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19 Nov 2019

Lady Aberdeen, the trailblazer of Haddo House

Written by Jo Riley - Inventory Officer, Project Reveal Team North
Portrait showing the top half of a lady in 19th-century dress
Over the past few years, Project Reveal and the Morton Photography Project have been working to document and digitise the National Trust for Scotland’s historical collections. Along the way, they have discovered the stories of several women and girls. Some are already known to Trust staff and visitors, while some have been overshadowed by others associated with them, or simply overlooked and forgotten. Throughout this series, members of the project teams will share their experiences, thoughts and research to show how the objects we care for can reveal new ways of thinking about Scotland’s women.

Ishbel Maria Marjoribanks was born in London in 1857. She married the 7th Earl of Aberdeen, John Campbell Hamilton-Gordon, who later became the 1st Marquess of Aberdeen and Temair.

Haddo House with the garden in the foreground
When in Scotland, Ishbel lived with her family at Haddo House, Aberdeenshire

Lady Ishbel had four children and the role model she provided for them was that of a lady of influence, principles and determination. In 1893 John Hamilton-Gordon was appointed Governor General of Canada, a post he held for five years. Lady Ishbel worked actively in her role as wife of the Governor General – her commitment exposed her strong character, for which she encountered criticism.

In the year that she arrived in Canada, Lady Ishbel was named the first President of the International Council of Women, a role she held until 1936. From this she organised and developed local branches for the National Council of Women in Canada.

Lady Ishbel overcame medical opposition to form the Victorian Order of Nurses, which received a royal charter in 1898, and she became its president. This organisation provided better health care for rural and disadvantaged populations, as well as enabled nurses to receive better training and an opportunity to earn higher wages.

Despite the criticism she received, Lady Ishbel’s disposition to help those in need and act upon her beliefs was recognised. She was the first woman to receive an honorary degree from the University of Canada, despite her father’s insistence that ‘University is no place for a woman’.

Full-length portrait of a lady in 19th-century dress
‘While both the law and the conventions of the constitution are silent on the point, Lady Aberdeen might well be graced with the title of Governor General.’ John T Saywell

Lady Ishbel’s endeavours in Canada were commemorated in many ways, some of which can be seen in Haddo House. On display there is a nationally significant hand-painted tea service, presented on her departure by the Women’s Art Association of Canada of which she was the first president.

Following their time in Canada, the couple spent time in Ireland where Lord Aberdeen became the Viceroy for the second time in 1905. In Ireland Lady Ishbel worked to improve the lives of others, particularly in her determination to eradicate tuberculosis and her commitment to improve the status of women.

Returning to Aberdeenshire, Lady Ishbel supported a number of social reforms, including funding a local school and hospital. She also founded the Onward and Upward Association, which provided education and opportunity for servant girls, and she became the first president of the Ladies Union of Aberdeen. She also endorsed her husband’s Liberal political career, and supported the Representation of the People Act, an initial step towards electoral equality. She was an advocate of the suffrage movement, although did not take a public role.

Latterly, Lady Ishbel continued to be recognised for her many achievements, being granted the Freedom of the City of Edinburgh in 1928 and awarded the Dame Grand Cross of the Order of the British Empire (GBE) in 1931.

This article is part of the Revealing Scotland’s Women series – read about The forgotten artist of Drum Castle and Miss Fraser and Miss Bristow of Castle Fraser.

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