Isabella Bishop

Isabella Lucy Bishop

12 Walker Street, Edinburgh St. George's, Edinburgh


Relation to Head of Family

Condition as to Marriage

Age last birthday

Rank, profession or occupation

Where born

John Bishop




Surgeon M.D., F.R.C.P


Isabella Lucy Bishop






Mary E. Tingle






Agnes Angus




Useful Maid, Dom Serv


Margaret Nicol




Housemaid, Dom Serv

Elie, Fife

Mary Nicol




Housemaid, Dom Serv


She wears her grief like a wrap, a shawl, her face drawn and severe. She surrounds herself with quiet, with silence, as if to emphasise the strange disharmony of the world. She is a little under five feet tall, dumpy, with a commanding face, large front teeth, and a very slow voice. It sounds almost as if she were reciting. Her face is very white. Guests to her house observe the strict instruction of her large, keen eyes. She talks of little else than the profound severity of her loss, the catastrophic burden of her sister's death, the loneliness she feels in the world, which has been radiant only while her sister lived. The rooms themselves are exotic, with hangings, embroideries, the claws of an Indian tiger, Eastern cabinets, palms in a Japanese bath, and sinister bronze candlesticks, also from Japan. Bronze, lacquer, china; but Isabella Bishop looks out at the grey Edinburgh stone, at the pallor of the sky, its "constant murk", at the ugly clothing of the passers-by. She has been married for four weeks. A service stripped to its austere essentials. No guests. No celebration. No honeymoon: merely a brief stop in Malvern, before a return to Edinburgh. During the service, in which she has worn braided black serge and a black hat, she has been bleary with tears.

This is Isabella Bird, the remarkable traveller and writer, a woman who often appears to have run two parallel lives, one as a chronic invalid, and one of high-octane energy. This grieving new wife is the same woman who was willingly dragged up a mountain in the Rockies "like a bale of goods" by a scruffy, argumentative trapper; the woman in marital weeds is the same one who was to travel, in her seventieth year, through Chinese villages where the locals bayed for her blood. The contradictions in her life are astonishing.

She was born in Yorkshire, at Boroughbridge Hall, on October 15th, 1831, the first of three children by her father Edward's second marriage, to Dora Lawson. A younger brother, another Edward, did not survive, but her younger sister, Henrietta ("Hennie"), her complete antithesis, was her rock. It was Hennie's death, in 1880, of typhoid, which had plunged Isabella into mourning. Hennie and Isabella were brought up to believe in moral duty. Their relatives included the Wilberforce family associated with ending the slave-trade; they had relatives highly-placed in the Anglican church; their parents were close to many missionary families. Isabella took to reading from an early age, but the books she read were tracts and histories, not children's romances. Her father, who taught her Latin and chemistry and botany, was an obsessive Sabbatarian. It cost him a curate's post in Cheshire, to which he moved in 1834; the locals refused to obey his injunctions to give up the wool trade on a Sunday. A second post in Birmingham, less well-paid, came to a similar end, when an almost successful campaign against Sunday trading foundered. This time he was stoned and pelted with mud by his parishioners. He was lucky to gain a third living in the more tranquil setting of Wyton in Huntingdonshire, by which time Isabella was sixteen. It was here that she learned to row, on the Ouse.

Isabella was often unwell as a child; indeed, in 1850, she had a tumour removed from her spine, and was bed- or sofa-bound for much of the time. This period of lethargy contrasted with her childhood passion for, and expertise in riding. It was her father who decided that sea-air, that Victorian cure-all, was the answer; he provided her with a hundred pounds and the opportunity to sail across the Atlantic. Isabella had an adventure before she even reached the quay. She found papers in the train which outlined a plot to assassinate a cabinet minister, papers which she delivered to the Home Office before her voyage. This first trip - to Nova Scotia, Chicago, Ontario, Boston, New York - lasted seven months, and established a crucial pattern. She sent copious letters home, detailing her observations and experiences, which included being washed overboard on a stormy Lake Ontario, and back on board by the next wave. She turned her letters into a book, The Englishwoman in America, published in 1856, two years after her return, which attracted very favourable reviews. The next year, she was back across the Atlantic, where she met Thoreau, Emerson and Longfellow.

Edward Bird's death in 1858 led to Dora and her two daughters looking for a new home, which they duly made in Edinburgh. It was a neat compromise, giving them access to the Highlands, which they loved, and also to a social and literary circle in the Scottish capital. Hennie and Isabella plunged into social reform, agitating on behalf of slum-dwellers in Edinburgh, and Scottish crofters. Her rather questionable solution to the poverty of the latter was their emigration to Canada; her only foray abroad in the thirteen years after her father's death was to see how the settlers were faring. The death of Dora Bird in 1866 established a new pattern for the sisters. Hennie spent an increasing time in Tobermory, on Mull, whilst Isabella moved restlessly about the country. Hennie was her sheet-anchor, her personification of home. And eventually, with Hennie as the magnetic pole by which she could chart herself, Isabella set out on one of her most remarkable journeys. It was 1872; it was to take her via Australia and New Zealand to the Sandwich Islands (or Hawaii, as we now know it). She would spend six months in the Sandwich Islands before travelling on to America, and the Rockies. Her back was in pain; she was at a low psychological ebb; she suffered badly from insomnia. Australia and New Zealand did not impress. But she fell for the Sandwich Islands as if she was lovesick.

What impressed her most was the sense of space, of freedom. She was able to avoid riding side-saddle, at least when away from any settlements. She revelled in the unbridled living, even while her upbringing obliged her to note down the moral fecklessness she spotted; she was popular. The conversation was lively and congenial; there were no servants; and a Mr. Wilson proposed to her. She was tempted, not by the proposal, but by the life-style - tempted enough to suggest in a letter to Hennie that they make their home there. But by the time Hennie's lukewarm agreement arrived, she was already moving on. She and William Green, the acting British consul, travelled by mule to the fiery lip of Mauna Loa, the highest volcano on the islands - "travellers are privileged to do the most improper things with perfect propriety", she wrote. She celebrated her return by reading excerpts from Paradise Lost. Not long afterwards, she set sail for California (her original destination).

Isabella Bird had once been in love, in her twenties, although that love had not been returned, and we do not know who the man was. Now, mixing it with rough-and-ready types, she enjoyed the romance of the wilds. She enjoyed the danger, the hurricanes, the precipices, the unpredictable landscapes. She also enjoyed the physical work which in England and Scotland was deputed to servants, for one of whom she was mistaken when she reached the Rockies ("Be you the new hired girl? Bless me, you're awful small!" remarked a man, as he passed her scrubbing out the pots. Isabella admitted that she preferred field work - like pulling maize - to scouring tubs and pans. But she also preferred it to writing). And here she met the one-eyed, semi-reformed desperado "Rocky Mountain Jim" Nugent, for whom she fell, almost completely, and who also wooed her. With Jim as a guide, she climbed, scrambled, and was almost dragged to the top of Long's Peak Coming down was equally hazardous - she "once hung by my frock... and Jim severed it with his hunting-knife," dropping her into soft snow. He also proposed. She later went so far out of her way to deny her feelings for Jim, as to reveal her passion. They made the ultimate odd couple; when, eventually, she constructed A Lady's Life In The Rocky Mountains from her letters to Hennie, she excised some passages carefully. She had also to add a footnote - about news of his death in a shooting, and that she had only heard of the "worst points of his character" after his demise, by which point she was in Switzerland, where she claimed to have seen his ghost appear to her.

She had found the "air and life intoxicating", but in 1874, Isabella Bird returned to the temperance of Hennie and Scotland. The two books which she produced were great successes, although she had a spat with a reviewer who described her as having worn "masculine habiliments" in the Sandwich Islands. She suggested he be thrashed. In the three years back with Hennie, she took on charitable work in Scotland, and studied botany, but the comparative stasis made her ill. She had made friends with one of Joseph Lister's right-hand men, the doctor John Bishop, who attended both Hennie and Isabella. He taught her about microscopes; he also proposed to her, and she accepted him "conditionally", an acceptance she more or less withdrew when she set off on her next expedition. This time, her destinations were Japan and Malaya. She was away from February 1878 until May 1879, until the tug of her love for Hennie pulled her back. In Japan, she went as far away from the westernised areas as she could, and enjoyed the company of the Ainu tribe in the north, although she was dismayed by Buddhism, as she made clear in her one-hundred-and-sixteen page letter home. In Malaya, she quickly impressed her hosts as having more pluck than her compatriots.

Home was Hennie; and Hennie was ill with typhoid. Despite her ministrations, and those of her one-time fianc?, John Bishop, who devoted himself to Hennie, having broken his leg, and needing to recuperate himself - despite their attention, Hennie died in June 1880. Isabella was distraught. And it was in this gloom that she agreed to marry Bishop, which she did on March 8th, 1881, in the funereal ceremony. Bishop was calm and witty, a generous foil to Isabella, and was entirely sanguine about Isabella's wanderlust. He knew, as he put it, that he was competing with the continent of Asia. He also paid a witty tribute to Isabella's constitution: she had, he said, "the appetite of a tiger, and the digestion of an ostrich." Ironically, he was dangerously ill within a year of marriage, and Isabella devoted herself to him, as he had devoted himself to Hennie. He died of anaemia just two days before their fifth wedding anniversary.

Isabella Bird on her wedding day, 1881

John Bishop's death could be said to have galvanised Isabella Bird once more. After a nursing course, she set out in 1889 for India and Tibet, returning across Persia, Armenia and Turkey. She founded memorial hospitals for Hennie and John on the way. Without her sister to report her travels to, her writing took on a sterner character, and her book of reflections on the arid spaces of Tibet is generally considered her weakest. At this point, she fell in with Major Herbert Sawyer, a government agent, in effect, travelling the borders between the British and Russian empires. His destination was Persia, which had long intrigued Isabella; although Sawyer, a disdainful if dashing bully, was not her ideal companion, he provided her with an escort through dangerous territory. They sailed for Basra, rode to Baghdad, to Tehran, separating while she rode south to Isfahan (where she was jeered and spat at by furious men). Isabella was as ill-disposed to Islam as she had been to Buddhism. The pair then rode north, parting before Isabella rode north through Kurdistan to the Black Sea. There she took a steamer to Constantinople; was in Paris on Christmas Day, 1890; in London the next day; and then back to Edinburgh.

During the next year, Isabella was to dine with Gladstone, answer questions from a Parliamentary committee, and be made the first woman to be elected a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, much to the dismay of many irascible codgers. Her home was now Mull, where her increasingly careless, dowdyish attitude to dress caused some shock, but where her medical knowledge earned her respect. At the age of sixty-three, however, she was not by any means ready to settle. At the start of 1894, she began over three years of travelling - across Canada to China, Korea, Manchuria, Russia; from there to Korea, China, Japan, back to Korea and China (where she sailed up the Yangtze), back to Japan, Korea and then home in March 1897. Her two-thousand mile journey up the Yangtze (away from the decadent, western Shanghai) was her most astonishing trip. Deep in mainland China, she was attacked by a mob who had been led to believe that Europeans ate children, or ground up their eyes to make cameras. For an hour, armed with a revolver, she was surrounded in an inn by over a thousand people, some of whom were hell-bent on burning the building down with her in it. After her rescue by soldiers, she carried on further up the Yangtze, braving snow-blizzards in which she sank up to her throat, on the northern fringe of Tibet.

Isabella Bird rented rooms in London on her return; gave a lecture, the first by a woman, to the Royal Geographical Society; prepared her two new books; and travelled ceaselessly across Britain giving talks. She was now 67. Her books were profitable; but she did not find London society congenial. She retreated in 1899 to Huntingdonshire, near her teenage home; found that dull; returned to Tobermory; found that miserable; returned to Huntingdonshire. She perked up by learning French; learning photography; learning also to ride a tricycle. When doctors pooh-poohed a proposed visit to China, she surprisingly took their advice. She went to Morocco instead, arriving in Tangier on New Year's Day, 1901. A few weeks later, she was winched ashore at Mazagan in a coal-basket, before riding over a hundred miles to Marrakesh. She was the first European woman to meet the Emperor of Morocco, to travel to the Atlas mountains, to meet Berber tribesmen. Almost 70, she rode back from Marrakesh to Tangier, taking a five-hundred-mile route, at the end of which she was chased by bandits.

On her return, she moved back to Edinburgh, perpetually on the move from one house or nursing-home to another. Ten years of her life had been spent abroad; now most of her possessions remained in store in London. Clear-headed but infirm, she was nursed by friends, and by a former maid called Mrs. Williamson. Eventually, she moved to 18 Melville Street, Edinburgh, where two sisters called Ker looked after her. Prayers were said frequently at her bedside. There had been a phrase in the Bird family for the pleasures of a family reunion: "Oh! what a shouting there will be!" On her last morning, October 7th, 1904, this was the phrase which came joyfully into her mind, and she cried it happily out loud.

Caryl Churchill's inclusion of Isabella Bird in her 1982 play, Top Girls, and the brilliance of Deborah Findlay's performance in the original and the revival in 1992, has helped to keep Isabella Bird's existence alive, although one wonders what Isabella might have thought of her heroic drinking of so much Frascati.


Isabella Bird was known to her family and friends as "Isa." In China, halfway up the Yangtze, she remarks on the obsession with Fung Shui (sic), which has led the priests of Ichang to build a monastery opposite a pyramid-shaped hill, thought to have damaged the prosperity of the town.


Isabella Bird and 'a woman's right to do what she can do well', by Olive Checkland, Scottish Cultural Press, 1996

The Life of Isabella Bird, by Anna Stoddart, John Murray, 1906

Isabella Bird Bishop, by Anne Gatti, Hamilton, 1988

A Curious Life For A Lady, the story of Isabella Bird, by Pat Barr, Secker & Warburg, 1970

Victorian Lady Travellers, by Dorothy Middleton, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1965

Unbeaten Tracks in Japan, by Isabella Bird, John Murray, 1880

A Lady's Life In The Rocky Mountains, by Isabella Bird, John Murray, 1889

The Yangtze Valley and Beyond, by Isabella Bird, John Murray, 1899