries of State, issued a warrant for “Seizing & apprehending the authors, Printer & Publishers of a seditious and treasonable Paper, Intitled The North Briton Number XLV.” In the midst of these legal troubles, Wilkes traveled to Paris in late July 1763, where his daughter was studying.


Ian Roy saw Wilkes on the Rue de Comedie in Paris on August 17, 1763. In a letter to his father, he explained the details of the encounter: “I then told him I was a Scots gentleman, and a captain in the French service, and that, on account of the scurrilous and ignominous things he had wrote against my country, I was determined he should fight with me.” After attempting to meet up with Wilkes several times, Wilkes informed the police of Ian Roy's attempt at an illegal duel. In the letter, he informs his father that “I had notice that there were orders from the Mareschaux de France to apprehend me, upon which I thought it most prudent to keep out of the way.” What he did not say that he hid from the police (“mareschaux” or marshals) in the house of his friend, Alexander Murray. (Neil, James. 1902. Ian Roy of Skellater: A Scottish Soldier of Fortune. Aberdeen: D. Wylie and Son.)


The news of Ian Roy’s escapade with Wilkes was reported in newspapers in Paris, England, and Scotland, creating a great deal of sympathy among the Jacobite exiles. An unknown poet in his home area of Strathdon wrote a ballad that was sung to the tune of "Carl an' the King Come." Some of the choice verses include:

As Wilkie walked up the street,

Bold Forbes did him stare;

He saw his picture, kenned him by't,

Cried, "Wilkie, are ye there?

"Wilkie, are ye there?

"Liberty and down the Scot,

"Liberty and down the Scot,

Is all your cry and care."

"I left my country when but young,

"My mother's Ian Roy.

"I drew my sword on many a field,

"And now return with joy.

"Scotland is my native isle,

"The pleasant banks of Don,

"The ancient seat of Lonach hill,

"The parson named me John.

"In Flanders, France, and Germany,

"I did their armies dare;

"I faced the foe in Portugal—

"My soul delights in war.

"Wilkie, are ye there?

"Wilkie, are ye there?

"You coward sot, to brag a Scot,

"Come, fight me if you dare.

But Wilkie shirked for fear his paunch

Was ripped up by a Scot.

Then Forbes challenged him to stand,

But Wilkie answered, "No;

"I'm too good a tool for old England,

"I'm too good a tool for old England;

"It shall not lose me so,

"It shall not lose me so."

"You gourmand wretch, you cider sot!

Are ye made England's tool?

To brag and scandalise the Scot,

"My cane shall comb your wool!"

But Forbes never judged the same,

Wilkie was Louis' friend,

Or he had never challenged him,

Nor struck him with his cane.

Thus Wilkie proved himself a coward

Who did the Scotsman brag,

But dared not face a Scottish sword

For fear his cider bag.


After this incident, Ian Roy diplomatically left for the island of Grenada in the West Indies on September 27, 1763. “Forbes may have thought that here was a likely field for his military talents.” (Neil, James. 1902. Ian Roy of Skellater: A Scottish Soldier of Fortune. Aberdeen: D. Wylie and Son.) After a brief sojourn, he learned of new opportunities in Europe.

Count of Schaumburg-Lippe-Bückeburg

At that time Spain attempted to invade Portugal. As an ally, Great Britain dispatched a force under the command of Wilhelm, Count of Schaumburg-Lippe-Bückeburg (1724 – 1777), a military commander in the Seven Years' War, and the grandson of George I of Great Britain. British and Portuguese armies successfully resisted the Spanish invasion. After peace was concluded in February 1763, Ian Roy “entered into service of Portugal, where he contributed much to the establishing the tacticks of Frederick the Great (then introduced into all the armies of Europe) in the Portuguese Army, under the immediate protection and friendship of Count de Lippe.” (Gentlemen’s Magazine. September 1808.)


Count de Lippe offered him an informal commission as captain in the regiment of Praça de Peniche. “Forbes proved himself so valuable in helping to bring a mere military mob into a state of order and efficiency that in seven months he was made major.” (Neil, James. 1902. Ian Roy of Skellater: A Scottish Soldier of Fortune. Aberdeen: D. Wylie and Son.)


In 1764, Ian Roy received his first regular commission in the Portuguese army:


I, Dom Joseph, by grace of God king of Portugal, make known to all who shall see this my Letter Patent, that having regard to the merits and great parts which meet in the person of John Forbes, Captain of Grenadiers in the infantry regiment of Praça de Peniche, of which John M'Donell is colonel, and to the services he has rendered me with much skill and satisfaction, and the hope that in every trust he may receive he will serve me much to my content. For all these considerations I hold it good, and it pleases me to name him, as I name him by this letter, major of the same regiment, a post vacant by the promotion of Jose Carlos da Costa to be lieutenant-colonel of infantry in the regiment of Praca da Campo Major.

Given at Lisbon, 27th August, 1764.

(National Archives of Portugal)


Ian Roy rose rapidly in the ranks. In June 1766, he was made lieutenant-colonel of the regiment, in the following year he was made colonel of the Second Regiment of Infantry of Elvas, and in 1772 he was made colonel of a cavalry regiment. On June 8, 1775, King Joseph commissioned him as brigadier of cavalry.


This rapid rise may have been the result of a fortuitous marriage. While in Portugal, he became enamored of Anna Joaquina d'Almeida, daughter of Dom Pedro Miguel de Almeida, 1st Marquis of Alorna (1688 – 1756.) Don Pedro was an infantry captain in the War of the Spanish Succession, governor and captain-general of São Paulo and Minas from 1717 to 1722, and viceroy of India from 1744 to 1751. (Norton, Manuel Artur. 1967. Pedro Miguel de Almeida Portugal.) Since Anna was the daughter of a Marquis, her family insisted that Ian Roy prove his descent by an appeal to the Court of the Lord Lyon before the marriage was allowed. As a result, Ian Roy officially matriculated arms in 1767:

John Forbes, second son of George Forbes, of Skellater, Esqre., an ancient family descended of Forbes of Brux (whose predecessor was a fourth son of the predecessor of Lord Forbes), and Lieutenant-Colonel in the service of his most faithful Majesty the King of Portugal, Bears quarterly first and fourth Azure, a Martlet, betwixt three bears' heads coup'd Argent muzeled Gules within a border of the last second and third Azure, a chevron betwixt three Boars' heads Or armed and langued Gules within a border counter compone of the Second and First Crest a hand holding a dagger erect, on its point a Bear's head coup'ed, all proper. Motto Solus inter Plurimos. Matriculated 11th November, 1767.


With his lineage confirmed, Ian Roy and Anna married.

Queen Maria of Portugal

In 1787, Queen Maria, who had succeeded her father Joseph I in 1777, appointed Ian Roy as field-marshal. This rank was between brigadier and lieutenant-general in the Portuguese army. In 1790, Queen Maria issued Ian Roy the Order of Christ, one of the greatest Portuguese decorations, and later the Order of San Benito de Aviz. In 1791, the Queen, appointed "Field-Marshal John Forbes Skellater to be adjutant-general of my armies."


Ian Roy’s military prowess was put to the test with the War of the Pyrenees when he commanded the Portuguese army at Roussillon. In January 1793, the French National Convention executed Louis XVI, King of France. In March of that year, France declared war on Spain, its former ally.


Captain General Antonio Ricardos, under orders of King Charles IV of Spain, invaded the eastern Pyrenees region, on the border of Spain and France. Ian Roy (called “João” by the Spanish) joined Ricardos with his 5,000 division to defeat French General Eustache Charles Joseph d'Aoust at the Battle of Villelongue-dels-Monts on December 7, 1793. On July 22, 1795, the Spanish Government ended the war with a peace treaty signed at Basel, Switzerland. Ian Roy and his men returned to Portugal.


Two years later, Ian Roy’s wife died. On April 1, 1797, the Gazeta de Lisboa, printed the notice: "Donna Anna d'Almeida Forbes, wife of his Excellency Lieutenant General John Forbes of Skellater, died in this city, on the 29th of last month, aged 51 years." Surviving her were their three daughters, Donna Maria Christina Forbes d'Almeida, Donna Joanna Victoria Forbes d'Almeida, and Donna Anna Benedicta Forbes d'Almeida. In 1800, Donna Maria Christina, married Brigadier-General Henry David Fraser of Fraserfield in Aberdeenshire. Their eldest daughter married the Austrian Count Henri Francois de Bombelles of Bombelles; the eldest son became a colonel in the Russian service; and the second son was a Secretary of Legation in the service of Great Britain. Donna Joanna Victoria Forbes d'Almeida married the Portuguese Duc d'Albuquerque. Donna Anna Benedicta Forbes d'Almeida married Don Joas de Mello, a member of an illustrious family of Portugal. (Neil, James. 1902. Ian Roy of Skellater: A Scottish Soldier of Fortune. Aberdeen: D. Wylie and Son.)


In October, 1803, Forbes was made a Councillor of the Council of War, and soon after he was appointed General of Cavalry, retaining the post of Inspector-General of Infantry, to which he had previously been appointed.


By 1804, the French commander Napoleon Bonaparte defeated the armies of Austria, Prussia, and Russia and had been crowned Napoleon I. He negotiated a treaty with Charles IV of Spain and, on October 17, 1807, sent Jean-Andoche Junot, 1st Duke of Abrantes, with 24,000 French troops to invade Portugal. This became the start of the six-year Peninsular War.

In November 1807, Great Britain dispatched Sir William Sidney Smith with his fleet to Lisbon, to assist the Portuguese in resisting the attack. In November, he urged the Portuguese Royal Family to escape to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, at that time a Portuguese colony. Ian Roy accompanied the Royal Family to establish a government in exile. However, he contracted an illness and died on April 8, 1808.


He was interred in a tomb in the wall of the Convent and Church of Saint Antony. A plaque with his coat of arms includes a Portuguese inscription, the English translation of which is:


Here lie the ashes of the Most Illustrious and Excellent John Forbes Skellater, a native of Scotland and a descendant of the ancient and famous family of Forbes, who, entering the military service of the August Monarchs of Portugal, was, by his moral virtues, valour, fidelity, and high military talents, found worthy to occupy the posts of General of Cavalry, Inspector-General of Infantry, Adjutant-General of the Army, and Councillor of War.


And His Royal Highness, the Prince our Master, having conferred upon him the command of the Portuguese Auxiliary Army which passed into Catalonia, and triumphed at Ceret, Collieure, &c., he obtained the Grand Cross of the Order of Avis, and the decoration of the Spanish Order of Charles III. He crowned his fidelity by accompanying His Royal Highness to Rio de Janeiro, where he was promoted Military Governor, the duties of which office he was unable to perform, as he died in his seventy-sixth year, on the VIII. day of April, MDCCCVIII.


The most fitting and succinct summary of Ian Roy’s life was the obituary appeared in the September 1808 edition of Gentlemen’s Magazine:


April 8. At Rio de Janeiro, whither he accompanies the Royal Family and Government of Portugal, aged 75, General John Forbes, of Skellater, in Aberdeenshire. He was the senior general officer in the service of that Crown, general and governor of Rio de Janeiro, a counsellor of war, general of cavalry, and knight grand cross of the illustrious orders of Avis in Portugal, and of Charles III. In Spain. This much-respected veteran was a lieutenant at the siege of Maestricht in 1748, He served all those campaigns, as well as the Seven Years War; at the conclusion of which he entered into service of Portugal, where he contributed much to the establishing the tacticks of Frederick the Great (then introduced into all the armies of Europe) in the Portuguese Army, under the immediate protection and friendship of Count de Lippe. During a period of nearly 50 years he distinguished himself in that country, by his activity, his zeal, and his incorruptible integrity; to which last circumstance it was perhaps owing that he enjoyed, uninterruptedly, the favour of four successive Sovereigns. The tears and unfeigned sorrow of the present reigning Prince were the most affecting testimonials of his attachment to the General, as the public and sincere regrets of the people were of his real worth. Indeed, he was a virtuous and an honourable man; and, as a soldier, possessed undaunted courage, indefatigable activity, promptitude, and decision. He commanded with reputation the Portuguese Army in Reussillon, at the commencement of the Revolutionary War; and he will hereafter be classed among those of our countrymen who have added to the respectability of the British national character among Foreigners.

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