“When we reached rapids, five men pulled frantically with yells which posed as songs, to keep steerage way on her, and we went down like a flash – down smooth hills of water, where rapids had been obliterated;  down leaping races, where they had been created;  past hideous whirlpools, where to have been sucked in would have been destruction;   past temples, pagodas, and grey cities on heights;  past villages gleaming white midst dense greenery;  past hill, valley, woodland, garden cultivation… A pagoda or city scarcely appeared before it vanished.”    ‘Isabella Bird’ by Deborah Ireland

When Isabella Bird was a child, her frailty and pervasive ill-health were a source of concern to her parents.  One Sunday morning, her mother tucked her up in bed and told her to stay there until she got back from church;   but as soon as her parents had closed the door, Isabella tiptoed out into the rectory garden to dance around the summer flowers, revelling in their jewel-like colours.   Then, brimming with joy, she slipped back indoors and into her warm bed to await her family’s return.

Born in 1831 in Boroughbridge, Yorkshire, Isabella Bird led an extraordinary life that shocked and fascinated her strait-laced peers.  In an era when women were defined by their husband’s wealth and career, and even sitting astride a horse was an outrage to feminine respectability, she flouted the strict moral codes and lived a life of freedom and adventure, guided only by her heart and her boundless curiosity.

Where did she inherit such an untamed spirit?  Her father, Edward Bird, who was a vicar, believed that children should be taught about the world in a truthful light that didn’t mask the less palatable parts in a soft haze of fairytale and illusion.  He would take his daughter with him on his rides around the countryside, showing her the wayside plants, crops, animals, farmhouses, cottages and features of the landscape;  when they met people he would challenge her to describe them afterwards, encouraging her to explain her impressions with an open mind.  What he was doing, in fact, was nurturing a lifelong gift of observation.

“As her father knew every wayside and meadow flower, she learned their names, habits, and uses, and felt for them an almost passionate love, which she retained to the end of her life.”

What Isabella’s father undoubtedly didn’t realise was just how far she would take her quest for knowledge and adventure.  She visited Australia in 1872, but found the social atmosphere suffocating;  so she impulsively bought a passage to Hawaii, where she rode around the country at will, braving floods and fleas alike and camping on the slopes of Mauna Loa as the volcano crashed and roared like a sleepless dragon.  Isabella had found her freedom, and it was exhilarating.  There was no turning back now.   

“A man any woman might love but no sane woman would marry.”

In the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, still a dangerous ‘bandit country’ of pioneers and fur trappers, Isabella found the love of her life.  Her unlikely suitor was a one-eyed desperado called Jim Nugent, whose volatile blend of alcoholism and quaint chivalry tugged at her heart strings.  She saw beneath his wounds, both mental and physical, and with a supreme effort of will she tore herself away.  Whisky was Jim’s master, and she knew he was treading a doom-laden path:  within months of their parting, he got himself into a brawl and was shot dead.

For most women, that might have been enough drama for one lifetime:  but for Isabella, the adventure was only just beginning.  If America captured her heart, the Far East was now calling to her soul. 

“The tripod of my camera served for a candle stand, and on it I hung my clothes and boots at night, out of the way of rats.  With these arrangements I successfully defied the legions of vermin which infest Korean and Chinese inns...  With absolute security from vermin, all else can be cheerfully endured.”

In China, Japan and Malaya, everything was fascinating, and everyone was worthy of attention;  Isabella’s long letters home to her sister glowed with the joy of discovery, and the discomforts only added spice to the mix.   Unfortunately, the innocent curiosity with which Isabella greeted the people she met was sometimes returned with violence.   No westerner had yet visited some of these remote villages, and a woman, travelling alone with no obvious purpose, was vulnerable to suspicion and attack.  On several occasions during her travels in Western China, Isabella was pursued by an angry crowd shouting ‘Foreign devil!’, hurling stones and baying for her blood.   But this redoubtable lady carried a medicine chest as well as a revolver, and the tide soon turned into an exhaustible flow of patients hopeful of a miracle cure.  

Isabella travelled by boat, yak and horse, by chair and on foot; no mode of transport daunted her, although she was overturned in her chair on one occasion and cut her head on the roof.   She rode a yak over a Tibetan mountain summit in the falling snow, and braved raging rivers in flimsy-looking boats made of bamboo with a raised prow and four sails.  She had nothing but praise for the crew, who were skilled and fearless, and did not pester her with unwanted attention:  

“I left the capital [Chengtu] in a small flat-bottomed wupan, drawing four inches of water, with a mat roof, and without doors at either end.  Yet my cambric curtains were never lifted, and when I desired it I enjoyed complete privacy at the expense of partial asphyxiation. 

Not only did Isabella write vividly and at great length about her experiences, but in later years she also photographed them too.   She took great care to protect her camera equipment, often strapping it under her travelling chair, and when she developed the photographic plates she did so under the dark night sky.   For Isabella, photography was a passion that rivalled, but never surpassed, the thrill of travel, and when she returned to Britain to give lectures she made good use of her images, displaying them to audiences with a limelight lantern.   

“At Kuri-Keo... a Mantzu official escort was at once provided, consisting, not of armed and stalwart tribesmen, but of two handsome laughing girls, distaff in hand, fearless and full of fun, who enlivened the way as far as chute.  Before starting each of the girls put on an extra petticoat.  Had any molestation been seriously threatened, after protesting and calling on all present to witness the deed, they would have taken off the additional garments, spreading them solemnly on the ground, there to remain till the outrage had been either atoned for or forgiven, the nearest man in authority being bound to punish the offender…

In 1881, Miss Bird became Mrs Bishop.  An Edinburgh surgeon named John Bishop had fallen in love with Isabella six years before, but Isabella had rebelled against the prospect of domestic duties and children and had taken herself off on another adventure.  Now, grief-stricken by her sister’s death, she accepted Bishop’s proposal;  but her married life was sadly short-lived, because within five years she was widowed.  

One curious aspect of Isabella’s story is that she appeared to lead two apparently incompatible lives.   At home in Scotland, where she had a cottage near Tobermory on the Isle of Mull, she relapsed into fragility and professed herself barely able to get up out of her chair;  but her bags were invariably packed for the next voyage, and when she stepped onto a foreign shore she was filled with an abundance of health, vigour and enthusiasm, laughing at discomforts that would deter many able-bodied men.   The childhood story of the forbidden flowerbed might hold a deep truth;  it is almost as if she lived half of her life in colour and half in black-and-white.  In addition, whenever she needed a guide to reach her far-flung goal, a male companion would often present himself, ready and willing to offer the protection of his cavalcade and the authority of his station.  

On her arrival at a British consulate in Malaysia, Isabella was dreading the ritual of dressing for dinner;  but to her absolute delight, the Consul was away and she found herself in the company of several house guests, none of whom were human.  Her meals were cooked for her by the servants, and presented on an immaculate table at which two apes of indeterminate species were also seated, while a docile labrador retriever lazed at her feet.

“Tigers came very near the house, roaring discontentedly... I have now been for three nights the sole inhabitant of this bungalow... I have taken five meals in the society of apes only... Dullness is out of the question.”

Isabella Bird was made a Fellow of the Royal Scottish Geographical Society in 1891.   She lectured at the Society’s branch in London in 1892, where she was warmly received, and she returned to lecture in Scotland in 1897.   “I never addressed so sympathetic and enthusiastic an audience,” she recalled.  It was altogether a very pleasant journey.”  


Article by Jo Woolf for RSGS

Quotes from:

‘The Life of Isabella Bird’ by Anna M Stoddart

‘On Top of the World - Five Women Explorers in Tibet’ by Luree Miller

Newspaper cuttings from RSGS collection, Vol. 1890-1907, report in Scotsman of address to Society in November 1897.

Isabella Bird’ by Deborah Ireland