James was born in 1725 to James, 15th Lord Forbes, and his first wife Mary Forbes, the widow of John Forbes (c. 1694 - 1715), son of William Forbes, 4th Baronet of Monymusk, and the daughter of Alexander Forbes, 3rd Lord Pitsligo (c. 1655 – 1690.) Before the age of 20, the Master of Forbes had joined the British army and at 21 in 1746 was gazetted a captain in the 25th Foot.
In January 1760, he married Catherine, the only child of Sir Robert Innes of Orton and Balvenie, 6th Baronet, and Dame Marjory (or Margery) Winram Innes. Catherine’s mother was the niece of General Andrew Bisset. General Bisset had three children, all of whom died. His wife also died, leaving him a childless widower when he passed away. His will stipulated that the bulk of the estate be invested in the name of his niece Dame Marjory Winram Innes and her surviving children. Catherine Innes Forbes was that sole surviving child.
James, 15th Lord Forbes died in 1761 and James the younger succeeded as the 16th Lord Forbes. In addition to the estates, Lord Forbes inherited obligations made by both his uncle William, 13th Lord Forbes, and his father James, 15th Lord Forbes, toward Dorothea (or Dorothy) Dale Forbes. The Dowager Lady Forbes was the widow of William, 13th Lord Forbes, and mother of Frances, 14th Lord Forbes, who died in 1734 at the age of 13 -- before he reached the legal age of majority. These obligations became a legal tangle later in Lord Forbes’s life that had severe financial implications that affected the Forbes estates.
Although he originally enlisted in the army, he later became a Royal Marine. In February 1763, he was allowed to stay at home “by the friendship of Admiral Forbes (of Granard)” but two months later he wrote: “The Lords of the Admiralty have been so unkind as to take my commission from me, because I could not leave my Family at present and go to sea. So now I am out of Commission and out of pay, which is not a little hard and severe upon me, but I must have patience.” (Letters in Forbes Charter Chest, now preserved at the National Archives of Scotland; Tayler, Alistair and Henrietta; House of Forbes, Third Spalding Club, 1937.) In the next year, he was reinstated in the Royal Army and he was appointed Deputy Governor of Fort William. This appointment required that he and his family to reside at the Fort.
Dowager Lady Dorothea had been granted “a right to the feu-duties payable by the vassals of the estate, and that she has a right to all the emoluments arising from the right of patronage.” This included her right to live at Putachie House (now called Castle Forbes.) Upon the death of James, 15th Lord Forbes, his son the new Lord Forbes, inherited his father’s estate and attempted to reduce these rents paid to his aunt. In response, Lady Dowager Forbes and her daughters Jean Maria Forbes Dundas, wife of Captain James Dundas of Dundas, and Elizabeth Forbes Gregory, wife of Professor John Gregory, filed lawsuits against Lord Forbes.
Lord Forbes wrote to his friend William King of Newmiln, on April 25, 1762, that: “I have had terrible work with the Lady Dowager, trying to make up all our matters, but the Treaty is now over and we must again go to Law with great violence ; the particulars of the Story are too long for a letter, but I shall communicate the whole when I have the pleasure to see you at Elgin…”
Initially, the Scottish Court of Sessions supported Lord Forbes. However, the Dowage Lady Forbes appealed to the House of Lords, which served as the court of last resort until the Supreme Court was created in 2009. The House of Lords finally ruled on the case “Lady Dowager Forbes & al. against Lord Forbes” on January 31, 1765. The major issues of the case were resolved:
“And it is hereby Declared and Adjudged, That the Respondent is liable, as Heir, cum Beneficio Inventarii, to any Feu Duties, Entry Money, or Casualties of Superiority, paid to, or received by, his Father the late Lord Forbes.”
“And it is hereby further Ordered and Adjudged, That so much of the said Interlocutor of the 19th of January 1763, as sustains the Reasons of Reduction pleaded by Lord Forbes, of the additional Provision of One Thousand Pounds Sterling, by Lady Forbes, to the Younger Children, in 1752, be, and the same is hereby, reversed, without Prejudice to the Question concerning the Interest thereof, and the Time from which the same should commence”
“And it is hereby further Ordered and Adjudged, That so much of the said Interlocutor of the 15th of February 1763, as finds that Lord Forbes is not accountable for any Part of the Rents of the said Lands prior to the Date of the said Interlocutor, and also so much as confines the Accompt of the Feu Duties and Casualties to be taken from the Date of the Summons only, be, and the same is hereby, reversed”
“And it is hereby Declared and Adjudged, That the Appellant Lady Forbes is entitled to an Accompt of all the said Rents, Feu Duties, and Casualties, paid to, or received by, the Respondents Father, after her Right accrued”
(Journal of the House of Lords, Volume 31: January 1765)
As a result, Dowager Lady Forbes remained at Putachie House. During 1765 and 1766, Lord Forbes and his family rented Keith Hall, owned by George Keith, 10th Earl Marischal (c. 1692 – 1778.) However, the family was reinstated at Putachie House in 1767. Dowager Lady Forbes died in 1777 in Edinburgh.
Due to these financial obligations and the neglect and mismanagement of the Forbes estates over the previous generations, Lord Forbes was beset by grave financial difficulties. His mother-in-law Dame Marjory Innis died in 1765, leaving her daughter Catherine as the sole heiress to the estate her uncle General Bisset. However, Lord and Lady Forbes had great legal difficulty in unencumbering the funds. The British government was also slow in in paying Lord Forbes his salary as Deputy Governor of Fort William.
On June 5, 1769, Lord Forbes wrote to William King of Newmiln, “…I must go back to Ednr. about that time, as the sale of the Estate of Forbes comes on the 20th and till I can make that or some other purchase, to the Liking of the Chancery, we have no Chance to get my Wife's money out of the Funds, you would hear I had some better success in my own affairs which will help us a little, but they would not give me one farthing of my Arrears of Fort William, which is full £600 guineas loss to me.” He wrote from London on May 9, 1769, that “I have had little or no Success about my Wife's money…”
Therefore, Lord Forbes determined to auction the whole estates of Forbes, Kearn, Auchindoir and Clatt. According to family records, “As Lord fforbes could not have immediat Access to his Ladie’s money, it was agreed his friends should advance the price of his Lot, and take security upon the same, That Captain Forbes of Neaw should get the Lot of Forbes, Brux the Lot of Auchindore, Lord Forbes, Kearn, And to prevent strangers from interfeering, Lord Forbes was to take his chance of selling Clatt.” (“Description of the Proceedings of Newe and Others at Sale of the Estate of Forbes” as quoted by Tayler, Alistair and Henrietta; House of Forbes, Third Spalding Club, 1937.)
Lord Forbes expected the land to sell at a maximum of £17,000 (about £3 million in 2021) but the final price was over £2,000 more: “The sale came on the 17th January 1770 and was carried by Muir writter in Edinb at £19360 str, a very high price it must be allow'd . In two days after, it was offered Lord Forbes at the same price and which by the advice of his friends he accepted of, and all things then was to go on among the contracting parties as formerly concerted.” (Ibid.)
As agreed, John Forbes, 8th Laird of Newe and a captain in the 42nd Highlanders, covered the cost of the estate in the parish of Forbes. However, his brother William Forbes, a Major in the 35th Foot, convinced him to make a trade. According to the Forbes documents, Major Forbes “understood the lands in the North side of the hills, meaning Kearn and Clatt, were far better than those in the south side, meaning Forbes, And that his brother would willingly give £1000 for the exchange.” (Ibid.) The lands in Kearn were the original duchus (ancestral lands) granted to the Alexander, 1st Lord Forbes, and included the clan seat of Castle Forbes, now called Druminnor Castle.
Lord Forbes agreed and, as the Forbes documents indicate, “he was not in a capacity to buy back the whole, and he rejoyced that the bulk of the rest was to fall into the hands of Forbeses, whom he look'd upon as his real friends, and might keep possession of it untill some of his ofspring might be in a capacity to buy it back again, should any of them choose to sell, In any event it was still a great satisfaction to him that it was in such hands rather than absolute strangers.” (Ibid.)
In the end, Lord Forbes retained the lands of Forbes (which included Putachie House.) Newe purchased and kept Clatt. Newe flipped Auchindore to Jonathan Forbes of Brux for an additional £300 or £400 profit. Newe then sold Kearn (with Castle Forbes) to John Grant of Rothmaise. Newe’s daughter Henrietta married as her first husband, John Forbes, 6th Laird of Culloden (died 1772), and, as her second husband, Grant’s son Robert Grant of Druminnor.
Finances remained shaky for Lord Forbes and his family for many years. On December 3, 1783, he wrote to William King of Newmiln, “But what is very bad there is no money to be got, so that we shall have a very bad Term, and you'll hear of many breaking and some going to the Tolbooth, so don't be surpriz'd, if you come to the Castle Street, Aberdeen, if you see my Long Nose at the Grate with the Rest: in short we have a gloomy prospect now - We must live in hopes of better times.”
The affairs of the family of Lord Forbes improved in one minor way. Jonathan Forbes of Brux succeeded his two older brothers as the 13th and last Laird of Brux. Born in 1710, Jonathan was a devoted Jacobite and escaped the counry after the 1745 Battle of Culloden. He married Mary Baird of Auchmedden, but had no children. In 1785, he wrote his will in which he would leave the estate of Brux to Robert Alaster Cam Forbes, the second son of Lord Forbes. Robert died in 1795 but the will was not revised. Since Robert and all his younger brothers died without issue, Brux became a part of the Forbes estate.
James, 16th Lord Forbes, died in Edinburgh on July 29, 1804. His widow Catherine also died in Edinburgh nine months later on April 16, 1805. Together they had seven children, three of whom survived them:
a daughter born in 1760 who died young;
Marjory (or Margery), born in 1762, married as her first husband Jacobite John Mackenzie, Lord MacLeod (1727 – 1789) and as her second husband John Murray, 4th Duke of Atholl (1755 – 1830);
Mary Elizabeth, born in 1763, married Sir John Hay of Haystoun (or Hayston), 5th baronet (1755 – 1830);
James Ochoncar, born in 1765, later became the 18th Lord Forbes;
Robert Alaster Cam, born in 1766, became a Captain in the Royal Navy and died unmarried in 1795 off the coast of Norway;
Andrew, born in 1767, became the Chief Registrar of the Isle of Man, was appointed Captain in the Royal Manx Fencibles, and died unmarried in 1808; and
William, born in 1768, became a Lieutenant in the Royal Navy and died unmarried in Lisbon in 1792.