Ruthless streak of Falkirk’s most powerful man

William Forbes' ruthless streak upset a few former tenants on his land
William Forbes' ruthless streak upset a few former tenants on his land

These days it’s a pleasure to take afternoon tea in the magnificent morning room of Callendar House where the Forbes family lived in style for nearly two centuries.

Presiding over proceedings is the fine portrait of the first William Forbes, a copy of the Raeburn painting now in the Portrait Gallery. He was possibly the most influential ever to leave his mark on Falkirk district.

He was not a Falkirk Bairn but hailed originally from Aberdeenshire, where his family were in the copper business. He made his fortune in London after persuading the Admiralty to buy huge quantities of copper sheeting to sheath the hulls of wooden ships.

Now, as was the custom, he decided to use his new wealth to buy himself a place in landed society. In 1783, Callendar House with its huge land holdings, which the Livingstons had lost for supporting the Jacobites, came up for sale.

It was thought polite in those days to allow the descendents of the original family to buy the property but Forbes had no time for such niceties. At the auction he outbid his Livingston rival, the Earl of Errol, offering nearly £90,000. And when challenged to establish his bona fides he is said to have handed over a £100,000 note from the Bank of England and asked for his change!

The huge area which now fell under his control was the second largest in all of Stirlingshire, consisting of nearly 8000 acres farmed by hundreds of tenants from great stretches of muir in the south to the carselands. This was the time of agricultural improvement and Forbes, with his business acumen, considerable capital and determined, even ruthless, character set about applying the new principles.

Enclosure, drainage and crop rotation was the order of the day and there were new leases for those tenants prepared to do as instructed and the exit door for the others. Hundreds of men were shaken from their traditional land into uncertain futures working for their neighbours or in one of the growing industrial companies.

As well as multiplying the Forbes family wealth these actions brought increased prosperity to the whole district, though those who suffered did not see it that way. He enclosed over 7000 acres of land, creating hedged fields of up to eight acres which were heavily limed and drained, and in the process upset many by his dictatorial and unfeeling methods.

One story had William returning to Callendar House in 1797 and, thinking it was set on fire by disgruntled former tenants as revenge, he fled only to later discover the fiery glow came from the Carron Ironworks furnaces. A famous John Kay portrait shows ‘Copperbottom’ – a nickname from London – fleeing in terror!

William Forbes’ influence was not limited to agricultural reform. He was the principal heritor in several parishes and no important decision about church or school could be made without his approval and financial support.

At his death in 1815, Forbes was one of the wealthiest men in Scotland and the unchallenged master of Falkirk and district.