Duncan Forbes, Lord Culloden

Today we’re taking a look at the life of Duncan Forbes.

Born in 1685 near Inverness his early life does not hold much tales. When he was old enough he began his university education in Edinburgh studying law before moving across to the University of Leiden in the Netherlands. He returned to Scotland in 1707 and not long after his return married the daughter of Hugh Rose, the 12th Baron of Kilravock.

Forbes’ work in law eventually became quite well known and after the Act of Union in 1707 he is credited with working hard to stabilise the Scottish legal system. Though Forbes was born near Culloden it would be wrong to assume he was a Jacobite. In fact, during the 1715 Rising, he was loyal to the Government and he and his brother, John raised forces for the government side.

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Portrait of Duncan Forbes

Together Forbes and his brother joined with Simon Fraser, 11th Lord Lovat and were part of the Government men who forced the Jacobites to surrender Inverness back into Government hands on 12th November 1715. Following this, and his work in supporting the Government, Forbes was offered the position of depute-advocate. However, he was not keen to take this office as he was not happy with the methods that were being used to prosecute the Jacobite ‘rebels’ from the 1715 Rising.

The Government suspended the law that stated trials should take place in the countries in which the treasonable actions had taken place. This meant that many Jacobites were facing trial in Carlisle rather than in Scotland and Duncan saw this as unfair. Apparently, he was so shocked by this treatment that he wrote to Sir Robert Walpole, Chancellor of the Exchequer, to protest the actions and even collected money to help support the Jacobite prisoners at Carlisle.

Between 1715 and the next major Jacobite Rebellion in 1745, Forbes became Lord Advocate and was appointed to the post of President of the Court of Session in 1737, the most senior judge in Scotland. Unfortunately, his family life was not as successful as his career. His wife died early in life, the exact date is not known but it is believed to have been before 1717. Then, in 1735 his older brother John died and Forbes became heir to the family estates at Culloden, including Culloden House.

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Engraving of Duncan Forbes

When 1745 arrived and another Jacobite Rising was beginning to form Forbes sent out letters to many of the highland leaders. In particular he wrote to Simon Fraser, 11th Lord Lovat who he had joined forces with in 1715, to try and convince him to stay away from Prince Charles and his Jacobite cause. By August Forbes had based himself at Culloden House where he spent six months in a crucial role organising Government support in the North East and setting up independent companies and disrupting Jacobite recruitment.

Forbes’ actions helped warn Sir John Cope, the Commander-in-Chief in Scotland of an ambush awaiting him and his men at Fort Augustus. This helped Cope reach Inverness safely but also allowed the Jacobites to move south without encountering the Government men. Duncan Forbes became such an apparent threat to the Jacobites that it is said Prince Charles himself issued a warrant for his arrest.

In October 1745 Forbes managed to hold off an attempted raid on Culloden House. Around 150-200 rebels surrounded the property and crept towards the building walls. As they approached though they were spotted by an alert sentry and greeted with a rally of gunfire. A small paterero, or swivel gun, was also fired from a balcony and at that point the rebels fled leaving behind a dead man but consoling themselves by running off all the sheep and cattle they could find. The next morning a search of the nearby woodland turned up another casualty who confessed the men had been commanded by James Fraser of Foyers and they had been sent by the supposedly neutral Lord Lovat.

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Gravestone of Duncan Forbes at Greyfriars Kirkyard

Forbes later joined forces with nearby Lord Loudon and managed to raise a force of some two thousand men. When the Jacobites retreated north in 1746 Forbes and Loudon ultimately ended up retreating and heading out towards Skye which is where they most likely heard news of the Battle of Culloden.

Culloden House was used by Prince Charles to house the most senior officers during Culloden but following his defeat he fled and his Jacobite supporters were then rounded up. Despite his support to the Government and the actions against him by some Jacobites Forbes still spoke out against the brutal methods of the Duke of Cumberland. Many believed he had gone soft and his rebuke of the Govenrment actions apparently lost him a certain amount of influence.

Eighteen months after Culloden Forbes died. Some said he fell ill from a broken heart, with the suffering that he saw across Scotland causing him great distress. He died on 10th December 1747 and was buried in Greyfriars Kirkyard in Edinburgh. His grave is marked by a stone slab added in the 1930s by the Saltire Society.

We hope you enjoyed the insight into Duncan Forbes. As always please like, tweet, comment, share and you can still see Culloden House and even stay in it as it is now a lovely hotel.

All the best, K & D