William Forbes of Callendar

William Forbes, founder of the Forbes of Callendar family, was born in Aberdeen in 1743, the second son of a coppersmith. Tradition dictated he and his big brother George followed in their father and grandfather's foot steps and joined the business.

But by 1771 the ambitious William Forbes was living in London, leasing a house in Upper Thames Street and looking after the firm's booming interests in the city, while George supervised operations in Aberdeen.

It appears that running two factories miles apart was not easy, and in 1775 the partnership was dissolved and the business split in two.

While the brothers remained close and William continued to provide George with supplies, they were already heading in separate directions. George built an export trade with Russia and Sweden, while William channeled his energies into supplying the English market and, more importantly, the Board of Commissioners for the Navy which was to become his biggest customer.


William Forbes of Callendar By the late 1770s, William Forbes was selling copper nails and bolts and copper sheeting to the board to cover the hulls of ships and dealing with orders from all the main Navy dockyards. As he orchestrated a trade that was to make his fortune and earn him the nickname 'Copper bottom', he was even supplying the surgeon on the HMS Victory with copper pots.

Despite the money-spinning attraction of the contracts, William Forbes relations with the Navy were flawed and not always friendly. There were many letters from different dockyards demanding instant action in delivering overdue bolts nails and sheeting which were holding up the construction and repair of ships.

In December 1780 William hit a production crisis and was handed a written warning by William Lance at Woolwich dockyard who complained: "The nails you sent yesterday are all made use of and we are now standing still for want of more. The shipwrights now work until 11 o'clock at night and are to work all day tomorrow."

"Mr Nelson will send up a boat this afternoon. It will be at the Tower by 3 o'clock waiting for when you are ready. I desire you will get them shipped as soon as possible and dispatch the boat back again."

Records of the day also mention William Forbes was in bother with Robert Kidd from Margate who moaned: "The delays are so great in the construction of a cutter, the Admiral threatens to turn the cutter out of the service. If this should happen, the owners will demand that Forbes should be held responsible."

Forbes was used to playing 'hard ball' with his customers and wrote to both telling them it was nothing to do with him but the lack of brass that was to blame.

Despite these problems, William Forbes continued to win highly lucrative Navy contracts and boost his personal wealth. In 1786 he went into partnership with his younger brother David and in 1793 effectively sold the business to him and retired to manage the estates his fortune had bought him.

WILLIAM FORBES was just 40 years old when he purchased Callendar Estate and the grand house that went with it.

By all accounts, the news surprised his family - and the Scottish `establishment'.

His brother-in-law John Abercrombie revealed in a letter he was 'astonished' William had the money to buy such a huge area of land, while the landed gentry was equally baffled as to how he could afford it.

They were all ignorant of just how wealthy the shrewd and determined 'Copperbottom' had become on his exclusive contracts to supply the Navy.

Rich or not, Forbes was always considered a 'newcomer' by his neighbours.

John Ramsay from Ochtertyre commented rather caustically: "The incomers to Stirlingshire at this time were mainly of three types - adventurers returned with colonial money from the east Indies; profiteers who had done well out of government contracts and prize money in the wars; or Glasgow tobacco merchants."

Forbes certainly fell into part of the second category, and his family back home in Aberdeen appears to have been completely unaware of how rich he had become.

THE new owner of Callendar Estate faced a number of problems from locals in his early years in charge.

People were used to collecting wood from Callendar Wood or coal from his coal seams. There were also assorted rights to grass, wood and grazings which were in dispute with other land owners, including the Earl of Errol, who owned lands adjoining Callendar Wood and at one stage tried to lay claim to  the estate; along with Sir Alexander Livingstone.

Predictably, William Forbes tried to extinguish these rights and customs, employing men to patrol the woods and stop people from taking his property. A famous cartoon of the time, 'Copper bottom's Retreat', shows something of the hostility between Forbes and his former tenants and neighbours in Falkirk.

In the cartoon, Forbes is shown fleeing,  believing that Callendar House has been set on fire by an angry mob when, in fact, the 'glow' he could see was from Carron Works.


Dynasty founded on Poverty


IF THE famous Monopoly board game had been around at the time, William Forbes would have been a feared opponent known to play for the highest stakes. He was a man with a passion for buying property.

The founder of the Forbes of Callendar dynasty made his fortune from a highly lucrative coppersmith business that allowed him to plough his money, and undoubted talents into a new career as a 'Landed Gentleman'.

William Forbes had begun looking for land in 1781 paying particular attention to Scottish estates forfeited after the 1715 rising.

While he might have worried the Jacobites could be restored and he would be forced to sell the lands back to their original owners the potential profits to be made clearly outweighed the danger of Scotland ever reverting to the Stuarts.

On that basis, he moved into the property market in a big way, targeting the estates of Callendar and Almond in Falkirk as his first major buy.

These lands, surrendered by the Livingstone family after the 1715 rebellion, but rented by Lady Anne Livingstone and her husband the Earl of Kilmarnock from the York Buildings Company until the Earl's execution in 1746, were bought in 1783.

Ownership of vast tracts of land in Sanquhar, Ayrshire, followed in 1785, and Earlstoun and related lands in the Stewarty of Kirkcudbright and Dumfriesshire in 1786.

William Forbes spent ten years improving Callendar House and reforming his estates, paying for the changes from the continued profits made from copper.

He spent part of his time in London and part in Callendar House, ruling his empire and its wealth with a firm hand and using his younger brothers, David, James and Robert, as agents in his absence.


Forbes' son went on to be M.P.


THE Forbes of Callendar documents and evidence of their rights and privilege were given on indefinite loan to the Scottish Record Office by Lieutenant-Colonel William Forbes of Callendar in 1953.

The family founded by a coppersmith from Aberdeen who died in 1815 aged 72 is well described in various editions of Burke's Landed Gentry under the headings of 'Forbes of Callendar' and 'Forbes of Rothiemay'.

William Forbes' son ~ William (1806-1855) was Conservative member of Parliament for Stirling shire between 1835 and 1838 and 1841 and 1855.


House given new look


Callendar House in Forbes timeDESPITE his unpopularity, William Forbes was now a significant member of the Falkirk establishment, and his refurbishment of the magnificent Callendar House was in keeping with his new social status and aspirations.


He gave orders for the renovation and complete refurnishing of the entire house, adding a new wing and ripping out old rooms.

Many of the furnishings and household items, new glass for the windows, new dinner services, knife trays, clocks, carpeting, tables and chairs, were brought to Callendar House from Edinburgh and London. Forbes bought tableware from Wedgewood and a circular tea table and mahogany dining table with green cloth covers from William Hamilton of Edinburgh.

Forbes preferred the newest fashion, but was not one to spend money recklessly. He checked prices and quality constantly, and when he was offered a choice of three imitation Persian carpets, he took the cheapest although the one in the middle of the price range easily represented the best value for money.

The new wing was to house the servants rooms, so he directed it should be finished in the 'cheapest way'.

By November 1787 Forbes was able to claim the house was finished - except for locks for the doors. The refurbishment of his country seat went on for some years, but it was in 1787 that he embarked on the next stage of his becoming an accepted member of the establishment: he got married.

His first wife was Margaret McAdam, daughter of John McAdam of Craigengillan. She died childless in 1801 and Forbes remarried in 1806 to Agnes Chalmers, daughter of John Chalmers of Old Machar in Aberdeen. This union produced two sons and three daughters, quite enough to ensure the family line.

The Forbes household settled down after William's marriage and he began to spend more time in Callendar House and give his brother David greater control of the business in London.

In 1794, aged 51, he retired to become a full-time landowner and one of the greatest self made men of the late l8th century.


Key `factor' in the running of estate


HAVING made his fortune from running a business he knew a lot about, William Forbes reckoned he could do just as well running a business he knew nothing about.

Once in charge of the 8000 acres of the Callendar and Almond estates, he rejected the idea of employing a factor trained in the needs of estate management and elected to do the whole lot himself.