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Issue 11 - Invalid at home, Samson abroad

History & Heritage

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Scotland Magazine Issue 11
November 2003


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Invalid at home, Samson abroad

Isabella Bird wasn't the typical swash-buckling Scottish type of hero. But she was a hero. Sara Wilson explains why

The early years of Isabella Bird’s life were inauspicious. She was a sickly child and as a young woman suffered from debilitating illnesses which left her barely able to raise her head without the aid of a neck brace.

She relied on a cocktail of laudanum, bromide and alcohol to get through the day. In desperation her doctors advised her to go abroad and a heroine of Victorian travel was created.

Isabella was born in October 1831, at Boroughbridge Hall, North Yorkshire. The Bird family was religious, almost to the point of zealotry. Indeed her father, a vicar, was forced to resign his living at one time because of the severity of his views.

Amongst her relatives Isabella counted William Wilberforce, the famous slave abolitionist, as well as the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Bishop of Winchester. Her mother taught Sunday School and her Aunt Mary was a missionary in India.

The family moved several times during Isabella’s childhood. Then, after an operation to remove a tumour from her spine, they took a house in Edinburgh in the hope of improving her health.

Finally her bemused doctors suggested that she should have a complete change of scene and following their advice her father packed her off to North America.

Travelling to Halifax, Chicago, Toronto, Niagara, Quebec, New York and finally lingering in Boston for the season, Isabella’s illnesses mysteriously left her.

She stayed away until the money ran out forcing her to return home seven months later. This trip became the subject of her first book, The Englishwoman in America, published in 1856, and so began Isabella’s career as a travel writer and explorer.

Isabella’s adult life developed into a fixed pattern. She would travel overseas, then return home to stay with her sister, Henrietta, in Tobermory, Isle of Mull, or in the family home in Edinburgh.

There she would write about her experiences, become ill, and so travel overseas again.

Her symptoms were perplexing to say the least. She complained of fevers, headaches, nausea, muscle spasms, pins and needles, inflamed eyes and sore throat, hair loss, nervousness and insomnia. They left her feeling exhausted, depressed and longing for another adventure.

Although at home Isabella filled her days with charitable works – founding a training centre for medical missionaries and assisting Thomas Guthrie with his Edinburgh ‘ragged schools’ – she was restless.

Even organising a scheme to help Highland crofters emigrate to Canada was little consolation and no cure.

Luckily her doctors again prescribed a long sea voyage and Isabella was only too happy to set sail.

Her next expedition took her to Australia, New Zealand, Hawaii and the Rocky Mountains. In Hawaii she strode up mountainsides and became the first woman to scale the world’s highest volcano.

As well as swimming beneath waterfalls, she learned to ride astride wearing a bloomer suit – trousers with a divided skirt reaching to mid-calf. Then it was on to Colorado, where she visited mining camps and ranches, learnt to herd cattle and drive wagons. She even spent several weeks on the plains helping a family of settlers to harvest squash, pumpkin and maize.

During a lengthy snowbound visit to Estes Park she met with a one-eyed desperado known as Rocky Mountain Jim.

Jim Nugent was a trapper by trade and a poet by nature, who was described by Isabella in her book A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains.

“He was as awful looking a ruffian as one could see” and had lost half his face in a grizzly bear attack. As they bivouacked together under the stars on Long’s Peak, Jim would spin fanciful tales to about his misdeeds and outlawry.

Although most of his yarns were told to enhance his romantic reputation, Isabella was completely taken in and continued to write to him
after her return to Mull. Their correspondence only ended with his murder in 1874 over a land dispute.

In the late 1870s Isabella formed a close friendship with John Bishop, Henrietta’s doctor in Edinburgh. In spite of his marriage proposal a return to ill health prompted her to set off on another tour, this time visiting Japan, Hong Kong, China, Singapore, Malaya, Ceylon, Egypt and the Holy Land.

Once again she shrugged off her illnesses and relished the adventurous life.

She always preferred to stay in huts with the locals and prided herself on venturing into places where few Europeans had been before.

On the journey home she even managed to fit in a four-day hike to the top of Mount Sinai.

Back in Scotland Isabella wrote about her exploits in a series of popular travelogues, which were published as Unbeaten Tracks in Japan, 1880, and The Golden Chersonese, 1883. The Victorian reading public was quickly enthralled by her escapades and sales of her books were brisk. Isabella’s fame spread and she was acclaimed as “the Invalid at Home and the Samson Abroad”.

When Henrietta died of typhoid in 1880, Isabella finally agreed to marry Dr Bishop and the ceremony took place in March 1881.

A surviving wedding photograph shows the bride was still dressed in deepest mourning, wearing black dress, jacket and bonnet. The wedding was even announced on mourning stationery rather than with cards.

Throughout their short marriage Isabella suspended her travels, but in 1888, two years after John’s death, she set her sights on Pakistan and India.

Ostensibly going with the intention of establishing hospitals in honour of John and Henrietta, nonetheless she still found time to brave hazardous snow filled passes and swollen rivers to reach the remote Tibetan village of Ladakh.

In 1892 Isabella was honoured to become the first female fellow of the Royal Geographical Society. At the same time she was elected fellow of the Scottish Royal Geographical Society and honorary member of the Oriental Society of Pekin.

At around this time she took a course in photography and made good use of her newly learned skills on her next trip to China by taking hundreds of photographs.

The glass plates were shipped straight back to the Royal Geographical Society and formed the basis of her book entitled Chinese Pictures. During this visit Isabella witnessed first hand the hostility that many Chinese were beginning to feel towards outsiders.

On one occasion she was chased by an angry mob and was forced to hide out in her hotel room, relying on her revolver for protection. Even into her seventies Isabella had not lost the travel bug. Her final trip was to North Africa in 1901 and she still had the energy to ride a stallion for 1,600 km across the Atlas Mountains. It was, sadly, to be her final hurrah. After her death three years later she was buried with her family in Dean’s Cemetery.

It came as no surprise that Isabella’s trunks were found to be all packed up in preparation for her next great adventure.