Crombie, James (1730–90), presbyterian minister and founder of Belfast Academy, was born in Perth, Scotland, on 6 or 16 December 1730, eldest son of James Crombie, stonemason, and May Crombie (née Johnstoun). James was seriously ill as a young child, and it was believed that he survived only because his mother wrapped him in the skin of a freshly butchered sheep. Skin eruptions and severe pain left him with a slightly deformed body. He was educated at St Andrews University, graduated MA (1752), was licensed to preach by the presbytery of Strathbogie (1757), and was for a time a parish schoolmaster in Rothiemay. He was also tutor in the household of the earl of Moray, who presented him to the living of Lhanbryd near Elgin; he was called by the congregation and was ordained 11 September 1760. However, he applied for permission to continue his studies at Glasgow University, and spent four winters there; his congregation's complaints about his neglect resulted in a censure by presbytery on 1 March 1763. Perhaps as a result of the disagreement, Crombie accepted a call, dated 16 December 1769, from the First (non-subscribing) congregation of Belfast; he was to become colleague to the elderly minister, James Mackay. He demitted Lhanbryd in October 1770. Shortly after Mackay's death (1781), Crombie (now sole minister) took the decision to replace the existing unsuitable meeting house with an elegant new building, designed by Roger Mulholland (qv). Crombie's ministry halted the decline in numbers in the congregation, which had even thought about reamalgamating with its daughter church, the Second congregation. Crombie supported the Volunteer movement, attended the convention at Dungannon, and preached three sermons before the assembled Volunteers (1778, 1779). All were later published; one, advocating military drill on Sundays, caused a good deal of controversy, and was replied to by the more orthodox Sinclair Kelburn. Crombie generally espoused liberal theological and political views, and he and his family were on terms of intimacy with the still more liberal – even radical – family of his predecessor in the congregation, Thomas Drennan (qv), particularly with Martha McTier (qv), who once travelled with the Crombies to Scotland. William Drennan (qv) thought that letters advocating parliamentary reform in the Belfast News Letter in August 1783 were by Crombie, though signed with the pseudonym ‘Lucas’. Crombie was also alleged to have had a hand in newspaper contributions signed ‘Algernon Sidney’ in July 1782, which supported the Volunteers' goals of achieving a considerable degree of political independence from England.
In response to the frequently expressed desire to have a local college to educate the children of dissenters, Crombie initiated (September 1785) a proposal to found an academy in Belfast. He himself subscribed fifty guineas (£52.50) and lent another £300 (Irish) to the school's backers; it opened in Donegall St. in the spring of 1786, with Crombie as principal. It was later known as Belfast Royal Academy and has been prominent in Belfast life ever since. It did not, however, continue to provide third-level education, as originally envisaged by Crombie and his backers. Even though they had been careful not to include theology in its curriculum, it fell foul of the political and religious controversies which even into the twentieth century attended similar enterprises in Ireland, and only the secondary school, originally envisaged as a preparatory department, survived. Crombie taught classics, philosophy, and history; in 1783 he received the degree of DD from St Andrews university. His hard work in the academy contributed to illness, and he died on 1 March 1790.
He married (23 July 1774) Elizabeth Simson (or Simpson; d. 1824); they had four sons and a daughter. One son, Joseph Crombie (1776–1806), joined the United Irishmen, and was arrested after the rising of 1798. Mrs Crombie and her family took refuge in Scotland, and Martha McTier wrote to Gen. George Nugent (qv), imploring him to allow Joseph to emigrate rather than be executed. The youngster escaped (or was allowed to escape) and made his way to America, where his brother had already settled. Another son became a barrister, and may have gone to the West Indies. One of the buildings of Belfast Royal Academy bears Crombie's name; a portrait of him from his church is reproduced in Historic memorials.