FORBES, John (c.1673-1734), of Culloden, Inverness.
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Family and Education
b. c.1673, 1st s. of Duncan Forbes, MP [S], of Culloden by Mary, da. of Sir Robert Innes, 2nd Bt., MP [S], of Innes, Elgin; bro. of Duncan Forbes†, ld. adv. [S] 1725–37 and ld. pres. ct. of session [S] 1737–47. educ. Inverness R. Acad.; privately in Edinburgh 1692; travelled abroad (Low Countries) 1692–c.1693. m. c.June 1699, Jean, da. of Sir Robert Gordon, 2nd Bt., of Gordonstoun, Elgin, MP [S], 1s. d.v.p. other ch. d.v.p. suc. fa. 1704.1
Commr. justiciary for Highlands [S] 1701, 1702, Equivalent 1716–17 [S].2
MP [S] Nairnshire 1704–7.
Councillor, Inverness 1716, provost 1716–17, 1721; commr. to oversee elections of council at Elgin 1716; visitor, Aberdeen Univ. 1716–17.3
‘Bumper John’ (so called from his enduring belief that ‘another bumper’ would cure all ills) was something of an oddity in a line of shrewd merchant-lairds and sharp lawyers, whose rise to local and national eminence provoked the envious to disparage them unfairly as a ‘mushroom’ interest, ‘that no man in his senses can call a family’. Although the founder of their fortunes, the Member’s great-grandfather, had made his money in trade in Inverness, their descent was in fact from a younger son of the laird of Tolquhon. He and his successors had offset their stiff Presbyterianism with sufficient political skill to bring the family through the trials of Charles II’s reign and to recover the serious losses sustained by the estate at the hands of Highland Jacobites during the Revolution, a sum estimated by the Scottish parliament in 1695 at over £46,000 Scots.4
Forbes’ father, Duncan, had appeared early for the Prince of Orange in 1689 and was active in the convention of estates, where he followed his political mentor Sir Patrick Hume (later 1st Earl of Marchmont), first into the ‘Club’ opposition and then to the ‘Presbyterian’ Court party of Lord Melville and Secretary James Johnston*. In return he received a parliamentary grant of a farm of the excise on his lands at Ferintosh in Ross-shire, originally passed in 1690 and confirmed by another act in 1695. In effect, this exempted spirits produced there from any liability for duty beyond the 400 merks p.a. required for the farm, and the Ferintosh distillery became one of the major sources of income for the estate. Following Johnston’s dismissal Duncan Forbes moved hesitantly back towards opposition, but remained influential enough to be courted by Lord Seafield in 1701–2, possibly with the assistance of Argyll, and attended the ‘rump’ parliament alongside other courtiers after Queen Anne’s accession, a change of direction which doubtless helped preserve his excise exemption when neighbouring landowners petitioned the parliament against it in 1703: a new act brought in some restrictions but left much of the profit intact.5
John Forbes, whose fondness for the bottle was evident in his youth, sadly disappointed his godly parents. Beyond school his education was haphazard and profitless. Having ‘shirked’ his studies in Edinburgh he was sent to Holland, though without a settled object in view; only, as his father put it, ‘to satisfy your own curiosity’. He spent money but read little, and ignored paternal demands that he apply himself to improving pursuits such as fencing and dancing. When he eventually succeeded his father to the estate and to a seat in the Scottish parliament, he put aside political discretion and immediately associated himself with the opposition. Contrary to the view of the Jacobite agent Scot, who may have been thinking of his father in describing him in 1706 as acting ‘commonly with the Court’, he seems to have stayed with the Country party, at least over the Union, which he denounced as a road to ‘inevitable ruin, with regard to Church and state’. It ‘wreathes on our neck a perpetual yoke of prelacy and slavery, without any hope of recovery’. In the last session of the Scottish parliament he registered a long list of anti-Court votes. There were some signs of qualification, as for example when he supported the act for the security of religion, and abstained or absented himself over the article of Union settling the succession. Conceivably these may represent Presbyterian scruples; more likely, they were stirrings of more material concern, over the possibility that the Union might terminate his lucrative excise exemption. By October 1707 the issue was before the Treasury, and Forbes’s petition for confirmation of the Scottish statutes was rejected on the basis of an opinion given against it by the English attorney-general (Sir) Simon Harcourt I*. He did not admit defeat and, fortified by a favourable report from the Scottish lord advocate, instructed his tenants to refuse payment pending the outcome of legal action. The difficulty of confuting the lord advocate’s opinion in a Scottish court deterred the excise commissioners in Edinburgh from going further, and the case hung fire. Meanwhile, an anxious Forbes was exposed to Court blandishments: Lord Ross, for one, approached him in December 1707 with offers of help for his petition to the Treasury and in finding him a seat at the forthcoming general election.6
Forbes did not stand in 1708, but his subsequent manoeuvring indicates that he was now determined to add to his stock of political influence by securing a place in the Commons. The disputed election for Ross-shire seemed to offer the best opportunity. The sitting Member, Hugh Rose II (brother-in-law to Forbes’s own brother Duncan), had been returned for Nairnshire as well. If successful in retaining Ross-shire, he would probably have freed Nairn for a new election, and Forbes was considered the likeliest candidate: if the Ross-shire election was declared void, the by-election would occur there instead, and again Forbes’s local connexions would give him a good chance. His behaviour at this time shows a hitherto unsuspected subtlety, as he reassured courtiers of his willingness to serve the ministry if returned, and determinedly avoided committing himself to any of the rival factions in the localities. Not that this craft availed him in the short term. He was not a candidate when the Ross-shire heritors proceeded to a by-election, nor indeed did he put up at the general election of 1710, for all the assurances he had received. But in 1713 he was at last returned, in succession to Rose as Member for Nairnshire. Lord Polwarth’s list classified him as ‘Hanoverian’, that is, a Whig, and this was how he appeared after the parliamentary session, when English Whigs regarded him as a ‘friend’ and the compiler of the Worsley list marked him down as a Whig tout court. The recruitment of his family into the connexion of their traditional patrons, the house of Argyll, had certainly occurred by the end of the Parliament, and may well have preceded its opening. In the House itself Forbes made little or no impression, not being credited with either an intervention in debate or a significant appearance in the Journals. He was probably late in arriving, but stayed in London until shortly before the Queen’s death, his main concern, as he reported to his wife, being to discover whether the electoral prince intended to come over to England in order to thwart what Forbes himself thought would be the inevitable Jacobite invasion. He was in Edinburgh for the proclamation of King George, which he duly subscribed.7
Forbes worked hard in the Whig interest in the 1715 election, in which he was chosen for his own county of Inverness, and played a part in the defence of the northern counties during the Fifteen, expending in all some £3,000 in the service of the crown, which was only partly recompensed by his brief tenure of a commissionership of the Equivalent. He remained a loyal Argathelian, though receiving little of the fruits of patronage and increasingly overshadowed by his brilliant brother. Drink took a firmer hold over him, and in 1721 his election as an elder of his local synod excited a protest on the grounds that he was ‘a habitual neglecter of family worship’ and ‘a known drunkard’. To the end ‘a friend to a cheerful glass’, Forbes died at Edinburgh of ‘a complaint in his bowels’, 18 Dec. 1734, ‘after a tedious illness’. His brother Duncan inherited an estate to which debts had been added but no property alienated.