Forbes at home, a contemporary portrait

George Forbes at ease in his ‘Observatory’ – picture thought to have been taken by F Henderson in 1929

A fascinating accountof George Forbes at home in Pitlochry towards the end of his life emerges from this letter published in The Scotsman a few days after he died.

Professor George Forbes 
Fincastle , Pitlochry , October 26 , 1936 

Sir,  I have read with interest your obituary notice of Professor Forbes , but in a life so long and so varied as his there is much that cannot find place in a single brief article and perhaps I may be allowed to add one or two memories in supplement . They relate to his later years , when he renewed an old connection of his family with Pitlochry, and built or adapted for himself a most original retreat which he characteristically named ‘The Shed’. Though it was within a stone’s throw of Pitlochry station, hardly any of the thousands who passed that way suspected its existence so well was it concealed in the oak coppice between the railway and the river. 

To visit him there was a unique experience. Round it were nesting boxes for his bird friends . One end of the building served as a bedroom and kitchen , where his frugal menage was carried on; but the main part was taken up by his library — a remarkable collection of scientific books, many of which were stately quartos and folios of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. If I remember rightly, his chief treasure was the first edition of Galileo’s writings published in England. 

Before his visitors left, he would take them to the roof of ‘The Shed’, where, like ‘the Tuscan artist’, he could turn his glass to the stars . 

He was ready to share his knowledge , and at the suggestion of a Scoutmaster friend he wrote a pamphlet, ‘Star Talks For Boy Scouts’ as a first introduction to astronomy . To talk with him was to be conducted to remote and fascinating times and places . At one time he would talk of the Scots Universities when his father, predecessor of the great Professor Tait, held the Chair of Natural Philosophy in Edinburgh. At another he would describe the Inverness coach drawing up at Fisher’s Hotel to change horses on its way to Inverness. 

Coming some ten years nearer our own day, he told of his adventurous journey across the Gobi desert and through Siberia by tarentass (an open, pulled wagon, common in Russia) on his return from an astronomical expedition to the Pacific — a journey in which he can have had few British precursors. 

Professor Forbes had also an interest in speculative thought which marked him out from most of the engineers and physicists of his day. By a route of his own he had reached a kind of personal idealism which contained Platonic and pan-psychist elements unfamiliar in the school in which he was brought up.

He sought to expound it in a philosophical romance — surely the most difficult form of literature — entitled ‘Puppets, A Work-A-Day Philosophy’ . The little book is doubtless forgotten , but it contained the Weltanschauung (a particular philosophy or view of life; the world view of an individual or group). of a remarkable Scotsman, remarkable in the width of his interests and the perseverance with which he followed, often in solitude, his intellectual way. 

I am yours &c
GF Barbour

Its author, Dr George Freeland Barbour DPhil, JP (15 February 1882 – 18 November 1946), was a Scottish author, philosopher and Liberal Party politician. His family have lived around Atholl for many generations, and continue to do so – originally in Bonskeid House and, since early in the twentieth century, Fincastle. They also gifted to the town the Barbour Institute, the turreted building beside the war memorial that now serves as the offices of J&H Mitchell WS solicitors.

Of this, ‘The Tourist Guide To Pitlochry’ published around 1920 noted: Pitlochry Young Men’s Institute, erected by Mrs R. W. Barbour of Bonskeid in memory of her husband, the late Rev. Robert W. Barbour. It contains Refreshment Rooms, Reading, Billiard, Smoking, and Gymnasium Rooms. Visitors are admitted on favourable terms.

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