Isobel Wylie Hutchison
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Isobel Wylie Hutchison (30 May 1889–20 February 1982) was a Scottish Arctic traveller and botanist. She also wrote poetry, books on her travels and articles in various geographic magazines. She painted many scenes from her adventures.
Hutchison was born at Carlowrie Castle in West Lothian, the third of five children of Thomas Hutchison (1841-1900) and Jeannie Wylie (1847-1931). Her uncle was Robert Hutchison of Carlowrie FRSE. Her grandfather Thomas Hutchison (1796-1852) had been Provost of Leith and was well-established in the wine wholesaling trade, and his father-in-law had been a successful farmer; his wealth enabled him to spend a great deal of time with Isobel, teaching her about botany and gardening. She also received a private education from a governess, and was very active physically at croquet, tennis, archery, skating, hiking, cycling, Scottish country dancing and walking.
From 1900, she attended school in Edinburgh, where she studied a curriculum suited for a Victorian gentlewoman. After her sister married a naval officer and saw very little of him for long periods, Isobel decided that marriage would restrict her life. Her father died when she was ten years old, but he left equal provision for all of the children with trusts, and so she was independent for the whole of her life.
Hutchison confessed to wanting to be a poet and started writing while young. She kept diaries assiduously from 1903, and edited "The Scribbler", a magazine created by the family, which she continued to write even into her twenties. A polyglot, by the time she was an adult she could speak Italian, Gaelic, Greek, Hebrew, Danish, Icelandic, Greenlandic and some Inuit words.
From her early years she had gone for long walks, and would often walk the eight miles from Carlowrie to Edinburgh, spurning the family motorcar. These walks reached 100 miles when she was twenty, e.g. Blairgowrie to Fort Augustus (100 miles), and Doune to Oban (70 miles). Later on she went for long "strolls" and wrote articles for the National Geographic Magazine afterwards.
Hutchison's youngest brother, Frank, died in 1912 at the age of 16 in a climbing accident in the Cairngorms. This had a profound effect on her, and she stopped writing in her diary for a time. Another brother, Walter, was killed in the First World War.
From 1917 to 1918, Hutchison studied business training and marketing, as well as religion and language, at Studley College in Warwickshire, which had been set up for the education of young women in agriculture. During 1918, things were very bad, with little food for the animals and all the men gone to the war. Influenza swept through the college and some students died. She went through emotional problems while she was there.
Though she suffered a mental breakdown in 1920, she was sustained by her continued success with her writing; her poetry was acclaimed by The Scotsman , and she began writing a novel. Thus her legacy from her father was increased by the fees she received.
In 1924, in common with the usual practice, Hutchison went on tour to Spain, Morocco, Egypt and Israel. She went with a female companion, who was rather over-protective, causing Hutchison to resolve to travel alone in future. In later life she found male companions much preferable, though she never married.
On her return to Scotland, she spent some time walking on Barra, North and South Uist, Harris, Scotland and Lewis, and completed a 150-mile trek. She wrote an article for the National Geographic Magazine and received $250, which partially paid for her trip to Iceland.
Hutchison got the idea of travelling to Iceland in 1924, while sitting upon the beach at the Butt of Lewis. This started out very much as a holiday tour. She went to Reykjavik for about a month and looked at the geysers and other tourist sights. After attending a lecture by Jean-Baptiste Charcot, she decided to walk round Iceland. This was unheard of by the local guides, who refused to organise a trip. Eventually one guide did give her a route to follow, on which she was frequently got lost. However the Icelanders were very hospitable, and helped her by lending her ponies, for which they often refused to accept payment. Although she was very impressed with the flowers on Iceland she was not collecting seriously on this visit. After returning to Scotland, she wrote another article for National Geographic which they published as a major 30 page feature.
This was not so easy to visit as Iceland. The Danish authorities monitored those who visited the country closely, but as she was travelling on official permission to collect flowers for various organisations she got a visa quite easily.
She travelled by sea and spent a lot of time living on board while exploring the east of the country in July 1927. She did, however, visit and get to know many Greenlanders. She was very careful to keep in with the Danish officials and their wives, as there was still a large difference in status between the Danes and the native people. Greenland had a thriving Christian community which Hutchison, as a regular churchgoer, joined enthusiastically. Consequently, whenever a pastor was going to visit an outlying village she would be offered a lift with him in his boat, meaning she was able to see several ancient churches and cathedrals, of which there were a large number. At each stop she would collect flowers and plants which she would then send back home.
The town of Angmagssalik, founded in 1895, was still very primitive when Hutchison arrived in 1927. She stayed there for four days and collected flowers, sailing in an umiak and visiting a Greenlandic tent home. She bought kamiker (thigh length boots) and wore them to keep out the biting insects.
Her next visit was to Augpilagtok, where cliffs rise thousands of feet out of the sea. Isobel was horrified to see how poor the Greenlanders were. She gave one woman her last pair of spare socks, and commissioned a carver to make a model of a kayak in order to give him some money (this model is now in the National Museum of Scotland). When Isobel arrived in Julianehab there were no hotels or hostels. She stayed with the district manager, but ate on board the ship. However she joined in Scottish country dancing, which had been introduced by Scottish whalers, with Greenlanders and her fellow passengers.
Her next stop was Igaliko where she met Hans Reynolds, a Norwegian scientist, who showed her ruins from the 10th century and remains of the cathedral from 1146. She found over 50 plants there and some barley. She later visited several Danish settlements near Cape Farewell.
It was not possible to reach Cape Farewell itself, so Isobel landed at Nanortalik, where she stayed with the Danish manager Mr Mathieson, who helped her journey to an island of birch trees, in an umiak with six rowers and a steersman. This voyage took five days, and Hutchison regarded it as one of the best times of her life.
She had made many friends during her visit to Greenland, and Dr Rasmussen came to stay at Carlowrie. In April 1928 she got permission to visit the west of Greenland, and spent the next six months preparing. In August she sailed to Disko Island.
There she met Dr Morton Porsild, Director of the Arctic Research Station, who gave her advice on what seeds to collect and where they could be found. She would then send these on to the Royal Horticultural Society. She moved to Umanak where about ten Danes lived with a lot of locals. She stayed in a vacant three bedroomed house, and a housekeeper was found for her called Dortha, who would later become a close friend. Initially Hutchison could only speak Danish but she shortly learnt Greenlandic. She spent some time collecting plants on Nugssuak, and also sketched on this trip. Later she went to Igdlorssuit (Unknown Island) and then to Upernivik, where she stayed in a very basic hut. By this point, she had filled 300 envelopes with seeds. During the winter she gave a film show using the projector she had brought.
Hutchison had brought lots of books with her, and she lent these to her Danish friends. She had also brought her steel skates (the locals only had wooden ones) and got a lot of exercise. She attended church regularly with Dortha, and often went to local coffee mornings. Sanitation was a problem, with typhoid and consumption ever present; at one point Dortha fell ill, and Hutchison was forced to do all the housework herself.
Hutchison had spent seven months in the bay, during which time she had learnt much about the way of life and the tensions which existed between the two communities. The dark nights made the social life full of parties and coffee mornings. The winter of 1928 was very hard, and the temperature fell to 10 degrees F, causing the bay to freeze solid. Isobel went fishing through the ice, which she enjoyed and became the subject of a poem.
Dogs in the village had to be killed for food and fur, which upset her. Normally they lived on seal and halibut. By April, daylight was sufficient to turn off the constant oil light. When the ice started to melt, she was able to leave Disko Island and go on tour with the pastor to visit other communities around the Umanak Bay, meaning she could look for more plants and flowers. At each community the pastor carried out communion services, which much impressed her, and became the subject of three or four poems. She got to know the eight rowers well, and know spoke Greenlandic fluently. At the end of the trip, she landed on Unknown Island, staying for a month in a small Danish house.
She made several botanical excursions in the manager's motorboat to visit other nearby islands. Her time here was her happiest in Greenland, and she is recorded as having said "I am glad to be alone". From here Hutchison could see the mountain on Nugsuuaq, which she decided to climb. Helped by a team of two local men, she succeeded in reaching the summit at 6250 feet, after twelve hours of climbing.
On a cold day in late August 1929 she left the Umanak Bay. Her next book, On Greenland’s Closed Shore, was received with much acclaim, and over the next two years she gave many lectures and talks on the BBC, and wrote articles and poems.
Hutchsion was inspired to go to Alaska after reading a book on the American Arctic. Leaving Manchester by cargo boat on 3 May 1933, she crossed the Atlantic, passed through the Panama Canal, then travelled up the western coast of America. There were only six passengers, but she traveled in reasonable comfort.
After a brief stop in Vancouver, she travelled up the Inside Passage to Ketchikan and then disembarked at Skagway. She took the railway from there to Whitepass where she caught the sternwheeler Casca for a comfortable trip down the Yukon. On board the ship she met various people who gave her useful information about how to travel and where to winter.
The boat was delayed in Dawson. Always ready to climb mountains, while here she tackled the Dome (1500 ft) with Harry Lester, a Mountie whom she had met on board the Casca. She also met several local botanists, who told what plants to collect and where to get them. She was advised to send all her luggage to Aklavik, as the Anyox, which she had hoped to catch, had been damaged. She arrived at Fort Yukon at midnight, where she was met by friends of people she had met on board. She went to Tenana and then Nenana as the next boat was running late. Vilhjalmur Stefansson, an Arctic explorer whom she had already met, pointed out that she would not be able to complete her journey unless she speeded up by flying to Nome. She had over 360 kilograms of luggage, meaning the flight cost her $250. She enjoyed the flight, as it was only her second, but she had to land at Nulato overnight before arriving at Nome next day.
In a short time Hutchison made friends amongst the leading citizens of Nome. She ate in local restaurants, and got a lot of useful information. The repaired Anyox could not pick her up at Nome because of very thick ice, and there were no other large ships on which could travel, meaning she was forced to spend five weeks in Nome. She met a local botanist, Charles Thornton, who helped her to collect 200 of the 278 local plants.
She also met a Russian trader named Ira Rank, who had a small boat imaginatively called the Trader. He told her that from Nome to Point Barrow was 500 miles, which could, with luck, be done in five days. However, the boat was very small, and Hutchison was forced to share a cabin with Rank, while the boat's two other crewmen slept by the engine. Testament to her adaptability, Hutchison was quite happy to go from travelling in luxury to travelling with three Russians in a cramped and smelly boat. The Trader visited lots of Eskimo villages on the north coast. They entered the Bering Strait on 2 August, but ran into a gale and pack ice, forcing them to shelter in the Prince of Wales Bay for two days, during which time Hutchison went for walks and hunted plants. They were fed and entertained by two tin miners.
As the next day was calm they reached Point Hope where there was an old Eskimo village. The inhabitants lived on whales, walrus and seals. Isobel went collecting flowers with the wife of the local teacher. She also bought some Eskimo artefacts, and would have liked to have stayed longer.
They headed past Port Lisburne and on to Cape Lay, before travelling inland through a series of shallow lagoons. Hutchison saw her first ice cake here. They anchored by one, but it took them back twelve miles during the night.
On 11 August, they reached Wainwright, one of the largest Eskimo communities where they traded. They heard that the SS Baychimo, a "ghost ship" belonging to the Hudson's Bay Company which had been trapped in the ice and abandoned, had been sighted only twelve miles out. The men were all for going out and seeing what they could salvage.
There was still a lot of useful equipment on it, though Eskimos had already raided it. The crew of the Trader wanted to take the whole ship, but it was too big for them and so took only some valuable items. By this time, Hutchison had fully adapted to life on the Trader, and had become friendly with the crewmen.
The Trader inched her way forward to Singet, which was only 25 miles from Barrow. Here they stayed in an old Eskimo cabin which she helped Ira Rank to clean up. On 1 September, a lead opened up and they were able to reach Barrow.
The Trader was unable to progress any further, and so Hutchison was introduced to Gus Masik, who had a boat called the Hazel with two Eskimos as crew. After a sad farewell to the crew of the Trader, Hutchison departed on the Hazel on 9 September. They crossed Smith Bay and anchored in fog at Thetis Island. At Beech Point they met an old friend of Masik's, Aarnout Castel.
Hutchison liked Mrs Castel and talked to her in the kitchen while the men traded goods. They went on to Flaxman Island where there was a trading post. She went ashore for a walk, enjoying the peace and beauty. The Hazel then crossed Camden Bay passing Barter Island, and eventually arrived at Martin Point on 15 September.
There were now only 120 miles to Herschel Island, where Hutchison wanted to winter. However the ice closed in four days later and they were locked in for the winter, and Hutchison was forced to stay in Masik's one-roomed hut on Martin Point. Hutchison spent the time collecting flowers and having religious discussions with Masik, whose life story she wrote down and later published.
At the end of October, she went to visit Tom Gordon, a giant Scotsman who had been a whaling ship captain, but had been forced to become a trader after his ship was destroyed by the ice. He lived, with his native wife and myriad offspring, in a two-roomed cabin with a lean-to. Hutchison described it as a Scottish-Eskimo household filled with characters, and stayed here for seven weeks.
On 3 November, she set out on sledge with Gus Masik for Herschel Island. They arrived on the noon of the fourth day, and Hutchison was warmly welcomed by the local agent. Eight miles long and four miles wide, the island was normally busy with ships but in winter accommodated only four white people and two Eskimo families. Masik stayed two more days and then left. Hutchison would see him again at Nome and then at Carlowrie. Special Constable Ethier and his wife would look after her for two days, before organising a local guide to take her to Aklavik.
They left on 10 November, in −20 degrees, and arrived at Head Point at four o'clock. The next day, a young Inuk called Isaac was paid to take her to Shingle Point. It was 20 degrees colder than the previous day, and Hutchison was forced to run behind the sled to keep warm. When she arrived at Shingle Point she was fed royally by three English ladies and Mr Webster, the Anglican minister. There was a school here, and she started to wonder about the effect the white teachers were having on the Eskimos: English was no use to them when they went back to their families. In addition, many illnesses were being brought in and several Eskimos were sick or had died. She stayed here for thirteen days, but on 23 November, a group set off for Aklavik. It was so cold that they turned back after two hours. The next day was warmer, and two days later they reached Aklavik.
This was a well established town and the administrative centre for the area. The church and police had bases here, and planes and ships arrived here. Hutchison joined in the social life, but was a curiosity as a single woman. Not wishing to cause offence, she was very careful to edit her accounts of how she stayed with the various traders and Eskimos.
She left the town on by aeroplane on 5 February, and after several legs, arrived in Winnipeg. From here she caught the Alaunier, and got back to Scotland in the beginning of March. Her exploits had gone before her to Britain, and there had been a report of her activities in the Times on 10 January.
In the last week of May 1936, Hutchison left Scotland for Montreal, whence she travelled to Winnipeg and finally Seattle, where she caught the Yukon for a journey along the coast reaching Seward. She found that the information she had been given about ships and sailing times in Washington was theoretical, and so had to adapt accordingly. She had booked a passage on the Starr, but this would be three weeks late, and so she also booked on the Curaçao. This took her overnight to Kodiak, Alaska, where she booked into the Sunbeam Hotel. In the two weeks she spent waiting for the Starr's arrival, she explored the area and collected specimens. The Starr turned out to be quite a scruffy ship and there was limited room in the cabins, though she met several old friends whom she had got to know from her time on the north coast of Alaska.
At Unalaska she disembarked, as this was the limit of the Starr's voyage. She knew that she would have to trust to her luck to get any further west by small fishing and trading boats. She became well known in the area through her participation in the local church. Luckily a small schooner called the Penguin was travelling on to St George Island, and she quickly booked a passage. She also managed to obtain further passage through her friend Commodore Ralf Dempwolf, who arranged transport for her on a cutter called the Chelan.
She continued her journey on the Penguin to St Paul Island, where she collected more specimens and took cine pictures of seals and their harems. She received a radio message that she could be picked up there by the Chelan and so she found herself having to climb up a rope ladder to get on board. Because of the articles she had written in the National Geographic and other well-respected publications, she had quite a standing in the naval community. Once on board she was treated handsomely and given a large cabin to herself. She dined with the officers, and the chef spent a lot of time preparing high quality meals for her. The ship had a duty to inspect Bogoslof Island each year as it was constantly changing its shape. Hutchison was unable to land there due to the sea condition, but she took cine pictures of it. They then passed Umnak Island and the Island of the Four Mountains. Their first stop was at At, where the Aleut people had been living for over two thousand years. As well as collecting plants she was very interested in everything about the inhabitants' way of life. Quite often a member of the crew was detailed to look after Hutchison and help her collect specimens.
The ship continued westward to the isle of Amchitka. A submerged mountain range had been discovered here and the ship needed to chart it. The Chelan spent a week charting the waters round this area, which varied from 4000 to 49 fathoms, and had caused the losses of several coastguard ships.
Hutchison wanted if possible to land on Attu. For two days this was impossible, but on the third day it was safe to anchor and for her to go ashore with two sailors. If the weather got worse they would be left onshore until the ship could come back. They worked very hard and found 69 plants.
The people of Attu were very friendly and Hutchison took a lot of pictures of them. Six years later the Japanese attacked these island and klled many of the people. The rest were taken to a prison camp in Japan were many perished.
The ship then went on to Kiska where there was an American naval base. They stayed there several days, and Hutchison was able to climb the mountain south of the harbour, where she took photos, collected specimens and wrote a poem. The Chelan then set sail back east. She had spent three weeks on board with a group of ninety sailors, and had travelled a thousand miles in some of the most dangerous seas in the world. They were obviously very impressed by her, as they made her an admiral's pennant inscribed with "Isobel Hutchison, Admiral of the Bering". When she got back to Alaska, she managed to visit nearly all her old friends and show them photos of her latest adventures.
Hutchison carried on travelling for the rest of her life.
- 1936: Japan, China, Trans-Siberian Railway, Moscow, Poland, Berlin
- 1938: Estonia
- 1946: Denmark
- 1948: "stroll" from Carlowrie to London
- 1950: "stroll" from Innsbruck to Venice
- 1952: "stroll" from Edinburgh to John o' Groats
In the late 1950s, she only made short journeys to Europe, as well as leading a National Trust cruise to the Fair Isle and St Kilda. In the '60s she stopped travelling, but when she was 65 she cycled from Carlowrie to Bettyhill.
Post-War, Hutchison gave talks frequently on the BBC. Carlowrie was very run down after the war, having been used by the RAF, and she needed to carry on working to pay for the repairs and upgrades. They didn't even have electricity until 1951.
In later life she suffered from arthritis, but this did not stop her working.
She died at Carlowrie in 1982, aged 92. She is buried in the northern cemetery in Kirkliston, with her eldest sister, Hilda Scott Primrose Hutchison.
Although Isobel is less well known than many of her male contemporaries within the fields of exploration and botany, her achievements are nonetheless extraordinary. Carlowrie Castle, Isobel's family home where expeditions aside, she spent 93 years, has launched a program to raise awareness of Isobel, her great endeavours and her legacy.
Ahead of Isobel's 130th birthday next year Carlowrie Castle has worked with the Royal Scottish Geographical Society and Edinburgh-based bespoke design studio Craft Design House to launch The Isobel Wylie Hutchison Collection, where every piece tells a different part of Isobel's extraordinary story. The Collection has been thoroughly researched and is intended to carry Isobel's extraordinary exploits to new audiences in current and future generations, both within the walls of Carlowrie Castle and further afield, and the collection will continue to grow over the coming years. The collection has been met with enthusiasm by the artisans who participated in the creation of the collection but also by the wider public  who have been inspired by her intrepid explorations, fearless feats and her humility, particularly in a time when women weren't expected to venture beyond the domestic sphere and one reporter went so far as to claim:
“Miss Hutchison is, you feel, much too fragile and gentle for the rigours of Arctic exploration. Dispensing tea in her sunlit sitting room, or sketching the glowing colours of her garden, she seems far more in her correct setting than battling against cold and hardship in half-civilised lands.” The Scotsman, 2 November 1939.
The collection launch which took place on October 24 (the same date Isobel received her Mungo Park Medal in 1934) welcomed Martin Hartley and Myrtle Simpson, both exceptional explorers in their own right as speakers, continuing the narrative and inspirational achievements of Arctic exploration and research. A donation of 10% from all sales of the collection will go to supporting the educational work of the Royal Scottish Geographical Society.
Books and articles
She wrote six books of poems, seven books on her travels and twelve articles for the National Geographic Magazine.
- Lyrics from West Lothian. Private publication, 1916
- How Joy was found: A Fantasy in Verse in Five Acts. London: Blackie; New York: Frederick A. Stokes, 1917
- The Calling of the Bride. Stirling: E. Mackay, 1926
- The Song of the Bride. London: De La More, 1927
- The Northern Gate. London: De La More, 1927
- Lyrics from Greenland. London: Blackie, 1935
- Original Companions. London: Bodley Head, 1929
- The Eagle's Gift: Alaska Eskimo Tales. New York: Doubleday Doran, 1932
- Flowers and Farming in Greenland. Edinburgh: T. A. Constable, 1930
- On Greenland’s Closed Shore: The Fairyland of the Arctic. Edinburgh: William Blackwood, 1930
- North to the Rime-Ringed Sun: Being a Record of an Alaska-Canadian Journey Made in 1933-34. London: Blackie, 1934, 1935; New York: Hillman-Curl, 1937
- With August Masik: Arctic Nights Entertainment: Being the Narrative of an Alaskan Estonian Digger, August Masik, as told to Isobel Wylie Hutchison. Glasgow: Blackie, 1935
- Stepping Stones from Alaska to Asia. London: Blackie, 1937
- "Walking Tour across Iceland", April 1928
- "Riddle of the Aleutians", December 1942
- "Scotland in Wartime", June 1943
- "Wales in Wartime", June 1944
- "Bonnie Scotland, Post-war Style", May 1946
- "2000 Miles through Europe’s Oldest Kingdom", February 1949
- "A Stroll to London", August 1950
- "A Stroll to Venice", September 1951
- "Shetland and Orkney, Britain’s Far North", October 1953
- "From Barra to Butt in the Hebrides", October 1954
- "A Stroll to John o' Groats", July 1956
- "Poets' Voices Linger in Scottish Shrines", October 1957
Hutchison also had several other articles published in many journals and newspapers. She gave over 500 lectures during the course of her life. The plants she collected during her life are stored in Kew Gardens, the Royal Botanic Gardens in Edinburgh and the British Museum. Some of the artefacts she collected are on display in the National Museum of Scotland and the Scott Polar Research Institute (University of Cambridge).
The University of St Andrew's conferred on her the Degree of Doctor of Laws. She was a member of the Royal Scottish Geographical Society, and later became honorary editor of the magazine and vice president. She was awarded the RSGS's Fellowship Diploma in 1932, and the Mungo Park Medal on the 24th October 1934, in recognition of her researches in the Arctic. In 1936 she was made a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society of London.
- Biographical Index of Former Fellows of the Royal Society of Edinburgh 1783–2002 (PDF). The Royal Society of Edinburgh. July 2006. ISBN 0 902 198 84 X.
- Hoyle 2001, pp. 1-19.
- Hoyle 2001, p. 15.
- Hoyle 2001, pp. 17.
- Hoyle 2001, p. 21.
- Hoyle 2001, pp. 23-25.
- Hoyle 2001, p. 23.
- Hoyle 2001, pp. 33-34.
- Hoyle 2001, p. 36.
- Hoyle 2001, p. 37.
- Hoyle 2001, p. 46.
- Hoyle, Gwyneth (2001). Flowers in the Snow: the Life of Isobel Wylie Hutchison. Nebraska University Press. ISBN 0-8032-2403-6. OCLC 53687410.