William Forbes, born in 1743, was the second son of an Aberdeen coppersmith of the same name and Janet Dyce. His father died in 1762 and he and his older brother, George, carried on the business together. They soon established a branch in London and William moved there to manage it. In 1775 it was agreed to separate the two concerns. George developed trade with Russia and Sweden, whilst William sought government contracts. The latter element proved very lucrative and by 1777 William was employing 30 men, with another 14 on temporary work. Dealings in the cooper supply market ensured greater profitability. Most of the work came from the Board of Commissioners for the Navy and involved copper sheeting and nails for sheathing the hulls of the wooden ships – earning William the nickname “Copperbottom”.
Land provided the greatest security for the newly made wealth as well as a good investment. In 1783 William Forbes bought Callendar Estate in Stirlingshire and before long became the second largest landowner in the county. His status was further enhanced when he consequently became a deputy-lieutenant of the shire. Callendar had been run down by its previous tenant, the Earl of Errol, who was related to the Jacobite owner of the estate before it was forfeited. William Forbes radically transformed the estate. He removed the agricultural tenants and enclosed the land before advertising the new farms for greatly enhanced rents. A large quantity of good quality timber was sold off and the coalfield was further exploited. Windfalls came from the delayed sale of land to the Forth & Clyde Canal Company and Carron Company, and further land was feued off.
All of this upset the lower classes in Falkirk and William Forbes received a few death threats. Consequently, when there was an unauthorised and rowdy public demonstration against the Militia Act parading around Callendar House on the 23rd August 1797 he was alarmed and fled into the woods. From there he saw flames rising from the direction of the house and assumed the worst – a revolution. He carried on to Linlithgow and called out the military. It later transpired that the flames had been from the furnaces of Carron Ironworks.
In the decade since his acquisition of the Callendar House he had spent a lot of money on its refurbishment. New floors were inserted, the roof was replaced, two stair towers added to the front and two-storey wings added to either end. The grounds were extensively landscaped.
In 1787 he married Margaret McAdam, daughter of John McAdam of Craigengillan. However, she died childless in Madeira in 1793 and in 1806 he married a much younger Agnes Chalmers, daughter of John Chalmers of Westfield, Old Machar, Aberdeen. They had two sons and three daughters.
William Forbes was able to retire from his copper business in 1794 at the age of 51 and sold it to his younger brother David. William continued to acquire land, notably at Earlstoun in Kirkcudbrightshire and in Dumfriesshire. He died in 1815, leaving his estate to his son William who later became an MP.
Geoff B. Bailey (2016)