Sir William Forbes, James Hunter and Company

(1773-1838)

The private bank of Sir William Forbes, James Hunter & Company, owes its origins to the merchant firm, John Coutts & Co.  Established in Edinburgh in the 1720s, its chief activities were dealing in corn, and the buying and selling of goods on commission. Crucially, the firm also negotiated bills of exchange on London, Holland, France, Italy, Spain and Portugal.

Sir William Forbes of Pitsligo Bt., by Sir Henry Raeburn.
Sir William Forbes of Pitsligo Bt., by Sir Henry Raeburn.

William Forbes and James Hunter (later Sir James Hunter-Blair) were both apprenticed to the Coutts firm in 1754. By this date it was run by the founder's four sons, and was called Coutts Brothers & Co.

In March 1761, his apprenticeship having finished two years earlier, Forbes was made a junior partner in the business. Later that year, John, the most able of the Coutts brothers, died suddenly at the age of 30.

From that point on, the running of the Edinburgh firm was increasingly left to Forbes and Hunter. They shifted the focus of the business, withdrawing completely from the grain trade and concentrating instead on banking.

Sir William Forbes one guinea (proof), 1825.
Sir William Forbes one guinea (proof), 1825.

Reflecting this change in stewardship and direction, the company name was altered in January 1773. Sir William Forbes, James Hunter & Company went on to become one of the most successful of the Edinburgh private banks. In 1782, the Company began issuing its own banknotes. By December of that same year, its note circulation reached nearly £83,000.

James Hunter (now Sir James Hunter-Blair) died in 1787. Sir William Forbes continued as managing partner of the bank. He was a prominent figure in Edinburgh circles, known as a major philanthropist, author and agricultural improver, as well as a banker. Forbes also acted as an informal financial adviser to the Government.  With his death in 1806, the senior role in the firm was assumed by his son, also called William. This younger Sir William Forbes was a close friend of the novelist and poet, Sir Walter Scott.

In 1838, the private bank reached an agreement with the joint-stock Glasgow Union Banking Company.

Five years later, this resulted in a merger with the larger bank, by now renamed the Union Bank of Scotland. In order to maintain the valuable connections brought by the Edinburgh bank, its office in Parliament Close was designated the Union Bank's second head office.

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Further Information

  • Memoirs of a Banking House, by Sir William Forbes (Sir William Forbes & Co., Edinburgh, 1859).
  • The History of the Union Bank of Scotland by Robert Rait (John Smith & Son Ltd., Glasgow, 1930), chapters 3-4.
  • Archives relating to Sir William Forbes, James Hunter & Company are held by Lloyds Banking Group Archives in Edinburgh - for further information see our archive collections.
  • Some records and artefacts relating to Sir William Forbes, James Hunter & Company are also on display in the Museum on the Mound..