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Alexander Penrose Forbes:
Bishop of Brechin, the Scottish Pusey
by William Perry

London: SPCK, 1939.


HEREDITY is a tantalizing subject. It takes a good deal of manoeuvring with ancestry to explain William Shakespeare, John Ruskin, or Thomas Carlyle. But the long lineage of Bishop Forbes makes easy and intelligible reading, and in one or more of his ancestors it is possible to discover almost all the interests and capacities for which Forbes was distinguished.


The House of Forbes is one of the most remarkable families in Scotland. The Bishop himself was justly proud of a lineage which made him kinsman with many of the noblest names in Scottish history--the Earls of Angus, Mar, Haddington, Crawford, and Elphinstone, as well as the Hays, Gordon Cummings, Arbuthnots, and the Skenes of Rubislaw. In the year 1875 he published for private circulation a slim volume written by his grandfather, Sir William Forbes, on the last sickness of his mother, Dame Christian Forbes, who was born in 1705. In appendices to this book may be seen the principal ramifications of the family tree. These, with much fuller detail, may now be studied in a monumental quarto of 494 pages, written by Alistair and Henrietta Taylor, and published in 1937 under the title of The House of Forbes.

Pedigrees as a rule have little more than a personal or family interest; but the family tree of the Forbeses is fascinating from the sheer versatility of its members. As one looks at its far-spreading branches, the eye lights upon three bishops in the seventeenth century: Patrick, Bishop of Aberdeen, William, first Bishop of Edinburgh, and Patrick, Bishop of Caithness; a little later a Professor of Divinity appears in the celebrated John Forbes of Corse, the most learned of the "Aberdeen doctors "; a devout mystic in the last Lord Pitsligo; and in the eighteenth century a man of affairs and a social reformer with literary tastes in Sir William Forbes, Baronet, of Pitsligo. Even science finds its representative, in James Forbes, Professor and Principal of St. Salvator's, St. Andrews, in the early part of the nineteenth century, while law and philanthropy are impersonated in John Hay Forbes, the father of the subject of this biography. All these varied interests were combined in Alexander Penrose Forbes in a remarkable degree.

The influence of heredity is even more noticeable in the religious sphere. No family in Scotland has been more devoted and tenacious in its loyalty to the Scottish Episcopal Church. That tradition has remained unbroken from the seventeenth century till the present day. In three of the Bishop's ancestors it is seen at its best: in John Forbes of Corse, in the last Lord Pitsligo, and in Sir William Forbes, the sixth Baronet of Pitsligo, men whose names were familiar and whose memories were revered by their descendants down to recent times. Each of these deserves more than a mere notice if we are to understand how deep rooted was the attachment of the House of Forbes not only to the ancient Scottish Church, but also to the living experiences of personal religion.


John Forbes was born in 1593, the second son of the most learned Bishop of Aberdeen since Elphinstone. Educated in Holland, he was an accomplished classical scholar and a profound student of the early Fathers of the Church. He was appointed Professor of Divinity at King's College, Aberdeen, in 1620, and was recognized in the north-east and beyond it as the most distinguished of the six " Aberdeen doctors ", who were almost the only men in Scotland with the courage and ability to expose the ignorance and resist the pretensions of the Covenanters. Though his loyalty to Episcopacy involved him in the controversies of his time, John Forbes found refuge from these in the practice of personal religion, and his Spiritual Exercises is "a living document of religion and the work of one whose faith and humility and earnestness made a deep impression upon all who knew him". [Henderson, Mystics of the North-east, p. 11.] "He wrote", continues Professor Henderson, "one of the few imposing works of historical theology produced in Scotland under the title of Historical Theological Institutions." He was a mystic in the sense that communion with the All-Loving God was with him the fundamental of religion, but he was also a true churchman, with a deep attachment to the external practices of the Church and a firm belief in the Apostolic Ministry. His breadth of thought is proved by the fact that in 1636 he was one of the first Scotsmen to entertain the idea of unity between the Church of Scotland and the Continental Lutherans. His best-known work is entitled Irenicum (1629), "a peace offering to all lovers of truth and peace in the Scottish Church ".

But in the seventeenth century "the lovers of truth and peace" were few, and the author of the Irenicum was expelled from his chair by the Covenanting party after the overthrow of Episcopacy in 1638. So bitter and narrow was the spirit of the Covenanting party that he was not even allowed to live in the house which he had secured for the University at his own expense, and on his death in 1648 the request of his friends that he should be buried in the Cathedral beside his father, the Bishop, was refused. John Forbes taught better than he knew. His influence continued long after his death. James Garden, who edited and published his works in 1702, caught the mystic flame from the Spiritual Exercises and passed it on to many others in the north-east, among them the fourth and last Lord Forbes of Pitsligo, a sketch of whose life was written by John Hay Forbes, the father of the subject of this biography, in a small volume entitled Man's Condition and Duties.


That little book had the good fortune to receive from the pen of Sir Walter Scott a racy review which in a subsequent edition Mr. Forbes prefixed to the memoir of his ancestor. The result was that, by the year 1835, three years after the death of Sir Walter, the small volume was in its fourth edition. It contains a short treatise by Lord Pitsligo on man's duties in this life and his hopes in the world to come. Here is a paragraph on meditation which is characteristic of the devout spirit of the writer. In "this act of private devotion the mind thinks of the power and wisdom of God or any of His attributes; and considers the works of creation and providence; and as these things cannot be considered without delight, meditation will naturally end in praise and thanksgiving; and when we think on our own folly and corruption, together with the sad state of the earth, our meditation will naturally end in prayer". In sentences such as these Lord Pitsligo reflects the spirit of Fenelon, Bishop of Cambrai, whom he learned to admire in his youth when completing his education in France. On attaining his majority he returned to Pitsligo Castle, Aberdeenshire, where he became a devoted member of the group of Jacobite mystics, now familiar to scholars through Professor Henderson's work Mystics in the North-east. He took his seat in Parliament in 1700, and continued to sit till 1703; but when the proposals for the Union of the crowns began to be seriously discussed he retired into private life. In his view the Act of Union of 1707 meant the loss of national independence, and the Oath of Abjuration the continuance of the Hanoverian Dynasty for all time. Thus patriotism and conscience drew him to the standard of the Earl of Mar in September 1715, and he was present at the indecisive Battle of Sheriffmuir. He escaped to Holland and travelled extensively on the Continent, visiting Munich, Vienna, Venice, before finally settling in Rome, where he found Lord Mar and others at the Court of King James. Disgusted by the intrigues of that sham Court, he returned to Scotland in 1720, and was permitted to reside at Pitsligo Castle, his family seat, where he devoted himself to literature and to the spread of that mystic personal religion which was growing among the intelligent churchpeople and Jacobites in the north-east of Scotland. There he spent twenty-five peaceful years, in the course of which he published a volume, Essays Moral and Philosophical on Several Subjects. In 1745, when Prince Charles Edward landed in Scotland, he felt obliged to "come out" again on the Stuart side, in spite of his sixty-seven years. On reaching Edinburgh he was soon disillusioned by his experience of the Jacobite leaders, with their petty ambitions and jealousies, though it is to their credit that they deeply respected the grey-haired, asthmatic old man, calmly going about his duties, a saint in a rabble of desperate men. After Culloden he led a hunted life in his own country for several years, escaping capture again and again only by a hair's breadth. His estate was confiscated, but the authorities allowed him to end his days in seclusion at his son's house, where he continued to write on religious topics till he died in 1762, at the age of eighty-four.


Sir William Forbes, the grandfather of the Bishop, bought Pitsligo Castle and seventy acres of the estate in 1770. From his earliest years Sir William had determined to retrieve the fortunes of his ancestors, and by the time he had reached the age of thirty-one he had so far succeeded as to secure the fine castle on the banks of the Don which had been the home of this branch of the Forbeses since the fifteenth century. Born in 1739, Sir William at the age of fifteen served as an apprentice in Coutts' Bank in Edinburgh for seven years. His success in business was phenomenal. At the age of twenty-two he became a partner in the bank; twelve years later he was head of the banking firm of Forbes, Hunter and Co. and in possession of a large and growing income. But Sir William was a Christian and a churchman first, and a successful man of business second. There was scarcely a benevolent institution in the city which did not benefit by his energetic and generous interest. He saved the charity workhouse from bankruptcy, took the lead in building the High School and in erecting the South Bridge, was an active manager of the Royal Infirmary, and a trustee for the encouragement of manufactures and fisheries in Scotland. In short, to quote Chambers' Eminent Scotsmen, "Sir William was either at the head or actively engaged in the management of all the charitable establishments of Edinburgh, and many of the most valuable of them owed their existence or success to his exertions."

Though his estate was 200 miles from Edinburgh, he turned what had become a barren waste into cultivated land, on which a population of 300 were able to live in reasonable comfort. He supplied the village of New Pitsligo with a school, built a small church with a manse for the Presbyterian community, as well as a church for members of the Episcopal Church. In the city of Edinburgh his energetic leadership carried the Scottish Church to a position of influence and importance which it had never known since the disestablishment of 1689. In the old town, as it then was, there were three small and struggling chapels, in Blackfriars Wynd, Carrubbers Close, and Skinners Close. By Sir William's generosity and wise counsel these were united and a new chapel in the Cowgate was erected which became, under the ministrations of his kinsman, the Rev. Archibald Alison, father of the historian, one of the most popular churches in the city; so rapidly did this congregation grow that not long before his death it was able to undertake the erection of a large church m the new town, now St. Paul's, York Place.

His literary interests brought him into touch with some of the most important men and women of the time. Sir William was on terms of intimacy with Boswell and his hero, Dr. Johnson, Adam Smith, Henry Mackenzie, Robert Fergusson, and others; while as a member of the Literary Club in London he won the respect and admiration of Burke, Erskine, Reynolds, Goldsmith, and Gibbon. His ability in matters of finance brought him into touch with Pitt, the Prime Minister, who offered him an Irish peerage, which he declined. The deep religious spirit of the man is well illustrated by the concluding paragraph of the Life of Dr. Beattie which he published in 1805 : " In no long time (how soon is only known to Him, the great Disposer of all events) my grey hairs shall sink into the grave and I also shall be numbered with those who have been. May it be my earnest endeavour to employ that short portion of life yet remaining to me in such manner that I may look forward to a happy immortality, through the mercy and mediation of our ever Blessed Redeemer." In 1806 he passed to his rest, two years before the publication of Marmion^ in which he was immortalized by Sir Walter Scott in the lines:--

"If mortal charity dare claim
The Almighty's attributed name,
Inscribe above his mouldering clay
The widow's shield, the orphan's stay '."

His eldest son, Sir William, inherited not only his father's fortune, but also his business aptitude and churchmanship. He was in large measure responsible for the erection of St. John's Church, Princes Street. His name will retain a place in Scottish history for the generous assistance he rendered to Scott when financial disaster overtook him, a service which the famous novelist never forgot.


John Hay Forbes, the second son of Sir William Forbes, was born in Edinburgh in 1777 and, although not gifted with the ability and accomplishments of his father, followed closely in his steps, both in the cause of charity and in loyal support of the Scottish Church. In 1802, four years before the death of his father, he married Louisa, daughter of Sir William Gordon Cumming of Altyre. He was then a young advocate slowly making his way at the Scottish Bar, and an advocate's income and a houseful of children left his wife, as she used to say, "little time for gadding". Indeed, she was obliged to practise economy so strictly that she excused herself even from the little parties which her old mother used to give at her house in Charlotte Square, Edinburgh. Her sisters, however, begged her to come, and told her to bring her work. "I saw her there," writes the author of Memoirs of a Highland Lady, "busy with a pair of coarse sheets, stitching, stretching and drawing the web bit by bit out of a great canvas bag as she wanted it; and yet she did not look unladylike." Dean Ramsay describes Mrs. Forbes as "one of the finest examples of the past Scottish lady", who liked to drop into her Scottish tongue to give point to her humorous candour. On one occasion at a tea-party in a country house the Earl of Elgin remarked to her, "You are fond of your tea, Mrs. Forbes." The reply was, "Deed, my Lord, I wadna gie my tea for your yerldom " (earldom).

That was in 1816, when her husband was Sheriff of Perthshire, a position which he combined with the practice of law at the Parliament house in the High Street of Edinburgh. Both before and after that date he took a leading part in the public life of the city, and especially in charitable organizations designed to better the conditions of the poor. In 1813 he established a society which, as Lord Cockburn says, not only swept the streets clear of hordes of beggars, but also provided employment for such as were willing to work. He brought down upon himself the wrath of pawnbrokers and the blessings of their victims by causing a statement of the legal rates of interest to be publicly displayed, and encouraged thrift by founding the Edinburgh Savings Bank, which proved a most successful enterprise and spread rapidly till it was supplanted by a Government scheme.

In connection with this Savings Bank the celebrated Dr. Guthrie, an ardent Presbyterian, related an incident which proves how large-minded " the extremely bigoted Episcopalian ", as he called him, could be. After saying that Lord Medwyn, as his title then was, justly esteemed the founding of the bank a greater honour than his seat on the Bench and the title which accompanied it, Dr. Guthrie tells how Lord Medwyn made the generous proposal to his colleagues of the bank that the unclaimed residue of money, amounting to £700, lying in the bank when its affairs were wound up, should be given to Dr. Guthrie for the building of his new church among the poor. It is the man of conviction and principle who is the first to respect tenets of belief other than his own.

No man in Edinburgh concealed his religious principles less than Mr. Forbes. He was a churchman first and a philanthropist second, the one because he was also the other. In his view the Church was the most effective agent for bettering the condition of the poor, and therefore the first claim upon his time and interest was the provision of the means for enabling the Church to carry out its mission; the Scottish Episcopal Fund was his special care.

So crushing had been the persecution which followed the disestablishment of the Church in 1689 and continued many years after the rebellion of 1745, that the Scottish Church became, to quote Sir Walter Scott's phrase, but "the shadow of a shade". Pathetic letters of gratitude are extant from Bishop Jolly and others to Lord Medwyn for small grants of £20 or £10 from this fund, which were evidently regarded as godsends. In even worse case were the clergy in the Highlands, where large parishes existed in which the majority of the people had remained loyal to the Scottish Episcopal Church after its disestablishment. To keep these incumbencies alive the Gaelic Society of the Episcopal Church was founded, and for many years Lord Medwyn took a prominent part in directing its affairs; unfortunately the increasing importance of larger towns in the south withdrew support from the Society, with the result that when the Disruption of 1843 brought a new spirit into the conventional "moderatism" of Scottish Presbyterianism, numbers of neglected Episcopalians were swept into the Free Church. Lord Medwyn also took an active part in the erection of St. Paul's, York Place, and, when the Cowgate congregation migrated there, the Forbes family regularly attended its services.

If the mother was the centre of the home, the idol of her children, the father was the priestly teacher who made the yoke and burden of Christ what it was meant to be, "easy and light". No one can read unmoved a letter written to his boys in their teens, in which he urges the necessity of religious habits. The letter is in effect a plea based upon his own youthful experience, a plea in which affection, good sense, and deep religious feeling are happily blended.

The theme of the letter is the necessity of good religious habits, especially those of regular attendance at church and at Holy Communion. "Times will come", he writes, "when all pleasure and warmth in prayer will be completely gone and you will be apt to fancy that all your religion is going. It is not enough to trust to earnest prayer, but good religious habits will be to you what a steady favourable tide would be to a ship which lies like a log when a breeze ceases. Therefore, my dear boys, look upon regular attendance at Holy Communion as the most important of all religious habits. For surely there more than anywhere else we have our Saviour beside us, when we spiritually eat the Flesh of Christ and drink His Blood, when we dwell in Christ and Christ with us. We cannot expect the fulness of this blessing at first, because our hearts are not penitent enough nor our faith lively enough, but we may expect something of it at first and more continually afterwards. Do not trust your feelings. If you desire my wishes for you to be fulfilled, take the only sure way of bringing this about, while you are young; make and keep fixed religious habits, especially that of regular attendance at the Holy Communion."

It was no wonder that with such a father the three sons grew to manhood without causing him a day's anxiety.

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