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29 February 2008

Men in kilts 1: Ewan Forbes (1912 - 1991) doctor, dancer, land manager, Baronet

Elizabeth Forbes-Semphil was raised in Scotland, and identified as a male from a early age. In his 20s as Ewan he was very involved in the Scottish country dance revival movement, dressing and dancing the man’s part. He graduated in medicine from the University of Aberdeen in 1944, and became a practicing doctor until 1955 when he retired to manage the family estates of Fintray (map) and Craigievar (map) for his brother the Baron.

In 1952 he applied to enter in the Register of Corrected Entries substitutions of his name and sex. This was granted, based on his oath and medical evidence. A few months later, he married Isabella Mitchell, his housekeeper.

In 1965 his elder brother died, and he was to assume the Baronetcy. His cousin, John Alexander Cumnock Forbes-Semphill, contested the inheritance on the grounds that Ewan was female. A two-year court battle ensued, first in the Scottish Court of Session where Dr Charles Armstrong gave evidence that Ewan was intersex, and then the case went to the Home Secretary (the future Prime Minister), James Callaghan. A letter from Ewan’s sister was produced to the effect that he was female, but Ewan’s wife testified that they had normal intercourse. The Session judge decided that Ewan was “predominately male”, though intersexed. The Right Honourable James Callaghan, after consulting with the Lord Advocate, directed that Sir Ewan Forbes (he had dropped the ‘Semphill’) should be entered in the Roll of Baronets as The 11th Baronet of Craigievar and The 20th Lord Semphill,  Sir Ewan Forbes of Craigievar,

John Forbes-Semphill finally became the 21st Lord Semphill when Ewan died.

No public records of either the Court of Session or of the Lord Advocate's advice are available. This would appear to be an aristocratic privilege, but resulted in the precedent not being considered in April Ashley’s divorce (Corbett vs Corbett) in 1970.



  1. Stephen Wittle & Lewis Turner ''Sex Changes'? Paradigm Shifts in 'Sex' and 'Gender' Following the Gender Recognition Act?' Sociological Research Online, Volume 12, Issue 1,

    make the following comment:

    The ‘real’ and crucial issues in the Sempill case were whether a respectable Scottish country gentleman (Ewan) rather than a dissolute Londoner (John) should look after what is one of the finest and oldest landed estates in Scotland. It is clear from the court transcript that the judge, Lord Hunter, had to find a way of making sure the ‘right’ decision was made, and the transcript is full of fantastic tales and premises.

  2. There's no h in Sempill.

  3. Rachel Horsham, who researched the Forbes case as part of her appeal to the ECHR ( has written to me as follows:

    "What I read on your site is the same sort of information
    that the public was led to believe at the time. It was untrue. Ewan
    Forbes-Sempil was transsexual. If you read Lord Hunters judgment that was
    presented to the ECHR in my case, you will read the findings of Prof Gooren
    and he clearly states that in his view Ewan Forbes-Sempil was transsexual
    based on the medical evidence given at the time. You should also read the
    complete court presentation and you will know the reality of the case. But
    it is much deeper as it concerns titles and the legal rights to particular
    titles, in the case of Sempil a Baronetcy can only follow in the male line
    and not female. Ewan was born female and named Elizabeth. Some titles can
    follow male or female, eg a Baron can become a Baroness, Baron being male
    and Baroness being female. It is because of this that the judgment of this
    case was not allowed to be presented at the Corbett case."

  4. But there is one in Whittle


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