Updated: Nov 20, 2021
Elizabeth Forbes-Sempill of Craigievar was born on September 6, 1912, and died as Sir Ewan Forbes of Craigievar, 11th Baronet, on September 12, 1991. Forbes was the youngest child of John Forbes-Sempill, 18th Lord Sempill and 9th Baronet of Craigievar, and Gwendolen Emily Mary Prodgers, who was born and raised in Wales.
Forbes-Sempill wrote a collection of remembrances called The Aul’ Days (1984, Aberdeen University Press) that chronicles this remarkable life. Forbes wrote that mother Gwendolyn “…was adamant that having married a Highland Laird, she must accept his 'plaidie' and give all her loyalty to Scotland and her husband.” The book adds that “My father's career was soldiering which started with the Gordon Militia at the old King Street, Barracks in Aberdeen. In the South African War he served with the Lovat Scouts but eventually joined the family regiment, the Black Watch. Early in World War I he received a telegram from Kitchener asking him to command the 8th Battalion Black Watch. He told me he was the first man to land in France from K.I. as he jumped on to the quay just before the gangway was secured. He was severely wounded through the spine at Loos, which ended his war career.”
Forbes-Sempill was raised in Fintray House, in the village of Hatton of Fintray on the River Don in Aberdeenshire. The house was requisitioned during World War II and demolished in 1956. Forbes-Sempill led an active childhood and “memories of close contemporary friends and relations are always recollected with joy.” Two favorite playmates were cousins Patrick and David Forbes of Corse who visited Craigievar every August: “We rode miles in the Castle woods and played hide and seek in the trees.”
After being provided “a good grounding in Scottish education, together with French and German in reading and writing,” Forbes-Sempill requested to be sent to a pre-university co-ed school in Germany and the fifteen-year-old was dutifully sent to Dresden in 1928. Having finished schooling, Forbes-Sempill reported that “my heart was set on studying medicine, so I approached my father about his willingness to pay my fees at the University of Aberdeen.” Father John Forbes-Sempill “refusal to be bothered paying out anything more” and suggested that “there was no need for it and plenty of work for me to do at home, for which I would receive my keep. I could plant trees, fence and was able to help in all estate work. I could also market garden produce and do all driving jobs needed.”
However, in 1933, Forbes-Sempill had saved enough money to study Adlerian “Individual Psychology” under Dr. Leonhard Seif (1866 – 1949) at the University of Munich. Accommodations were provided by distant relatives Major Alban Ernan Forbes-Dennis and Phyllis (née Bottome) Forbes-Dennis. Major Forbes-Dennis was a diplomat and British Military Intelligence, Section 6, (MI6) Head of Station for Austria, Hungary and Yugoslavia. Phyllis Forbes-Dennis had also studied Individual Psychology under Alfred Adler while in Vienna. She was also a popular author of “spy fiction” and became a mentor to author Ian Fleming.
On the death of the John Forbes-Sempill in 1934, the Craigievar estates and titles passed on to his eldest child, William Francis Forbes-Sempill, who became 19th Lord Sempill and 10th Baronet of Craigievar. Since he had an active career as a technical and business consultant to the Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, Lord Sempill left the management of the Craigievar estates to his sibling, who also inherited the Brux estate of about 1,300 acres.
Dr. Forbes-Sempill (left) with Sister Isobel McDonald, 1944
In 1939, Forbes-Sempill achieved the life-long dream of being accepted as a medical student at Aberdeen University. Forbes-Sempill wrote that “I felt very shy of the other students, who were almost all about ten years younger, and much better versed in scientific subjects, such as chemistry and physics, and even maths of which my knowledge was most elementary, as I had had more of a literary and arts education, in Europe.” During the war years between 1939 and 1944, the medical students were required to participate in fire watching, auxiliary ambulance service, auxiliary mortuary service and many other extra duties in addition to medical training. After graduating in October 1944, Forbes-Sempill assumed the post of Junior Casualty Officer (and later Senior Casualty Officer) at Woolmanhill Hospital, the original Aberdeen Royal Infirmary. In 1945, established a medical practice in the Alford district and was eventually appointed as chief medical officer of the Prisoners of War Camp at Monymusk, where 800 men were housed.
In 1947, Atholl, 21st Lord Forbes, deeded the Estate of Brux to Dr. Forbes-Sempill and handed over the Forbes Estate to his son, Nigel (later 22nd Lord Forbes) in order to reduce his taxes. Lord Forbes had spent most of his boyhood at Brux with his parents. However, after succeeding his father in 1916, he and his wife moved to Castle Forbes where they lived for most of the remainder of their lives.
Dr. and Mrs. Forbes-Sempill, 1952
In 1952, Dr. Forbes-Sempill requested a warrant for birth re-registration as male from the Sherriff of Aberdeen. An advertisement in the September 12, 1952, Aberdeen Press and Journal announced the new name of Ewan Forbes-Sempill, in honor of Sir Ewan Cameron (1362 to about 1409), the last Cameron to own the Brux estate. About three weeks later, Dr. Forbes-Sempill announced the engagement of with housekeeper Isabella ("Pat") Mitchell. The Aul’ Days relates: “Having joined the Auld Kirk at Kildrummy, my wife and I were married by the minister, the Revd Peter MacEwen, in October 1952. We had a quiet wedding with only a chosen few real friends and relations, followed by a very merry ceilidh at Brux, at which most of the guests contributed their musical share in the entertainment.” In 1955, they retired to the Brux estates, “with all the hard work but great enjoyment of rearing our own cattle and sheep, also tilling and harvesting the land…”
Brother William Francis Forbes-Sempill, 10th Baronet of Craigievar and 19th Lord Sempill, was the last private owner of Craigievar Castle. By 1963, the Craigievar and Fintray estate was entailed and was laden with debt and death duties. William agreed that the National Trust of Scotland would take ownership of the castle and the surrounding policies (land around the castle), and that the government (Inland Revenue) would waive the death duties. However, the Craigievar baronetcy remained. When William died in 1965, the Sempill barony passed in the female line to his eldest daughter, Ann Moira Forbes-Sempill, 20th Lady Sempill. On her death in 1995, the title passed to James (Jamie) William Stuart Whitemore Sempill, 21st Lord Sempill.
The baronetcy of Craigievar could only be passed through the male line and the immediate family anticipated that the baronetcy would pass to Dr. Forbes-Sempill. However, this succession was challenged by John Alexander Cumnock Forbes-Sempill in Chelsea, the only son of the 18th Lord Sempill's youngest brother, Rear-Admiral Arthur Forbes-Sempill. He took legal action to argue that Ewan's re-registration as a man was not legitimate and, therefore, the estate and baronetcy should be inherited by him instead.
On January 4, 1966, the Press and Journal of Aberdeen ran an article that reported that “a special court may be called on to decide whether an Aberdeenshire doctor who announced a change of name 13 years ago – from Elizabeth to Ewan – should succeed to a brother’s baronetcy and as male heir.” The source of the report was Dr. Forbes-Sempill’s sister, the Hon. Miss Margaret Forbes-Sempill of Druminnor Castle. The case was taken to the Scottish Court of Session, where the case was heard in great secrecy.
On December 4, 1968, the Press and Journal of Aberdeen reported that John Forbes-Sempill petitioned the Court of Sessions for a finding as to whether he was the true hair male. However, “after evidence had been heard in Chambers the court found that Mr. Forbes-Sempill was not the heir-male.” John Forbes-Sempill also opposed the usual application to the Home Secretary to enter the name of Sir Ewan Forbes to the Registrar of the Baronetage. After consulting with the Lord Advocate, Home Secretary James Callaghan upheld the ruling by the Court of Session and “directed that Sir Ewan’s name be entered in the Register as the 11th Baronet.”
In The Aul’ Days, Sir Ewan noted “while I became 11th Baronet of Craigievar and was instructed by the Lord Lyon to drop the name of Sempill. I must say it is a great relief to have only one surname, as people often get mixed up and do not get things in their correct order.”
In 1969, Sir Ewan was appointed a Justice of the Peace for Aberdeenshire. Even though a serious stroke in 1976 paralyzed one side, Sir Ewan successfully petitioned the Lord Lyon for a personal coat of arms in 1977 and published the book of memoirs, The Aul Days, in 1984. Sir Ewan died at the Aberdeen Royal Infirmary on September 12, 1991, and was succeeded in the baronetcy by his cousin John Forbes-Sempill, who had challenged Sir Ewan 23 years before.