Dr. Robert McLean 1809 - 1849

I am grateful to Stewart Grant Callan for the picture and service history of Naval Surgeon Robert McLean who was born in Borlick near Aberfeldy, the brother of Mary Mclean who married Alexander Fisher .


In May 1828, Robert Mclean from Perthshire appeared on a list of names released to the Edinburgh Evening Courant by Surgeons Hall in Edinburgh. The text accompanying the list read; 'Since Candlemas last the following gentleman have appeared before the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh, and having produced certificates of their completing a course of study prescribed by the College, and having been admitted on examination, have been found fully qualified to practice the arts of anatomy, surgery, and pharmacy, and have received diplomas accordingly'. This is almost certainly our Robert McLean but there is no record in the archive of the Royal College of Surgeons in Edinburgh that can substantiate that.

How did a young farmer's son fund his education and, living so far from the sea, end up a ship's surgeon? It is also remarkable that he qualified as a surgeon at age nineteen, an age at which today's budding doctors only start at medical school.

Naval service

The Service History below is courtesy of The National Archives (ADM/196/8);

Robert was appointed to the rank of 'Assistant Surgeon' in the Royal Navy on 10th September 1830 and promoted to 'Surgeon' on 23 November 1841.

Other sources reveal that he was on other ships suggest that list is incomplete; In 1830 he was on the Brazen Floating Chapel at Deptford and in 1832 on the Briseis, a brig at Falmouth, before joining the Royal Charlotte at Dublin. In Dec 1832 he was assigned to the Calypso packet, and in 1835 he sailed to the East Indies on the Winchester which was Jane Austin’s brother Charles’s ship.  He was there again in 1836 and 1837 on a sloop named Raleigh fighting Pirates near Singapore. In 1842 he was on board HMS Tenedos converting it to a prison hulk at Chatham in Kent and in December 1843 till June 1844 on board the Paddle Steamer HMS Geyser in the Mediterranean.

His time on board the convict ship Tory conveying 200 Irish convicts from Ireland to Van Dieman's Land is particularly well documented as he kept a detailed journal. For the first three months he was mainly presented with ill defined febrile illnesses for which he had few effective treatments. One sickly child was carried off by a fit of convulsions. There was some venereal disease and a prisoner with convulsions was initially suspected to be shamming. Inevitably scurvy was the major disease on board and he describes trials of different treatments - see transcript of part of the journal below.


These two swords which we believe belonged to Robert have been in the family for many years. One is clearly a naval dress sword but it was never clear why he had the other sword with tortoiseshell scabbard. Stewart has identified it as one of a pair of Chinese Shuang Jian swords. These double-edged straight swords have been used in China for the last 2500 years. In Chinese folklore they are known as the 'gentleman of weapons'. Robert may have acquired it in the Far East when he was on the Winchester or Raleigh.

See Shuang Jian compilation

See also;


The Morning Post of April 1850, in a piece entitled 'Quarterly Naval Obituary', listed a Robert MacLean under Surgeons - he was only 40. In the same month an Inventory of the personal estate of Dr Robert McLean Naval Surgeon sometimes living at Borlick near Aberfeldy revealed that he died intestate in London on 10 December 1849. The executors dative were his surviving siblings Alexander, Mary and her Husband Alexander Fisher, John, Margaret and Christian. We can imagine that Alexander, the senior member of the family got the gold watch mentioned in the inventory and Mary, who was next in line, got the uniform and sword.

Transcript of 'General Remarks' made by Robert McLean at the end of his journal

The king's convict ship Tory fitted out at Deptford for the conveyance of 200 convicts from Ireland to Van Dieman's land. The guard consisting of two officers and 50 men accompanied by seven woman and 13 children embarked on the 21 September 1846 and the ship left Deptford on the 22nd but owing to contrary winds did not arrive at Kingston Ireland until 9 October. During that time the weather was boisterous and cold but the guard and crew were healthy. One case of common continuing fever occurred with one of the guard. Never severe but very tedious in recovering. The places allotted to the guard ,owing to the women and children, was very crowded and not favourable for anyone's recovery. The prison was not quite so crowded and rather better ventilated. On 16th of October 73 prisoners embarked having been previously examined at the depot. Many appeared sallow and emaciated having been a long time in confinement. On the 28th, 29 and 30th 127 more embarked and the ship sailed for Hobart town on 11 November.

The number put on the sick list was not great but some of the cases were of a malignant untreatable nature and proved fatal in five instances. Two of the cases of fever were from the same county jail. One  was taken ill a few days after coming on board. One prisoner died the day previous to the ship sailing from Kingston. He came on board with a bad character and was threatened with punishment for his conduct on 7 November. On the 8th he was seen in a kind of convulsive fit, pale ghastly and perspiring freely with very small pulse. He soon recovered from it. He was ordered a brisk cathartic. The hospital attendant said he had the character of shamming sickness while at the depot and perhaps took some tobacco to produce sickness. At 3 PM he came on deck apparently well along with the rest for his allowance of wine and went below in a great passion on being refused any. It would appear that during the night he had another fit but the man on watch unfortunately would not take notice of him saying 'he knew him of old'. On the morning of the ninth he appeared very drowsy and would not swallow anything complaining of headaches. Skin and pulse natural. Bowels freely moved. During the dinner hour he had another fit of rather severe nature and on coming on board at 3 PM I found him in a state of stupor and would neither swallow nor speak pulse 90, small and weak. Towards the evening he appeared better complaining of his head but would not swallow anything. He was visited at eight and then at 12. There was nothing alarming in his appearance an extra blanket was put over him as he complained of the cold. At 4 on the 10th he was found dead in bed. The men sleeping on each side of him not aware of it. There was no convenience in such a crowded confused ship for a post-mortem examination. Nothing could be ascertained in his previous history. He had the miserable sallow appearance frequently observed in epileptic people. The rages and passion he was in on being refused wine might prove an exacting cause to some dormant disease of the brain.

Before leaving harbour viz. on the 2nd, 8th and 11th November 3 prisoners were attacked by an insidious malignant fever proving fatal in two out of three cases. They were from the same county jail in Tipperary.  Accustomed to rural life and farm work they suffered bodily and mentally from their confinement. The fever was of a low type, pulse generally small sometimes very slow. Great cerebral disturbance and delirium which set in early. After leaving harbour and before the ship got into the tropics… symptoms of amendment but the two sunk rapidly in the hot weather near the equator and died within a few hours of one another. The third made a slow and imperfect recovery his left arm remaining paralytic and having a slight halt in his gait on the same side a  large slough formed on the sacrum which rendered his recovery more tiresome. Every precaution was taken in keeping the hospital clean well ventilated and sprinkled with chloride of lime. That substance seems to possess advantages over the chloride of lime especially in the ease of its application and absence of unpleasant odour. In applying the chloride of lime for the removal of unpleasant… The remedy was sometimes worse than the evil. It was of great service in keeping the water closets sweet, washing them was not  sufficient of itself. On 18 December a guard man who was in constant attendance in the hospital was attacked by the same symptoms as the other three cases viz. violent headache, early delirium weak pulses etc. He made a slow and imperfect recovery and remaining in such a debilitated state that he was sent to hospital on arriving at Hobart Town. During the early part of the voyage with the exception of those fever cases mentioned the prisoners enjoyed excellent health and spirits. The change from the sallow sullen appearance on coming on board was quite remarkable. On approaching the Cape of good Hope a tendency to scurvy manifested itself and the voyage proving very tedious it was deemed advisable to put into Simon's Bay for a few days for fresh provisions and water. When we arrived at the Cape on 26 January 1847 there were three well marked cases with swollen bleeding gums, rigidity of the hamstring tendons and discoloured patches about the calves of the legs. Four or 5 more were affected in a slight degree. They had sore gums, loss of appetite, apprehension about the heart, precordia etc. 10 days on fresh provisions viz. 6 days in the harbour and 4 at sea made a wonderful change. All except one were benefiting and some quite recovered. But the tendency was not removed and in three weeks afterwards fresh cases presented themselves in rapid succession.

The confining ship and boisterous state of the weather prevented the prisoners from taking recreation and exercise the voyage proved so tedious it was impossible to cheer them up and keep them from despondency and they lost their taste for dancing and other amusements. Even the school in which many took great interest was broken up owing to the peculiarly wet state of the ship. Even the prison was always in a damp state. Although every effort was made to prevent it. Leaks no sooner stopping in one place than breaking out in another. The disease was in great measure attributed to the confinement of the people below and the damp state of the decks.

The effects of the different antiscorbutics were anything but satisfactory. The first case was the most unfavourable his health having been good all the voyage previously. He took only the lemon juice in liberal quantities and preserved soups and meats in spite of which and the stoppage at the Cape he got steadily worse for 5 to 6 weeks at the end of which a change for the better took place. From being a helpless cripple unable to come on deck without being carried he became quite active limbs and gums quite sound with an excellent appetite. Greater credit was given to the preserved meats than to the lime juice for his recovery. Within 10 days sail of Van Dieman's land the weather being cold and boisterous he, along with some others, were attacked with dysentery........... A bad case attended with the enormous swelling of the legs, discolouration of the skin and swollen bleeding gums. The citric acid had a fair trial of it  with him, he was possessed of a good strong constitution and took the acid in large doses for upwards of a month but continued getting worse and his sufferings were so great that it was deemed advisable to change the treatment. He was allowed lime juice ad libitum and took 10gr potass nitrit twice a day under which she made a rapid recovery and was soon in perfect health. The cases in which the potass nitrit was employed especially of a little lime juice was allowed along with it seemed to get on better than those who took the lime juice alone of the citric acid but it is probable that they were altogether of a milder character than the citric acid and lime juice cases. It is doubtful of any of them will cure scurvy without the assistance of fresh meat or vegetables.

On 1 March Michael O'Brien was seized with febrile symptoms similar to the other cases of fever recorded in the journal. He was a good constitution and he enjoyed excellent health up to that time. The fever did not run high at first, delivery and being the first thing that it excited suspicion. He was bled from the arm and cupped on the back of the neck but he remained in a quiet state, scarcely ever sensible, until we arrived at Hobart town when he was sent to hospital.

When the ship arrived at Hobart town on 18 March so great was the scorbutic tendency that half of the prisoners, many of the crew and one or two of the guard had sore gums and other slight symptoms of scurvy but the fresh beef and vegetables of Hobart Town acted like a charm and not a vestige of scurvy was in the ship when they landed on 29 March. Some of the worst cases were sent to hospital but it is suppose they would have done as well on board.

After landing the prisoners from Ireland the Tory proceeded to Norfolk Island to remove the prisoners from there to Van Dieman's land. There was a great deal of ophthalmia among the Norfolk Island prisoners only trifling chronic cases were admitted on board but some of them assumed an acute purulent appearance proving troublesome and beginning to spread through the prison. The ship having nearly 300 on board would not afford much separation between them. The voyages fortunately were short.

Robert McLean
Surgeon Superintendent

It is not known how the painting and the swords were handed down but we can deduce that after Robert's death they were acquired by his sister Mary and so became the property of the Culdaremore Fishers. Before finally being given to Hamish Fisher the swords had been with the Fisher siblings, Jane b. 1885 and James b.1887, that had lived together in Lilliesleaf, Roxburghshire after losing their respective spouses. There is a suggestion that Jane had acquired them after the death of her father James b. 1847 in compensation for getting no share of the family business. Maybe her brother had been bequeathed them because he was the first Fisher descendant of Robert McLean to go into the navy. The family that now has the painting was given it by Mary Fisher 1895 - 1986, the last Fisher to live in Culdaremore.

Page last updated - 2/1/17