FORBES, Duncan (1685-1747), of Edinburgh.

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1715-1754, ed. R. Sedgwick, 1970
Available from Boydell and Brewer



2 Sept. 1721 - 1722
23 Oct. 1722 - 21 June 1737

Family and Education

b. 10 Nov. 1685, 2nd s. of Duncan Forbes of Culloden, M.P. [S], by Mary, da. of Sir Robert Innes of Innes, Elgin; yr. bro. of John Forbes. educ. Inverness Royal Academy; Marischal Coll. Aberdeen 1699; Edinburgh 1702; Leyden 1705; adv. 1709. m. 21 Oct. 1708, Mary, da. of Hugh Rose of Kilravock, Nairn, 1s. suc. bro. at Culloden 1735.

Offices Held

Sheriff depute Edinburghshire 1714-16; dep. Lt. Inverness-shire 1715-16; sheriff, Edinburghshire 1716-25; ld. advocate depute 1716-25; ld. advocate 1725-37; ld. pres. of court of session 1737-d.


Soon after the Fifteen, Duncan Forbes, not yet in Parliament but a rising lawyer, closely connected with the Duke of Argyll, whose estates in Scotland he managed during the Duke’s absence, sent an anonymous letter to Walpole, remonstrating against the harsh treatment of the rebels as likely to defeat its object by increasing rather than diminishing disaffection in Scotland. Another ‘false step’ by the ministry in Scotland had been to give ‘the management of it to a set of men hated and despised by almost all the King’s friends ... known here by the name of Squadrone’ — a reference to the recent appointment of the Duke of Roxburghe to be secretary of state for Scotland. Finally, it was ‘no small cause of discontent ... to find that a ministry can be so designing, or so far imposed on, as to quit with the Duke of Argyll’,1 who had just been dismissed from his offices.

In 1721 Forbes was brought into Parliament by Argyll for Ayr Burghs, transferring next year to Inverness Burghs, where he was returned on petition, continuing to represent them for the rest of his parliamentary career on his family’s interest. Two days after taking his seat, described as ‘a very ingenious Scotch lawyer’, he had the first of a series of encounters with Robert Dundas, in a ‘battle’ between the friends of the Duke of Roxburghe, and those of the Duke of Argyll, over an Aberdeen Burghs election petition.2 When in 1725 the Squadrone were dismissed for opposing the enforcement of the malt tax in Scotland, Forbes succeeded Dundas as lord advocate. His first assignment was to deal with the aftermath of the malt tax riots in conjunction with Argyll’s brother, Lord Ilay, who described Forbes as ‘very violent’, while Forbes was ‘uneasy’ at Ilay’s more diplomatic methods.3 Commenting on the decision to abolish Roxburghe’s office, Forbes wrote:

We shall not be troubled with that nuisance, which we so long have complained of, a Scots secretary, either at full length or in miniature; if any one Scotsman has absolute power, we are in the same slavery as ever, whether that person be a fair man or a black man, a peer or commoner, 6 foot or 5 foot high, and the dependence of the country will be on that man, and not on those that made him.4

When Ilay began to act as minister for Scotland, Forbes did his best to ‘check’ him and ‘put spokes in his wheel’.5

In 1726 Forbes answered Dundas’s speech on Daniel Campbell’s petition for compensation for the destruction of his house in the malt tax riots: ‘He laid all the blame on the lords of session and the magistrates of Glasgow, and set forth the affair in quite a different light’. A fortnight later he moved successfully that anything over £20,000 raised by the malt tax in Scotland should go to the improvement of manufactures in that country, which Dundas described as a job.6 His only recorded speech in the next Parliament was against an opposition motion to make army officers not above the rank of colonel irremovable except by court martial or on an address from either House, 13 Feb. 1734. He claimed in 1735 that

since I first had the honour to serve the Crown, I never was one day absent from Parliament. I attended the first and last and every intermediate day of every session, whatever calls I had from my private affairs.7

In this Parliament he denied Dundas’s charge that troops had been used to overawe the election of the representative peers of Scotland, 14 Feb. 1735; seconded a petition for a grant in aid of Georgia, 7 Mar. 1737;8 and with most of his compatriots opposed the bill of pains and penalties against Edinburgh for the Porteous riots, 16 May and 9 June 1737. In the last speech he mentioned that he would probably never address the House again, referring to his impending appointment to the lord presidency of the court of session, the highest judicial position in Scotland.

Forbes’s elevation to the bench took him out of politics, though he continued to look after his interest in Inverness Burghs. After Walpole’s fall he declined an invitation to him and to Dundas, now himself a judge, to act as advisers to Ilay’s successor, Lord Tweeddale, in matters relating to Scotland.9 During the Forty-five he rendered great service to the Government by raising independent companies and using his personal influence with the chiefs to keep a considerable part of the Highlands loyal (see Macleod, Norman). After the rebellion he again came out strongly for clemency, at the cost of incurring the displeasure of the Duke of Cumberland, who said that ‘the President was no Jacobite but was a Highlander and carried that to very dangerous lengths’.10

He died 10 Dec. 1747.

Ref Volumes: 1715-1754

Author: Romney R. Sedgwick


  • 1. Culloden Pprs. 61-65. For other unsigned letters of this kind see WEST, James, and BUBB (Dodington), George.
  • 2. Ld. Finch to Ld. Nottingham, 29 Oct. 1722, Finch mss at HMC.
  • 3. Coxe, Walpole, ii. 454, 456.
  • 4. More Culloden Pprs. ii. 322.
  • 5. Culloden Pprs. 469-70.
  • 6. Knatchbull Diary, 4, 18 Mar. 1726.
  • 7. More Culloden Pprs. iii. 104-5.
  • 8. HMC Egmont Diary, ii. 363-4.
  • 9. Culloden Pprs. iii. 150-1, 175-85.
  • 10. HMC Polwarth, v. 257.