Forbes and the Battle of Pinkie Cleugh

Updated: Feb 11

The 1547 Battle of Pinkie Cleugh, the last major battle between England and Scotland, was devastating to Scotland and disastrous to the House of Forbes. The family lost many men from the Forbeses of Pitsligo, Boyndlie, Essie, Fowlie, Towie, Tolquhon, and Towie – and the Master of Forbes was gravely wounded.

King Henry VIII of England was fearful of Scotland regaining its alliance with his enemy France. Therefore, he initially used diplomacy to encourage the marriage of the infant Mary, Queen of Scots, to his young son, the future Edward VI. By 1543, this diplomatic effort had failed and he went to war with Scotland. In the 19th century this became known as the “Rough Wooing” based on the writing of Sir Walter Scott (Tales of a Grandfather: History of Scotland, 1829, Chapter XXIX), “The exploits of the English leaders might gratify Henry 's resentment, but they greatly injured his interest in Scotland, for the whole kingdom became united to repel the invaders ; and even those who liked the proposed match with England best, were, to use an expression of the time, disgusted with so rough a mode of wooing.”


Even though Henry died in 1547, the war continued under the Edward Seymour, 1st Duke of Somerset, who, as maternal uncle of young King Edward VI, became Lord Protector of England. He demanded that Scotland agree to the marriage of Mary to Edward and to an Anglican Reformation of the Scottish Church. In September 1547, Somerset led an army of about 16,800 men and fleet of 30 warships into Scotland. Somerset’s army included several hundred German mercenary infantryman armed with long guns (arquebus), a large and well-appointed artillery train, and 6,000 cavalry, including a contingent of Spanish and Italian mounted arquebusiers (those armed with long guns) under Don Pedro de Gamboa.

James Hamilton, 2nd Earl of Arran

Since Queen Mary was underage, James Hamilton, Duke of Châtellerault and 2nd Earl of Arran (c. 1519 – 1575) was Regent. The Earl of Arran assembled a Scottish army to resist an English invasion. His forces included between 22,000 and 36,000 soldiers from families such as Agnew, Blair, Brodie, Cunningham, Douglas, Erskine, Forbes, Forrester, Gordon, Graham, Hamilton, Henderson, Innes, Irvine, Kennedy, Montgomery, Muir, Munro, Napier, Ogilvy, and Stewart.


As noted in Historical Tales of the Wars of Scotland and of the Border Raids, Forays and Conflicts (Published by A. Fullarton & Company in 1849), many of the Western clans failed to obey the summons of the Regent. The anonymous author relates that “Of these the most prominent were the tribes of Clanranald and others concerned in the slaughter of Lord Lovat and the Frasers in 1544, who, being considered as outlaws, would not venture to trust themselves out of their fastnesses. The MacLeods of Lewis were also absent, but it is indeed surprising that any of the men of the Isles appeared at all to be commanded by leaders so obnoxious to them as were the Earls of Argyle and Huntley.”

Sir Walter Scott (Tales of a Grandfather: History of Scotland, 1828) observed that “The Scots assembled a force of almost double the number of the invaders, but, as usual, unaccustomed to act in union together, or to follow the commands of a single general. Nevertheless, the Scottish leaders displayed at the commencement of the campaign some military skill.” In early September 1547, the Earl of Arran positioned the Scottish army behind the river Esk, near Musselburgh, a village about six miles from Edinburgh.


Historical Tales (see above) relates that “On the morning of the 10th, the Duke broke up his camp, and gave orders to advance towards the hill of Inveresk, where he intended to encamp, as that eminence commanded the position of the Scots. This movement of the English was perceived by the Earl of Arran, who absurdly supposed that Somerset had actually commenced to retreat towards his fleet lying in the Bay, with the design of embarking his army.”


Scott notes that “Confiding in the numbers of his army, the Scottish Regent (Earl of Arran) crossed the Esk, and thus gave the English the advantage of the ground, they being drawn up on the top of a sloping eminence.” This error was compounded by strategic decision that was misinterpreted by the undisciplined troops: “The thick order of the Scots exposed them to insufferable loss from the missiles now employed against them, so the Earl of Angus, who commanded the vanguard, made an oblique movement to avoid the shot; but the main body of the Scots unhappily mistook this movement for a flight, and were thrown into confusion.”

Defeat was inevitable on what was to be known in Scotland as “Black Saturday.” Scott reports that ”the Scots attempted no further resistance, and the slaughter was very great, because the river Esk lay between the fugitives and any place of safety. Their loss was excessive. For more than five miles the fields were covered with the dead, and with the spears, shields, and swords which the flying soldiers had cast away, that they might run the faster.”


William, the Master of Forbes and later 7th Lord Forbes, was instrumental in gathering troops to oppose the English invasion. Among the dead were many Forbes clansmen, including:

  • Arthur Forbes, second son of John Forbes, the 4th laird of Pitsligo, and husband of Marjory Forbes of Brux.

  • John Forbes of Boyndlie, Alexander, 5th laird of Pitsligo’s son

  • Alexander Forbes, 6th laird of Tolquhon

  • Alexander Forbes in Essie, grandson of David Forbes of Essie and second son of Sir John, 2nd laird of Tolquhon

  • John Forbes, 4th son of William 2nd laird of Towie and with Elizabeth Calder, his 2nd wife.

  • James Forbes, eldest son of Master John Forbes, 1st laird of Barnes, and grandson of William Forbes, 2nd laird of Towie

  • William Forbes, son of John Forbes of Fowlis

  • Alexander Forbes, a “citizen of Aberdeen”

Among the wounded were William, Master of Forbes, and Alexander Forbes, son of the 4th laird of Pitsligo (and later 5th laird).


The devastating loss of the Scots at the Battle of Pinkie Cleugh turned sentiment strongly against England and the Protestant Reform faction within Scotland. While the Regent, the Earl of Arran, previously attempted to accommodate the Protestants, he now aligned himself with the Catholics, who were supported by France. In 1548, Queen Mary was taken to France for safety and married the Dauphin, later King Francis II of France. In 1549, Scotland received more military and financial assistance from France to fend off the English. In 1550, France and England signed the Treaty of Boulogne, which effectively ended the hostilities between England and Scotland.

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