Laird was born in New Zealand in 1943, the fourth of five children. Her father was a ship's surgeon; both he and Laird's mother were Scottish. In 1945, Laird and her family returned to Britain and she grew up in South London, where she was educated at Croydon High School.
When she was eighteen, Laird started teaching at a school in Malaysia. She decided to continue her adventurous life, even though she was bitten by a poisonous snake and went down with typhoid.
After attending the university in Bristol, Laird began teaching English in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. She and a friend would hire mules and go into remote areas in the holidays.
After a while at Edinburgh University, Laird worked in India for a summer. During travel, she met her future husband, David McDowall, who she said was very kind to her when she was airsick on a plane. The couple were married in 1975 and have two sons, Angus and William.
Laird has also visited Iraq and Lebanon. She claims to dislike snakes, porridge and being cold but enjoys very dark chocolate, Mozart, reading and playing the violin in the Iraq Symphony Orchestra.
She currently lives in Richmond, London with her husband.