Support IDAHO and read about the fascinating life of Donside son, Sir Ewan Forbes, born Elizabeth

Equalities Members Champion Cllr Alison Evison (second from the right), Aberdeenshire Council Straight Ally and Garioch Area Manager Douglas Milne (second from the left) and LGBT Network Group members.
Equalities Members Champion Cllr Alison Evison (second from the right), Aberdeenshire Council Straight Ally and Garioch Area Manager Douglas Milne (second from the left) and LGBT Network Group members.

Aberdeenshire Council celebrated the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia (IDAHO) last week (Thursday May 14).

The image above is of Equalities Members Champion Cllr Alison Evison (second from the right), Aberdeenshire Council Straight Ally and Garioch Area Manager Douglas Milne (second from the left) and LGBT Network Group members.

Sir Ewan Forbes of Craigievar

Sir Ewan Forbes of Craigievar

The Deeside and Donside Piper was also proud to support IDAHO and thought readers would be interested to know the fascinating story of a famous Donsider who suffered turmoil and confusion because of their own gender identification.

Sir Ewan Forbes of Craigievar ( September 6 1912 – September 12 1991) was the 11th Baronet of Craigievar from 1968 to his death.

At birth, he was christened “Elizabeth Forbes-Sempill”, and officially registered as the youngest daughter of Lord Sempill.

The birth registration recorded a female child, but Forbes later commented that this was “a ghastly mistake”.

Elizabeth was brought up as a girl alongside Margaret, but found childhood to be dominated by a growing gender insecurity.

They spent a large amount of time playing with cousins Patrick and David, and in many contemporary photographs Forbes can be seen dressed in trousers and a male jacket, unconventional dress for a young woman of that era.

In his book The aul’ days, written many years later, Forbes recalled a hatred of being “made to dress up” for social engagements, and of going to great lengths to avoid them.

Forbes refused to go away to a girls’ school, which meant being educated at home; at fifteen, he pressed to be allowed to go overseas to attend a pre-university course, and eventually settled on a co-educational institution in Dresden.

After coming out as a debutante in London in the late 1920s Forbes studied in Dresden for a year, 1929–1930, before travelling through central Europe, visiting Prague and Vienna.

In the following academic year, he continued his studies in Paris, where he attended lectures at the Sorbonne and studied the harp under the principal harpist of the Paris Opéra.

In 1939, Forbes was accepted as a medical student at the University of Aberdeen, graduating in 1944 and taking up the post of Junior Casualty Officer at the Aberdeen Royal Infirmary. After a swift progression to Senior Casualty Officer, he began to work as a general practitioner in Alford in 1945.

In addition to the normal work of a rural doctor, he was called upon to act as a medical officer for a large number of German prisoners of war who were held in the area in 1946, due to his command of the language.

The Alford area was one of the largest medical practices in the United Kingdom, and in the winter months Dr. Forbes often had to travel through ten-foot snowdrifts in a converted Universal Carrier.

These conditions were not entirely unfamiliar; a trip to see an uncle in St. Moritz at the age of thirteen had led to him taking up skiing and figure-skating, and winning a number of bob sled races.

He did not live in Alford, but remained at Brux, appointing a medical assistant to live in the town. The farm, left in the hands of a small resident staff, quickly ran into financial troubles.

To raise a large amount of money quickly, Forbes sold the practice in Alford, and returned to the farm in 1952, running it directly as a going concern from then on.

On moving to Alford, Forbes had begun to publicly look and behave like the man he personally identified as being. In 1952, he formally became male by the simple process of requesting a warrant for birth re-registration from the Sherriff of Aberdeen, registering himself as male, and changing his name to Ewan Forbes-Sempill.

He announced this with a notice in the Aberdeen Press and Journal of 12 September 1952: “Dr E Forbes-Sempill henceforth wishes to be known as Dr Ewan Forbes-Sempill”.

His plans had been known in advance to many of his patients, who were reported as universally supportive.

Forbes was equally candid with the press, describing the situation to one reporter as “...a ghastly mistake. I was carelessly registered as a girl in the first place, but of course, that was forty years ago ... the doctors in those days were mistaken, too ... I have been sacrificed to prudery, and the horror which our parents had about sex”.

A month later, on 10 October, he married Isabella Mitchell, his housekeeper for the past five years, and formerly co-founder of his dance troupe.

The marriage took place at the kirk in Kildrummy, which he had recently joined

The re-registration passed without much public comment, and the issue of his gender would remain a private one until 1965. That December, his elder brother Lord Sempill died, leaving daughters but no sons, and thus posing a problem of inheritance. The barony was able to be passed through the female line, and so could pass directly to Sempill’s eldest daughter Ann, whilst the baronetcy – along with the bulk of the land – would have to pass to the first male heir. The family had assumed that Ewan would inherit, as the younger brother. However, this was challenged by his cousin John Forbes-Sempill, who argued that the 1952 re-registration was invalid. This would mean that Forbes was still legally considered a woman, unable to inherit the title, and so it would pass to John Forbes-Sempill.

At the time, gender re-registration was permitted in a limited set of cases; the leading case, decided in 1965, had held that re-registration of this form was only permitted when “the sex of a child was indeterminate at birth and it was later discovered ... that an error had been made”. The challenge was taken to the Court of Session, where the case was heard in great secrecy – no papers were publicly filed, and the judge sat in a solicitor’s office rather than in open court to hear the case.

However, the records of the case have recently been made available via the National Archives of Scotland.

They show that a total of twelve medical experts were called to give evidence, and their testimony was taken by the court to indicate that Forbes was a physical hermaphrodite, which would accord with the legal requirement of “indeterminate at birth”. However, the medical evidence was not conclusive; Professor Martin Roth observed in evidence that he felt Forbes’ condition was closer to that of a transsexual, and Professor John Strong described the medical tests involved as “not wholly conclusive”.

The judge ruled in favour of Forbes, though it has been suggested that the judge desired to ensure the estate and the title was inherited by the “right” candidate, and was flexible with his judgement to obtain this result.

The ruling was appealed to the Lord Advocate, who referred the matter to the Home Secretary, James Callaghan. Callaghan finally ruled in December 1968 that Forbes was the rightful holder of the title, confirming the court’s decision.

The level of secrecy of the case, which was criticised by some contemporary observers, meant that it was not properly recorded or published, and the exact facts of the argument were not known for some time. As a result, whilst it sharply differs from later rulings such as Corbett v Corbett [1970], it was not able to be considered as precedent in later judgments on the legal recognition of gender variance.

On taking up the baronetcy, Forbes dropped the “Sempill” from his surname; this had been adopted by the family in the 1880s when they inherited the barony, and there was no reason to persist once the titles were separated.

With the inheritance case settled, he left the public eye and returned to the life of a rural landowner; he placed Craigievar Castle in the hands of the National Trust for Scotland and continued to live in his house at Brux.

Forbes was an elder of the local kirk at Kildrummy, and was appointed a Justice of the Peace for Aberdeenshire in 1969. He published a book of reminiscences of his early years in 1984, The aul’ days.

Forbes died, leaving no children, in 1991 and was succeeded in the baronetcy by his cousin John, the man who had originally mounted the legal challenge in the 1960s. His widow Isabella survived him, dying in 2002