Travels with Isabella Bird
- Curator David McClay introduces Isabella Bird, a Victorian traveller and author who is featured in the John Murray Archive.
Isabella Bird, or Mrs Bishop as she became, is one of the 19th century's most remarkable women travellers. Her intrepid global travels and her subsequent travel books made her famous at home and abroad.
At first glance she does not appear to be made for extensive and challenging travel. Firstly she is small - a little under five feet. Also, from an early age, and throughout her long life, she suffered from terrible health problems. However, travel was the perfect invigorating tonic. For the 'Edinburgh Medical Journal' she was 'the invalid at home', but 'the Samson abroad'.
John Murray, as well as being Isabella's lifelong publisher, was also one of her closest friends. It is through her books and the papers in the John Murray Archive at the National Library of Scotland that we get an insight into Isabella's colourful life and travels.
One review of Isabella's travel books in 'The Spectator' noted: 'Miss Bird is an ideal traveller. She can see, and she can use the words that place what she sees before the reader 'Not the least noteworthy among Miss Bird's gifts is a heaven-sent faculty for having adventures.'
She visited Japan, India, the Persian Gulf, Tibet, the Mediterranean, Egypt, Australia and New Zealand.
She fell in love with a one-eyed desperado named 'Rocky Mountain Jim' in Colorado. She was the first woman to climb the world's highest volcano in Hawaii. She rode elephants through the Malaysian jungle and visited Armenian and Nestorian communities in Kurdistan. China's Yangtze Valley was explored in an 8,000 mile round trip.
She was pursued with howls and curses by fanatics through Ishafan in Iran. In Korea she was granted private audiences with the king and queen before war forced her to flee the country.
In her 70s she rode with the Berbers over a thousand miles across desert and the high Atlas Mountains on a massive black stallion.
What adventures! Adventures that were shared with the eager readers of her Murray published books. Her later works were beautifully illustrated with her own photographs.
Isabella was a keen photographer, and, despite bulky and heavy equipment ill-suited to extensive travel, she managed to produce beautiful photographs of the landscapes, buildings and people she encountered.
Isabella was also an engaging writer, capturing in great detail the experience of travel; her encounters with the unknown.
Her letters to her sister, Henrietta, in Scotland and her publisher and friend John Murray are wonderful. These letters, the basis for her subsequent travel books, are special. Not just for their eloquence and wealth of detail, but for their length.
For example, one letter to her sister, written from the Malay Peninsula, is a remarkable 116 pages long. This letter is known as the 'Great Perak' letter as she had written as an introduction to it, that: 'This cannot be a 'great' letter because one native state is so like another and there is now very little to say.' After 116 pages this was patently not true, so she scored this sentence out.
Isabella gave many talks on her travels, including to the Royal Geographical Society, of which she was the first female fellow admitted.
Despite a life of dangerous travel, where she had suffered from frostbite, sinking up to her neck in snow drifts, broken arms, ribs and bones, cholera, volcano burns and singes, attacks and several near drownings, she died not on some deserted plain, high mountain or rapid river, but peacefully in her Edinburgh home. She was a week from her 73rd birthday. Her bags were optimistically packed and ready for a return visit to China.
Her Royal Geographical Society Journal obituary recorded that:
'The distinguished traveller, Mrs Isabella Bishop, died at Edinburgh on October 7. For the extent and value of the information she brought home from her wanderings, she may be ranked with the most accomplished travellers of her time, while among the many lady travellers who have come before the public during the past half-century, her title to the foremost place can hardly be challenged.'