February 17, 2023 4 min read
This instalment of our forgotten Scottish adventurers series follows the story of Isobel Wylie Hutchison. Born on the 30th of May 1889, Hutchison is arguably Scotlands most famous female explorer. An arctic traveller, film maker, botanist and author, she found a host of outlets for her ambition and creativity. Plants collected during her life now reside in Kew Gardens, The Royal Botanic Garden (Edinburgh), and the British Museum. She was the first female to awarded the Mungo Park Medal from the Royal Scottish Geographical society in 1934 and in 1949 was also awarded an honorary degree from St Andrews university, recognising her botanical and literary contributions.
(Image © Crown Copyright- HES (List C Survey).
Born in West Lothian in Carlowie Castle, she was one of five children. Her father passed away when she was just ten years old, striking an independent streak within her from a young age. A need and love for the outdoors was discovered early on and was fostered by her uncle and father in law growing up. Cycling, archery and hiking were her hobbies and with her father in law being a successful farmer, she learned the ins and outs of horticulture and agriculture as well.
Beginning to Explore
1924 brought a great opportunity for Hutchison where she was offered to join a wealthy acquaintance from Edinburgh to Spain, Morocco, Egypt and Israel. Though she got an itch to travel more, she found her travel companion to be overprotective, quickly coming to the decision that her future travels were to be completed solo. Later that year, an idea came when she was sitting on the beach at the Butt of Lewis. Iceland was to be her next adventure. This seemed to be somewhat of a warm up to her future exploits, seeing it more as a holiday to immerse herself in new cultures. Though during her month in Reykjavik, the spontaneous idea to walk around Iceland popped into her head.
Local guides wouldn’t even entertain the idea and it was unheard of to attempt something of this magnitude in such a harsh climate. On top of this there were no maps which charted the landscape. With the guides refusing to organise the expedition, she took it upon herself with support from the local community to help realise her goal. They were very hospitable and offered to lend ponies, while refusing to accept payment. With the original plan simply being a holiday, collecting native flowers wasn’t a priority though Hutchison was impressed by the variety and found some to bring back to Scotland. Upon her return, she had a 30 page spread on her trip published by National Geographic. Having proved everyone wrong in completing her expedition, Hutchison set her sights on her next adventure: Greenland.
This was more tricky from the start than the Iceland trip. Danish authorities were very strict and monitored closely the access to Greenland. Because she was on an official permission trip to collect native flowers she was eventually granted her visa to enter. After two years of worth of red tape no less. She traveled by boat and would reside on the vessel for the majority of her expedition. She felt it was highly possible that her trip would make her the first Scottish woman to set foot there.
National Library Scotland.
From the moment she arrived, a conscious effort was made to get in with the locals. A strong christian community resided in Greenland thus on many occasions, Hutchison would offer to give the local pastor as lift to local churches on her boat. There, she was able to pray but also collect the surrounding flowers which she sent frequently back to Scotland. She traveled to many towns, of which a great deal were still primitive in 1927 with no shops or lodgings. Interestingly, one town offered something slightly different to what was to be expected. In a small settlement called Julianehab, she indulged in Scottish country dancing. A refreshing taste of home, introduced by Scottish whalers to the native community.
(Greenland shores) Isobel in traditional Inuit dress. Photograph- RSGS collections.
Hutchison recorded much of what she learned throughout her expeditions and expressed this through poetry and paintings. Later she experimented also with film, documenting Arctic natives in their daily routine. This was some of the earliest documentary footage recorded.
Upon returning to Scotland, it wasn’t long before she got the itch for another adventure. Another trip to Greenland to explore further north, above the Arctic Circle. In line with the most prominent adventurers, Hutchison risked her life on several occasions to reach certain species of plants, in order to be preserved. Thousands of specimens were recorded and preserved by her throughout her career, many of which we can see today in the Royal Botanic Gardens in both London and Edinburgh.
Some effects of Isobel Wylie Hutchison at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Edinburgh.
Comparatively to other explores, both before and during her time, Hutchison received little recognition for her accomplishments from her mental resilience to physical endurance. She never sought praise, but simply loved what she did. Isobel never married. It seems she forever saw herself as a ‘solo explorer’ in almost every aspect of her life. Hutchison lived until the age of 92, passing away in February 1982. The legacy of seeking the road less traveled and stepping out of your comfort zone are just 2 of the many lessons she has left behind for us all to carry forward.
We recently held an event at our Edinburgh store with Kingdom Scotland, Scotland's first fragrance house. Kingdom Scotland founder, Imogen Russon-Taylor, talked us through the inspiration behind each scent. We learned that one of the scents, Albaura, was in fact a tribute to Isobel Wylie Hutchison, inspired by the Aura and ancient name of Scotland, Alba. You can check out Albaura from Kingdom Scotland here, as well as some other beautifully-crafted scents.
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