Echlin, Robert (d. 1635), bishop of Down and Conor, was second son of Henry Echlin, laird of Pittadro in Fifeshire, and his wife Grizel, daughter of Robert Colville of Cleish, Kinross. After graduating MA from St Andrews in 1596, he was inducted into the presbytery of Dunfermline in 1601. On 4 March 1613 James I appointed him bishop of Down and Conor, apparently out of regard for Echlin's father who had fought for Mary, queen of Scots. On assuming this position, he discovered that the revenues of his diocese had either been plundered by rapacious settlers or frittered away by previous incumbents. Many of its presentations were in lay hands, and in 1622 it was reported that of the 150 chapels and churches only sixteen were in any state of repair. Hence in 1616 he went to London to ask the king for aid, and as a result on 18 July 1616 a commission was set up to examine the state of the diocese and to investigate whether it had been defrauded of property. Further inquiries were set up in 1624 and 1629. Due to Echlin's efforts the annual revenue of the see rose from £50 in 1616 to £300 in 1629. He also reformed the medieval parish structure of his diocese to concentrate the bulk of the livings in the areas of greatest protestant settlement. Nonetheless, he was not totally immune to his predecessors’ habits, leasing out the house and demesne of his bishopric to his son for sixty years at a very low rent and passing away the advowsons of his see to the earl of Antrim (qv). He also appears to have used church revenues to build up a considerable personal estate, purchasing land in the Ards, building a house at Ardquin, and being sufficiently wealthy to make loans.
Echlin's greatest success lay in his ability to attract clergymen to his diocese; in 1622 there were forty-three resident ministers in Down and Conor. His role in this may be inferred from the fact that slightly under half of these were Scots, and ten of them had graduated from his alma mater, St Andrews. Virtually all of these were strongly presbyterian or (if English) nonconformist. He ordained and found posts for a number of presbyterian ministers such as Robert Blair (qv), who related how the bishop came up with an ingenious formula whereby he could reconcile an episcopalian ordination with his presbyterian principles. Under Echlin the diocese of Down and Conor was episcopalian in name only. He deserves much credit for the flowering of popular protestantism, albeit of a puritan nature, in north-east Ulster during the 1620s.
However, his success would come to haunt him, as after the accession of Charles I in 1625 such tenderness towards puritanism was regarded far less favourably in official circles. His private sympathies continued to lie with his dissident clergy, but under pressure from Bishop William Laud in England and the ambitious dean of Down, Henry Leslie (qv), he started to move against them. He refused to ordain those who did not conform strictly to the established church, but mindful of the puritans’ popularity he was reluctant to attack them openly. Finally in September 1631 he suspended Blair and three other ministers, but this was soon reversed after the intervention of James Ussher (qv), archbishop of Armagh, on Blair's behalf. However, the Laudians were determined to have their way, and royal letters were procured (4 March 1632) ordering that the ministers be put on trial. Although Blair and his supporters always put the worst construction on Echlin's actions, he appears to have genuinely sought a compromise. He wrote to the Irish government to defend the ministers from wild charges of sorcery and asked that the matter be left in his hands. Eventually he deposed the ministers (4 May 1632) after they refused to swear an oath of conformity. However, John Livingstone (qv), one of the deposed, travelled to court and procured royal letters ordering that the matter be investigated again. The ministers were allowed to resume their duties, albeit under considerable restrictions.
Their plight attracted considerable sympathy among northern protestants, and Echlin was viewed with hostility. For tactical reasons the lord deputy, Thomas Wentworth (qv), bowed to this pressure and restored the ministers for a period of six months from May 1634, but he left Echlin in no doubt as to what he should do thereafter. Hence, in November he deposed the ministers for the second time. On this occasion a bitter exchange occurred between him and Blair, who described the bishop as a once idealistic man with a gift for preaching who had been corrupted by materialism and power. Echlin fell ill shortly after. When a doctor visited and asked what was ailing him, he is reported to have replied: ‘Tis my conscience, man.’ He died 17 July 1635 at Ardquin, Co. Down, and was buried in Templecrany, Co. Down. He married (a. 1613) Jane, daughter of James Seton of Latrisk in Scotland; they had two sons and four daughters.