Dr Robert Lee

Local historian, George Robinson, offers us a snapshot of the life of Robert Lee, a nineteenth century Edinburgh doctor and minister…

Robert Lee was born in Tweedmouth in 1804. His father was the owner of a yard in Dock Road which specialised in building rowing boats used by the locals for salmon fishing. Joining the family business, after leaving Berwick Grammar School, Robert spent six years working in the yard and balancing the books, before enrolling at the University of St Andrews.

Robert became minister at Campsie in Stirlingshire and married Isabella Buchanan in 1836. He was later appointed minister of St Vigeans Chapel of Ease, Arbroath, before moving to Old Greyfriars seven years later. At that time a dividing wall separated rough stone building into two congregations: Old and New Greyfriars.

Although Dr Lee had friends in high places, including the royal family, the charismatic minister’s forward-thinking campaign to provide a form of worship suitable for a congregation living in a rapidly changing world, brought him into opposition with more conservative colleagues. When Old Greyfriars was destroyed by fire in 1845, Dr Lee used the opportunity to install stained glass windows and introduce a harmonium.

A classical scholar, Dr Lee was selected to the first Chair of Biblical Criticism at the University of Edinburgh. He was also Dean of the Chapel Royal of Holyrood and Chaplain in ordinary to the Queen, and, being interested in science and technology, he was made a fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh.

Dr Lee was a man of intelligence, principles – and, somewhat unusually for his time, moderation. On one occasion in 1859, as a member of the committee responsible for running Heriot’s Hospital in Lauriston Place and discussing plans to mark the anniversary of the founding of the school, another member proposed that pupils should be allowed to celebrate the bi-centenary with a glass of ginger wine.

This was opposed by Councillor Hope of the Temperance Movement who maintained it could lead to the boys developing a taste for alcohol. Lee’s colleague, Dr Robertson, acutely aware of the problems caused by excessive drinking among the residents of the West Port and the Grassmarket. supported the councillor’s view.

However, Dr Lee took the opposite view, supporting his belief that an occasional glass would benefit the pupils, encouraging them to treat alcohol with respect, by quoting “Thou shalt eat and drink, and rejoice before the Lord.”

The Reverend Dr Lee died in March 1867 while convalescing in Torquay, Cornwall. Thousands of men, women and children lined the streets to pay their respects as his coffin was carried from the manse in George Square to the Grange Cemetery on the south side of the city.

A bust of Dr Lee can be seen on the north wall of Greyfriars Kirk next to the burial door.

The image in the text is from the National Galleries of Scotland archive.























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