Isabella Lucy Bird

(Isabella Bishop)

1831 - 1904

Isabella Bird Bishop
©2022 Gazetteer for Scotland

Isabella Bird Bishop

Traveller and author. The eldest daughter of a clergyman, Bird was born at Boroughbridge Hall, North Yorkshire, which was the home of her maternal grandmother. After her father's death in 1858 the family relocated to Edinburgh, to stay with her mother's sister, and also spent time in Tobermory on Mull where they a cottage. Bird developed an interest in the social and spiritual welfare of the people of the Highlands and wrote attacking the slums and poverty in Edinburgh. However she is best known for her travels and writing, which began with a trip to the Outer Hebrides in 1860, which she described in a magazine article. She co-operated with Lady Gordon Cathcart in crofter emigration to Canada (1862-6), and in 1866 personally visited the settlers in Canada.

She then travelled to New York and the Mediterranean in 1871, and to Australia, New Zealand and the Sandwich Islands in 1872-3, the Western USA (1873). Bird published Six Months in the Sandwich Islands (1865) followed by A Lady's Life in the Rocky Mountains (1879). Next travelled to Japan and used that country as a base to visit Hong Kong, Canton, Saigon, Singapore and Malaya. She produced another book Unbeaten Tracks in Japan (1880).

Bird's beloved sister, Henrietta, died from typhoid in Tobermory in 1880. She paid for Tobermory Clock Tower as a memorial. Bird went on to marry the doctor who had cared for her sister, Dr. John Bishop, who worked in the Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh under Prof. Joseph Lister (1827 - 1912). However, soon after their marriage in 1881, Bishop's health began to deteriorate and Bird took her husband to Southern Europe seeking a better climate. Lister came to Cannes in 1886 to try to help Bishop with a blood transfusion, but this was unsuccessful and Bishop died, aged only 44. These events led her to decide to become medical missionary, and she briefly studied medicine at St. Mary's Hospital in London.

Bird now resumed her travels, fired with evangelical zeal, and sailed for India in 1888. Here she was to build both the Henrietta Bird Hospital near Amritsar and the John Bishop Memorial Hospital in Srinagar. She travelled on horseback through North India to the border with Tibet. A fearless horsewoman, she then set off for Tehran and continued alone through Northern Iran, Iraq, Kurdistan and Turkey, beginning to record her adventures using a camera. On her return to Britain in 1890, Bird spoke out about the persecution of the Armenians by the Ottoman Empire and raised the issue with Prime Minister William Gladstone (1809-98).

She set off once more in 1894, spending three years in the Far East, visiting Japan, China and Korea in the midst of the Sino-Japanese War. She produced another book, The Yangtze Valley and Beyond, published in 1900. Her final trip was to Morocco in 1901.

Small in stature, her journeys were remarkable and often dangerous. Her writing was influential; she not only travelled through the countries she visited but sought to understand them and the condition of their people. Her travels were all the more remarkable because she suffered from poor heath throughout her life. She was the first woman to be awarded an Honorary Fellowship by the Royal Scottish Geographical Society in 1890 and the first female member of the Royal Geographical Society in London two years later.

She died at her home in Melville Street in Edinburgh and lies buried in Dean Cemetery, alongside her husband and parents. Her papers form part of the John Murray Archive at the National Library of Scotland.

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