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19 Jan 2021

Facing Our Past at Fyvie Castle

Written by Jennifer Melville with Judith Tocher
An exterior view of Fyvie Castle, seen from the lawn on a sunny day. Tall trees can be seen in the background behind the castle.
Fyvie Castle, Aberdeenshire
As part of our Facing Our Past project, we take a look at the Forbes-Leith family and their American connections.

Fyvie Castle, as it is presented today, is a late 19th-century home – the splendid transformation of an ancient Scottish castle by a returning Scot, Alexander Leith. In 1889, when Alexander was still in his early 40s, he was able to retire from his career as a steel magnate in the USA and return to Scotland with his American wife, Marie Louise January, and their young family.

Portrait of an older man sitting at a desk with his hand on a newspaper. He is wearing a kilt and sporran.
Alexander Forbes-Leith

He bought Fyvie Castle for £175,000 – a vast sum in those days (the equivalent would be over £22 million today). It was just over 20 miles north-east of the family seat of Leith Hall, where his first cousin, Col. Alexander Sebastian Leith-Hay, resided. At Fyvie, the couple set about creating their own American-style ‘ancestral seat’ – full of rich furnishings, fine paintings and all ‘mod cons’. Alexander, who now styled himself as Forbes-Leith, having added his mother’s surname to his own, and Marie, along with their children Ethel and Percy, lived in luxury – a luxury funded with profits made from the American steel industry. Alexander had married the boss’s daughter, and had gone on to be successful in his own right as a steel magnate and later in banking, but in fact he and his wife had always lived lives of privilege, and in both cases in families that had to some degree benefited from wealth accrued through the profits of slavery.

Full length portrait of a woman, who is wearing a long cream dress, with a darker cloak.
Marie Louise January

Marie Louise January (1848–1930), was the oldest child of Derrick Algernon January [1], who was born in 1814, in Kentucky. He and his brothers owned large estates there and erected substantial houses on their properties. In a world reminiscent of Gone with the Wind, the home of one of his brothers, Thomas January, was described as ‘an antebellum mansion with a columned entrance that led into a large hall which extended to the rear of the house where a staircase spiralled to the second floor. At the top of the stairway was a wider portion that was probably used by musicians when there were parties’. It had a private racetrack and a fine wine cellar in the basement – but also chillingly, as was revealed after the house burned to the ground, four pairs of iron circles attached to the walls that ‘were probably used for the disciplining of slaves’. [2]

Portrait of a man wearing a dark suit and a white high-collared shirt, with a black bowtie.
Derrick January

Derrick January moved west to St Louis, Missouri in 1837 and established a wholesale grocery business – January, Stettinius and Co. On 26 April 1842, he married Louisa Smith; Marie was born six years later and a brother, Jesse, followed. Louisa died in 1850 – a posthumous portrait of the young mother with her children commemorates her. [3] The only mother Marie and Jesse would have known was their stepmother, Julia Bryan January (née Churchill), whom Derrick married in 1859.

Painting of a woman with two children either side of her. They are all wearing light-coloured clothes.
Louisa January, with Marie and Jesse

Like Derrick, Julia was from Kentucky and grew up amongst her extended Churchill family. They owned vast expanses of land near Louisville, Kentucky, part of which – Churchill Downs – became a horse racing complex and has hosted the famous annual Kentucky Derby since 1875. Inevitably, with so much land to care for, they had owned enslaved people for generations. [4]

The January family would have lived through the trauma of the American Civil War, in which Missouri was a hotly contested border state, populated by both Union and Confederate sympathisers. Slavery existed in Missouri until, with the imminent defeat of the South in sight, it was abolished in that state on 11 January 1865, when Marie was in her teens. Although Derrick’s brother Thomas had also moved to St Louis, where railroads became his main focus, as the biggest landowner in his part of Kentucky, he had owned 80 enslaved people there up to their emancipation. [5]

On the Leith family side, generations of Alexander’s family had directed the control of enslaved people and a few, including his own father, Rear Admiral John Leith, oversaw the gradual ending of slavery in the Caribbean. Colonial power and profit at Leith Hall

Most of the family portraits commemorating these men remained at Leith Hall, but Alexander Forbes-Leith and his wife set out to acquire more. Among them were several of members of the Leith-Ross family, including a portrait of John Ross of Arnage, the ‘deaf and dumb laird’. [6]

Portrait of John Ross of Arnage. He is wearing a mid-length white wig.
John Ross of Arnage

Along with his unmarried daughter Christian, or Christina (1732–1803), he was entrusted to care for his two mixed-race granddaughters, Margaret (Pegie) and Sophia. They were sent to Edinburgh when their father, the laird’s son John Christian Ross, emigrated from Florida to Dominica in 1784 with their mother, an enslaved woman named Bella, whom John had freed. Within a year John Christian was dead – Bella’s fate is not known nor, for now, that of the two little girls who, so far as we know, spent the rest of their lives in Scotland. [7]

Along with rediscovered family portraits, the Forbes-Leiths acquired an impressive collection of paintings by the most highly sought-after artists of the day. Like the new museums opening across the USA, the couple furnished their home with fine examples by the artists who were most admired and reproduced at the end of the 19th century: Sir Thomas Lawrence, George Romney, Sir Joshua Reynolds, John Opie, Sir Thomas Gainsborough, William Beechey and an outstanding group of portraits by Scottish master Sir Henry Raeburn, as well as works by Modern Masters, such as Sir John Everett Millais and John Pettie. To complete the decorative scheme, some members of the Stuart royal family (James VI and his son Charles I) were included, along with British heroes: a full-length portrait of Admiral Horatio Nelson by John Hoppner, and others of the Duke of Wellington and Robert Walpole.

Perhaps unwittingly, in acquiring this fine collection of late 18th- and early 19th-century paintings their Tiffany lamp was lighting up the long-dead faces of those who had thrived on the profits of enslavement, as it was these sitters could afford to commission portraits from these fashionable and pricey artists.


Click on the paintings below to find out more about their connections to slavery.


[1] See the MyHeritage website

[2] Beverly Fleming, Ferguson, A Community Profile pp 2–3

[3] See the WikiTree website

[4] Kathleen Jennings, Louisville’s First Families – A Series Of Genealogical Sketches (published by the Standard Printing Co, Louisville, Kentucky 1920), p. 59

[5] Irene Sanford Smith, Ferguson – A City and Its People (Ferguson, Mo.: Ferguson Historical Society, 1976), p. 79. The 1860 federal census identifies all the actual residents of the area as ‘farmers’; by far the wealthiest, Thomas January owned real estate valued at $180,000 and personal property worth $25,000. See Fleming, p.7

[6] See the National Library of Scotland

[7] See Florida History Online and John Ross of Dominica and with thanks to Dr Désha Osborne.

[8] See Lord Nelson and slavery: Nelson’s dark side, 8 June, 2020

See the Nelson Society for a discussion on the doctoring of this letter by Abolitionists

[9] See Genealogical Collections Concerning the Scottish House of Edgar, with a Memoir of James Edgar, London, 1873, p. 11

[10] See Alexander Edgar of Wedderly and of Stockbridge near Edinburgh[accessed 16 December 2020]

[11] See Post-Office Annual Directory, 1818-1819, Edinburgh and Leith

[12] David Mackie PhD thesis Edinburgh University Raeburn, Life and Art 1994, Vol II cat. no. 250 p. 364

[13] See The Scotsman, 13 June 2020

Facing Our Past

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