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Isabella (Ella) Robertson Christie


1861 - 1949

Redoubtable traveller, explorer, authoress and gardener. Born in Cockpen (Midlothian), the daughter of John Christie, a wealthy Lanarkshire coal-owner, Ella Christie was raised in Cowden Castle (Clackmannanshire), which she later occupied as laird, and was educated privately. She began her travels in Europe with her father and younger sister in the 1870s. After her mother's death in 1894, she continued to travel with her father, reaching the Middle East. However, freed of the domestic responsibilities of an elder daughter with her father's death in 1902, her travels became even more ambitious, accompanied by a lady's maid and a bearer. She travelled widely in Asia, visiting countries including India, Ceylon, Malaya, China, Korea, Japan and Borneo. Her most significant trips were perhaps to Russian Turkestan in 1910 and 1912, where she was the first British woman to visit the state of Khiva. She was also the first Western woman to meet the Dalai Lama while travelling through Nepal. Her journeys included some luxuries, such as attending a state banquet with the Maharaja of Kashmir and a dinner at Simla given by Lord Kitchener. Just before the outbreak of the First World War she journeyed to the USA and Cuba. During the war she ran Red Cross canteens on the Western Front in France.

Christie was also noted for the Japanese Garden she commissioned at her home, Cowden Castle, beginning in 1907. She brought Taki Handa, a female garden designer, from Japan to undertake the work, but Christie maintained the garden thereafter with the help of another Japanese, her devoted gardener Shinzaburo Matsuo. Matsuo came to Scotland in 1925 having lost his family in an earthquake, and worked at Cowden until his death in 1937, whereupon Christie arranged his burial in her family plot at Pool of Muckhart. Many people visited her garden over the years, including Queen Mary, but also Christie's friends and acquaintances, such as poet and historian Andrew Lang (1844 - 1912), and authors Annie S. Swan (1859 - 1943), Elizabeth Haldane (1862 - 1937) and George Blake (1893 - 1961).

Christie was elected a Fellow of the Royal Scottish Geographical Society in 1911 and of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland and Royal Geographical Society two years later. She also served as a Vice-President of the former from 1934. On all her journeys she kept diaries, wrote long letters to her sister, Alice Stewart, and took many photographs, some of which are now held by the Royal Scottish Geographical Society. Christie and her sister wrote books together, including a cookbook Fare and Physic of a Past Century (1900) and a joint autobiography A Long Look at Life by Two Victorians (1940). Independently, Christie wrote several other books, including another cookbook Ration Recipes (1939) in aid of the Scottish Red Cross.

She died in Edinburgh and lies buried in the same plot as her parents and her Japanese gardener in the kirkyard of Muckhart Parish Church.


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