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Forbes, Whisky, and Robert Burns

The House of Forbes has been inextricably bound up with whisky and has achieved fame in that regard with the help of no less than the national poet of Scotland, Robert Burns! This all started as the result of Forbes of Culloden’s becoming a target for the Jacobites.

In 1476, James III of Scotland confirmed the “lands of Estirkynkelle, the mill of Alcok, the two Kinkells, Mulquhaich and Drumvourny” to William, Thane of Cawdor. This area came to be known as “Ferintosh” or land of the thane, or “toiseach” in Gaelic. In 1670, John Forbes, 2nd Lord Culloden (1609 – 1687), acquired the Ferintosh and Bunchrew estates and the Exchequer Rolls of that year reports that the Scottish Parliament passed an act granting Forbes the right to hold an annual fair at Mulchaich (Mulquhaich.) Like most Highland landowners, the Forbes of Culloden built a whisky distillery at Ferintosh for estate usage.

Duncan Forbes, 3rd Lord Culloden (1644 - 1704)


1690 Act of Parliament Exempting Forbes of Culloden from Paying Whisky  Excise Fee


John Forbes, 4th Lord Culloden
(1763 - 1734)

Members of the Forbes of Culloden family were loyal to the Protestant House of Hanover monarchy, as opposed to the Catholic Stuart monarchy under the deposed James II and VII. Jacobites (derived from the Latin word “Jacobus” for James) plundered both the Culloden and Ferintosh estates in 1689. Duncan Forbes, 3rd Lord Culloden, petitioned the Scottish Parliament for compensation and secured about £4,500 plus the privilege of distilling whisky in perpetuity free of the annual duty (then about £22.) By 1690, Duncan had expanded the operation at Ferintosh, which became the first legal distillery in Scotland.

After Duncan Forbes died in 1704, his eldest son John, 4th Lord Culloden (1673 – 1734), gained such a formidable reputation as a claret drinker that he was known as ‘Bumper John’. Upon his brother John’s death in 1734, Duncan became the 5th Lord Culloden. Faithful to the King William and Queen Mary, Duncan raised and paid for troops to suppress the Jacobite Uprisings of 1715 and 1745. In 1746, Culloden House was commandeered by Jacobite forces under the “Bonnie Prince Charlie,” Charles Edward Stuart, grandson of James II and VII. The estate was pillaged by the Jacobite forces before their devastating defeat in the 1746 Battle of Culloden. Unfortunately, Lord Forbes was not reimbursed by the British government for the troops he raised or for Culloden House being partially destroyed by fire. As a result, Duncan Forbes faced overwhelming debt and died the year after the Battle.

Fortunately, his son John Forbes, 6th Lord of Culloden (1710-1772), had a head for business and a taste for whisky. John greatly expanded the Ferintosh distillery in Ryefield and three additional distilleries were built in Gallow Hill and Mulchaich near Ryefield. In 1763, the output of whisky on the estate was 41,200 gallons; in 1770 it was 89,700; and by 1780 it was 123,900. At the time, Ferintosh accounted for about two-thirds of the whisky in the country, with the profits more than covering the estate debts.

In fact, the word “Ferintosh” became synonymous with whisky and appears in the Dictionary of the Scots Language: “The distillery belonged to Forbes of Culloden and the whisky was exempted from duty from 1695–1785 as reparation for damages suffered by the estate at the hands of the Jacobites in 1689. It was characterised by its strong peat-smoke flavour. Often used of whisky generally.”

In 1782, Arthur Forbes, 7th Lord Culloden, expanded Ferintosh again. Disgruntled competitors lobbied for removing his duty-free privilege. The privilege was eliminated with the passage of the Wash Act of 1784, the start of the “modernization” of excise regulations. 


Forbes claimed £32,683 in compensation, stating about his grandfather: ‘The Lord President spent in the service of the Government during the Rebellion of 1745 above £20,000, besides the loss he sustained by the destruction of his Household furniture, horses, cattle, sheep etc, so that this Right of Exemption is all that the family has for above £30,000 sterling spent in service of Government, which, including the interest charged upon it, amounts to a sum far exceeding any compensation the Memorialist expects.’ In 1785, the Court of Exchequer at Edinburgh allowed him £21,580 (about £3.3m now). Without that competitive advantage, Forbes closed the Ferintosh distillery in that year.


Robert Burns (1759 - 1796)

One of the most aggrieved fans of Ferintosh whisky was none other than the bard of Scotland, Robert Burns. He lamented the closing of Ferintosh in his poem “Scotch Drink:”


Thee, Ferintosh! O sadly lost!

Scotland lament frae coast to coast!

Now colic grips, an' barkin hoast  

May kill us a';

For loyal Forbes' charter'd boast

Is ta'en awa?


Thae curst horse-leeches o' the' Excise,

Wha mak the whisky stells their prize!

Haud up thy han', Deil! ance, twice, thrice!

There, seize the blinkers!

An' bake them up in brunstane pies

For poor damn'd drinkers.

(See the complete poem here.)


North of Scotland Archaeological Society Excavation of Ferintoshan Distillery in Mulchaich, Scotland

While the whisky itself is sadly lost to posterity, the foundations of the old distilleries can still be seen in Ryefield and Mulchaich. In 2009, members of the North of Scotland Archaeological Society (NOSAS) began unearthing the early structures. They discovered stone foundations of seven buildings, probably the remains of the distilleries built by John Forbes, 6th Lord of Culloden, in the 1760s, or the expansion in 1782 by his son Arthur, 7th Lord Culloden. One of the structures was clearly a malt-drying kiln with a barn of two compartments. The archaeology project ended in 2010 and the team issued its final report.


Today, the NOSAS leads tours of the Mulchaich excavation -- and so the legacy of the Forbes Ferintosh whisky lives on!

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