Isabella Bird (1831-1904) — 5 March 2017

Debbie Ireland’s enthusiastic account left a large, appreciative audience wondering how the exploits of the incredibly intrepid 19th century English explorer Isabella Bird could be so little known in England (albeit famous in Scotland).

Isabella began travelling, on her doctor’s advice, following the partial removal of a tumour from her spine and her subsequent depression. After some relatively short journeys she set off round the world. In Hawaii she learned to ride horses astride and climbed the highest mountains. In America, she rode from San Francisco to the Rockies and Colorado, overcoming dangers and harsh weather conditions.

We were taken on Isabella Bird’s ever dangerous journeys in China, Japan and Korea and saw, in her photographs, the places she visited and the people she met and whose food she always shared. These photographs, and the notes and very long letters (one of them 116 pages) she somehow managed to write while travelling, were used in the books she published on her visits to her home in Scotland.

After the death of her sister Henrietta, Isabella married Doctor John Bishop, but he died only five years later and Isabella set off yet again, this time to India. In Amritsar she set up the Henrietta Bird Hospital and in Srinigar the John Bishop Memorial Hospital. From northern India she crossed to the Silk Road and followed it through Iran and Kurdistan to Turkey.

In England again, she met Gladstone and reported the shocking treatment of Armenians. She was made a Fellow of the Royal Scottish Geographical Society and became the first woman Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society.

We were able to visit many of the photographs again in Debbie’s book ‘Isabella Bird’ at the end of the evening. Many thanks to Debbie for a stimulating talk, and to Margaret, who unfailingly brings such interesting speakers to our meetings.

Michael and Jenny Sandilands

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