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Rev. Robert Forbes, Bishop of Ross and Caithness, Author of The Lyon in Mourning

Updated: May 29, 2023


Rev. Robert Forbes attempted to join the Jacobite army in 1745 – but was arrested and imprisoned for the entire coup attempt by “Bonnie Prince Charlie.” Stuart’s defeat at the Battle of Culloden did not daunt Bishop Forbes’s zeal for the Jacobite cause. In 1747, he began collecting materials that would eventually become the ten volumes of what he called The Lyon in Mourning, or A Collection of Speeches Letters Journals Etc. Relative To the Affairs of Prince Charles Edward Stuart. He continued to work on his life’s major work until his death.

St. James the Less Scottish Episcopal Church, Leith

Robert Forbes (1708–1775) was the son of Charles Forbes, a schoolmaster in the parish of Rayne, Aberdeenshire, and Marjory Wright. In 1726, he received his Master of Arts from Marischal College, Aberdeen. He qualified for orders in the Scottish Episcopal Church and was ordained as a priest by Bishop Freebairn in Edinburgh in June 1735. He was assigned to the church of St. James the Less in Leith with Rev. William Law.


In 1745, Rev. Forbes was inspired by Charles Edward Louis John Sylvester Maria Casimir Stuart’s landing at Eriskay in 1745 to seize the British crown. Stuart, also known as “Bonnie Prince Charlie,” was the grandson of James II and VII, who was deposed in 1688.


Stuart himself was a native Italian born to his Scottish father James Francis Edward Stuart and Polish mother Maria Clementina Sobieska. His coup attempt was initially funded by the French and Spanish Catholic monarchs who tried to use Stuart to destabilize the government of Great Britain and install a client Catholic monarchy. The supporters of the Stuart’s claim to the British throne were called “Jacobites” based on the Latin name “Jacobus.”

Charles Edward Stuart, by Allan Ramsey

Rev. Forbes and several companions attempted to join Stuart’s campaign but were seized. As he relates in his journal:


“‘A great interruption has happened by my misfortune of being taken prisoner at St. Ninian’s, in company with the Rev. Messrs. Thomas Drummond and John Willox, Mr. Stewart Carmichael and Mr. Robert Clark, and James Mackay and James Carmichael, servants, upon Saturday, the seventh day of September 1745, and confined in Stirling Castle till February 4th, 1746, and in Edinburgh Castle till May 29th of said year.” (Journals, etc., of Bishop Forbes, by the Rev. J. B. Craven, 1886. Scottish Antiquary, Volume VIII.)


Stuart and his Jacobite supporters were eventually defeated by the British army on April 16, 1746, at the Battle of Culloden, ironically on the estate of Duncan Forbes, 5th Laird of Culloden (1685 – 1747), and then Lord President of the Court of Sessions. When he was released, Rev, Forbes returned to his duties at the church of St. James the Less in Leith.

In 1747, he began collecting materials that would eventually become the ten volumes of what he called Lyon in Mourning, or A Collection of Speeches Letters Journals Etc. Relative To the Affairs of Prince Charles Edward Stuart. While he never directly explained the title, many scholars believe that the “Lyon” was Scotland itself grieving for the lack of a Stuart monarchy.


In 1746, the British Parliament issued an edict that reduced the number of Episcopalians permitted to worship together from eight to four: “Laymen could be fined and pastors who failed to register their letters of orders were liable to imprisonment or even transportation. Despite these threats, Messrs. Law and Forbes continued to minister quite openly, if quietly, to their flock in Leith.” (Blankenship, Archibald. 1975. St James’ Church Leith: A History 1508 to 1900)


In 1749, the Rev. Forbes married his first wife, Agnes Gairey. She died the following year and he later married, as his second wife, Rachel, daughter of Ludovick Houston of Johnstone, in Renfrewshire. In 1762 Rev. Forbes was chosen and appointed Scottish Episcopal Bishop of Ross and Caithness. He refused to take the Oath of Allegiance to the George III, which required him to deny the Stuart claim. He was thus known as a “nonjuring bishop.” He continued to reside in Leith and visited the diocese only twice for brief periods, “as was common practice in those days.” (Ibid.)


He continued to work on his life’s major work, Lyon in Mourning. The Bishop’s purpose was, as he declared, to make up “a Collection of Journals and other papers relative to the important and extraordinary occurrences of life that happened within a certain period of time,” and which, he adds, “will serve to fix a distinguishing mark upon that period as a most memorable æra to all posterity. .. I have,” he proceeds to say, “a great anxiety to make the Collection as compleat and exact as possible for the instruction of future ages in a piece of history the most remarkable and interesting that ever happened in any age or country.” (Journals, etc., of Bishop Forbes, by the Rev. J. B. Craven, 1886. Scottish Antiquary, Volume VIII.) While he tapped a vast network of Jacobite sympathizers who had direct knowledge of the entire rebellion, he kept his document secret: “I keep my collection in a concealment always, so that I am not afraid of its being seized by enemies; and it is not every friend I allow to see only the bulk and outside of my favourite papers.” (Ibid.)

Bishop Forbes “continued to live and preach with remarkably little harassment from the authorities until his death in 1775.” (Ibid.) In addition to The Lyon in Mourning, he wrote many antiquarian articles for the Edinburgh Magazine. He also assisted in updating the communion office of the Scottish Episcopal Church the editions of 1763, 1764, and 1765 were printed under his supervision. He also published “An Essay on Christian Burial, and the Respect due to Burying-Grounds” in 1765 and an “Account of the Chapel of Roslin” in 1774. He died in 1775 and his second wife died the next year in 1776. Bishop Forbes buried in the “Maltman's Aisle” of the South Leith Church and was "attended to the grave by Bishop Falconar, and six presbyters as chief mourners." (Craven, James Brown. 1908. A History of the Episcopal Church in the Diocese of Caithness. Kirkwall: Peace.)


The Lyon in Mourning changed hands several times until 1871, when it was presented to the Advocates Library, which became the National Library of Scotland. In 1895 and 1896, the massive document was edited by Henry Paton and printed in three volumes by the Scottish History Society. This version is available in the Clan Forbes Society Reference Library, available to all Active Members of the Society.

In 2020, the original manuscript was digitized and encoded by teams from Simon Fraser University and the National Library of Scotland headed by Dr. Leith Davis, Professor in the Department of English and the Director of the Centre for Scottish Studies at Simon Fraser University. Public access to all ten volumes is available through SFU Library's Digital Collections.


The teams are currently analyzing the contents using both qualitative (archival research and close analysis) and quantitative (Digital Humanities) methodologies (TEI).


Learn more at the Lyon in Mourning Project.

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