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William 'Copperbottom' Forbes and the Callendar House

Learn about the cowardly William “Copperbottom” Forbes and how he got his name.

It was not the done thing to outbid the sitting family who had been lairds on the estate for more than 500 years.

From Livingstone to Forbes

Callendar House once belonged to the Livingstons, but after the eventual crushing of the Jacobite rebellion with the defeat at Sheriffmuir in 1715, the Jacobite supporting Livingstons lost their lands. Callendar House was sold off to the York Building Company based in London. The family continued living there and Lord Boyd, Lady Anne Livingston’s son, leased the house until the York Building Company went out of business and the house and estate went up for auction in 1783. Lord Boyd put in what he thought was a fair bid for the house but was outbid by William Forbes, an Aberdeenshire copper merchant with plenty of new money. This was seen as scandalous at the time. It was not the done thing to outbid the sitting family who had been lairds on the estate for more than 500 years. William Forbes cared nothing for that, some might call him an entrepreneur, others a chancer!

"Copperbottom" Forbes

William Forbes earned himself the nickname “Copperbottom” because he sold copper sheeting to the Royal Navy to cover the hulls of their wooden ships to protect them. The iron nails however, which attached the copper, soon rusted and the sheeting fell off, only to be reclaimed by William Forbes. He sold it back to the Royal Navy this time with copper nails and at a handsome profit. He wasn’t popular with the local people, and was seen as an outsider, as they were used to having the Livingstons as lairds. He made himself even more unpopular when he reformed the farming land he now owned, merging farms and making some farmers unemployed as a result. He could also be seen riding around the area on his horse while making some of the estate’s tenants destitute.

He is having dinner when he hears angry voices and sees the torches of a mob approaching Callendar House.

A Mob Approaches

William “Copperbottom” Forbes, as the local laird, was also be involved in the politics of the day. At the end of the 1700s the Militia Act was introduced, which he didn’t oppose, which meant some local labour could be forcibly recruited into the army. Imagine the scene. He is having dinner when he hears angry voices and sees the torches of a mob approaching Callendar House. It’s a mob protesting against the Militia Act and they are coming to string him up – or so he thinks! He runs out of the back of Callendar House with his family and they run off south through Callendar Woods. Turning to look back at the house, they see orange flames in the sky and believe that the mob has set fire to the house. They flee all the way to Edinburgh where they ask the army to go and find out what has happened. It turns out that the protest was essentially a peaceful one. Women, children and families had all come along with the men to protest against the Militia Act, to stand up for their rights, and demand that they not be conscripted into the army. Forbes eventually slunk back home and was lampooned in the local press for cowardice for running away.

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  • References & Bibliography
  • All images are in the public domain
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