Of the 250 or so individuals featured in the Register of Returned Convicts for Aberdeen, Isabella McLaren, or Sievewright, is the only one where a nickname is specified. Her moniker of "The Butterfly" would suggest that she fluttered gracefully from one crime to the next. However, her long list of well over 30 convictions, together with the newspaper reports of her various court appearances, hint at a nickname laced with irony.
Her many crimes, coupled with a slightly unusual surname, mean that further details about Isabella readily emerge from the newspaper reports of the time, making it much easier to paint a picture of her eventful and ultimately tragic life.
At the time of the 1871 census, Isabella was serving a sentence at the prison in Ayr. The census enumerator noted that she was born in Turriff around 1838, and we know from her death certificate of 1898 that her parents had been crofters, William and Isabella McLaren. Our Isabella married a William Sievewright, a farm servant, at Cairnie, near Huntly, in November 1854. However the marriage did not last: William was prosecuted for bigamy and sentenced to three months imprisonment for marrying an Isabella Duncan in November 1866 while his first marriage was still subsisting.
Given the social structures that existed within Victorian Scotland, a working class woman who lost the support of her husband in this way would have almost certainly have been consigned to a period of financial insecurity. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it is around this time that Isabella appears to really go off the rails, with reports of her petty thieving appearing with greater frequency in the newspapers. Under the title, "The Butterfly Creates a Scene", the Aberdeen Free Press of the 30th November 1869 ran the following report which conveys something of Isabella's character:
"Isabella McLaren or Sievewright, better known as "The Butterfly", who puts in frequent appearances at the Police Court, was charged with having committed a breach of the peace on the 29th, in a house in Mackay's Court, Gallowgate, the offence having been aggravated by 30 previous convictions since 1860. Prisoner pleaded not guilty and evidence of the most conclusive character was then given. Sievewright then called a witness for the defence and proceeded to ask some incoherent questions at him, although to what effect could not be heard. The answer was shouted out, "It's a lie! It's a lie!". Prisoner, who had gradually been nearing the witness, and was now close beside him, here stamped with rage, and actually yelled out an avalanche of Billingsgate, and in the excess of her vehemence and passion and before anyone could divine her intention, she seized the unfortunate witness with both hands by the whiskers, and tugged away fiercely, and then to vary the performance somewhat, still retaining hold of the whiskers with one hand, she planted the other amongst the hair of his head, and tore out a few handfuls, stamping with positive rage and fury all the time. Immediately there was a rush of policemen and spectators to the spot, and a speedy clambering over benches, but it was not without some difficulty that the prisoner was separated from the witness. The Fiscal...[said that]...such an offence he had not seen before any court and he would have to report it to the crown. Sievewright was sent to jail for sixty days".
During the 1870s and 1880s, Isabella makes further court appearances for crimes committed in Aberdeen, Huntly and Dundee. In 1891 the Aberdeen Press and Journal reports that she was involved in a breach of the peace at New Pitsligo in which she is described as having "no fixed place of residence". From this report and others it is also evident that Isabella was an alcoholic which may well have played a part in her death in 1898 when she drowned in Peterhead harbour. The Dundee Advertiser of 6th September 1898 reported the incident as follows:
"An unfortunate drowning accident occurred at Peterhead late on Saturday night. A South Firth fisherman named Alexander Lawrie saw a woman fall off Birnies Pier, and seeing her struggling in the water he made strenuous efforts to save her. The young man could hardly keep the woman's head above water, and the consequences might have been serious to himself had not a Coastguardsman named Gillard gone to his assistance. The woman was with difficulty got on the quay, but all efforts to restore animation were unavailing. The body was identified as that of Isabella McLaren or Sievewright, widow, aged 66 years of age. How she fell into the water is unknown".