“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.” Scotsman, 2nd November 1939
The newspaper reporter who visited Isobel Wylie Hutchison at her home near Edinburgh in 1939 was well-meaning and chivalrous, and ever so slightly protective of the dark-haired, fresh-faced woman who was pouring him a cup of tea.
Privately, he may have felt that she was exposing herself to unnecessary perils through her habit of wandering alone around the frozen wastes of Alaska and Greenland. After all, plant collecting was a highly respectable pastime for ladies, but there was no need to travel to the Arctic to do it. The Pentland Hills would be eminently more suitable.
What he didn’t know was that, for Isobel, plant collecting was, in the beginning at least, a means to an end. A very interesting means, of course – she had grown up with a love of the outdoors, and could identify a bewildering array of flowers by sight – but the thing was that she needed a reason to travel. Denmark, for example, which controlled the east coast of Greenland, would not allow foreign visitors unless they had a specific purpose; ‘travel’ wasn’t good enough, but ‘plant collecting’ might just clinch it, for a botanist with private means. Soon, what started out as a convincing occupation for a lady traveller became a lifelong passion.
And why the Arctic? For many years, Isobel had found herself drawn to the far north. It was more a spiritual quest than a scientific one: as a young girl, she was deeply struck by a play by J M Barrie called ‘Mary Rose’, which tells the story of a pure maiden who is captured by fairies and spirited away to a strange and magical land. For Isobel, the desire to explore was inside her when she was born, but it seems that it was tragedy, rather than curiosity, that provided the impulse to set it in motion.
One of five children, she was born in 1889 at Carlowrie Castle in West Lothian, an elaborate Victorian mansion built from the proceeds of her family’s success in the wine trade, and she had lacked for nothing for the first 10 years or so of her childhood. It was a loving, carefree upbringing, and Isobel indulged her talent for poetry, helping to edit a family magazine and keeping regular journals. But her father died suddenly when she was 10, and before she was 20 she had lost both her brothers: one while climbing in the Cairngorms, and the other during the Great War. Isobel’s diaries fell silent on each occasion. She took her grief deep into her heart, and walking became both an escape and a distraction.
With her younger sister, Isobel was in the habit of going on cross-country hikes, often leaving home for several days, to the despair of her marriage-minded mother. By the time she had walked from Blairgowrie to Fort Augustus and from Doune to Oban, Isobel began to look at bigger challenges, and Iceland seemed like a good place to start. So much for Mrs Hutchison’s well-meaning dinner parties with eligible naval cadets; Isobel had seen her older sister’s spirit dampened by marriage, and she wasn’t about to be shackled herself. Far from it. She wanted to spread her wings and fly away.
Iceland, which she visited in 1925, was both a test and a revelation. Having been told that she couldn’t walk from Reykjavik to Akureyri in the north, a distance of 260 miles, because there were no maps, no guides, and it was far too dangerous, Isobel proved everyone wrong and then set her sights on another goal: Greenland. She would have to wait nearly two years for permission to travel there, but when she walked down the gangplank at Angmagssalik in August 1927, she thought it highly likely that she was the first Scottish woman ever to set foot there.
“Thirty-eight years of formally correct life at Carlowrie had made Isobel an aloof observer; it would take time and effort for her to break down the barriers and become a full participant.” ‘Flowers in the Snow’ by Gwyneth Hoyle
Isobel had a lot of learning to do, but her soul opened out in response to the Greenlanders’ simple curiosity, as perhaps it never had in her native Scotland. Welcomed into their houses, she was struck by their poverty and their touching gratitude at her small gifts; she made her first attempts at speaking Greenlandic, joined in their dances, watched them sew and cook, and quickly learned that their thick sealskin trousers were not only decorative but an essential means of protection against biting insects. She purchased a pair, and was photographed proudly modelling them. You can imagine her sense of jubilation and freedom.
Returning to Carlowrie on Christmas morning, 1927, Isobel was radiating a joyful new purpose. She was also penniless, but she started to write about her travels and it wasn’t long before her articles and poems were beginning to bring her a well-deserved income. She read some of her poems aloud on BBC radio, and was interviewed for the Daily Post. But true voyagers never settle, and when she wrote in her diary that it was “as though she had never been away”, her wistfulness was hiding between the words. Just over six months later she was back at sea, heading for a settlement in northern Greenland, above the Arctic Circle.
“It was rare for explorers to encounter a woman who had firsthand knowledge of the landscape, the people, and the conditions of life in the North. She projected an immediate empathy that fully engaged their attention.” ‘Flowers in the Snow’ by Gwyneth Hoyle
In the 1920s, polar exploration was still very much a masculine domain. The South Pole had been reached in 1911 by Roald Amundsen, and soon afterwards Antarctica claimed the lives of Robert Falcon Scott and his four companions. Shackleton had died on board the Quest off South Georgia in 1922. As for the North Pole, the highly flammable Cook-Peary controversy had blown up in 1909, and the question of whether either of them had actually reached the Pole was still simmering. The polar regions, whether north or south, were not for the faint-hearted.
A woman willing to tackle such an environment was an unusual and almost scandalous phenomenon, and although she had no intention of trying to reach the North Pole, Isobel was still risking even more than she knew. It was a rough and ruthless environment, where only the hardiest souls could thrive. But all the Arctic traders and navigators she met seemed to sense a kindred spirit on first meeting, as if the fire was visible to them beneath the skin. Unknowingly, through her words and her bearing, Isobel invited respect, and she received it.
In particular, Isobel won the admiration of the polar explorer Knud Rasmussen, whom she met on several occasions and who visited her at Carlowrie with his family in 1928. In Greenland, it was Rasmussen who helped her with introductions to far-flung communities, easing her path and ensuring that she was known, at least by repute, before she arrived. It wasn’t much, but when she got there in person her friendliness and increasing adaptability did the rest.
And then there was Gus Masik.
A rugged Estonian who could turn his hand to anything from mining to boat-building, Gus had run away to sea aged 17, and had found a place with Vilhjalmur Stefansson on the Canadian Arctic Expedition. Stefansson had been so impressed with Masik that he said, “There is no man who has been with me in my Arctic work in a non-scientific capacity whom I would rather have with me again.” Gus was now a fur trader and prospector, with a reputation for single-minded independence; if life became too easy, his restless spirit moved him on. Six months older than Isobel, he had more in common with her than it first appeared.
It was in Alaska, in September 1933, that Isobel first encountered Gus’s candid blue-eyed gaze. This was her most ambitious adventure: she had already roughed it in all kinds of rusting and stinking vessels, all the way up from the Panama Canal to Vancouver and beyond. At Barrow the sea was rapidly freezing, and Gus took her on board his boat, the Hazel, fleeing east along Alaska’s northern coast while the passage was still open. At Martin Point, on a snow-covered sandspit about a mile long by a hundred yards wide, Gus lived in a simple one-roomed cabin, and Isobel found herself marooned there until the ice became thick enough for sledging.
“You took an awful chance travelling alone in these parts!…”
“I never take any chances,” I said quite sincerely. “God always blazes my trail. I should not be here now if He hadn’t.” ‘North to the Rime-ringed Sun’ by Isobel Wylie Hutchison
With a family of Inuit people as their only neighbours, and no contact whatsoever with the outside world, all kinds of assumptions could have been made about Gus and Isobel’s relationship, and Isobel was acutely aware of it. Nor would history have judged her as critically as her contemporaries. But she set strong physical boundaries, making it quite plain that friendship was all she was offering. For seven weeks she stayed with Gus, giving herself chores in the daytime and listening to his tales of adventure at night. To his amusement, every day she would take one or two of his sledge dogs for a walk on a leash, to the end of the island and back. Her painting of the inside of Gus’s cabin, with Gus seated on a box and playing some kind of accordion, reminds me of an illustration in an Enid Blyton book: everything is tidy, clean, wholesome looking, with cheerful colours and no dark corners.
Isobel’s next destination was Aklavik in Canada, so Gus took her eastwards by dog sled as far as Herschel Island, a journey that lasted several days. When no cabins were available he built a snow house for their overnight accommodation, which Isobel found much more cosy than her flimsy tent. Crawling inside through the small entrance hole, she looked up to see the walls and roof sparkling like diamonds in the candlelight. Gus’s words on board the Hazel must have come back to her: “Not many have seen what you are seeing!” (‘North to the Rime-ringed Sun’)
And the skies that Isobel slept under were nothing short of incredible. Just before they left Sandspit Island, Gus roused her from sleep and urged her to come and look at the moon, which was setting in the west, blood-red, “as large as a rising sun. To eastward the sky on the horizon was a faint rose with saffron shading to blue above, and a star or two still clear in the emerald zenith.” (‘North to the Rime-ringed Sun’)
Isobel was treading through little-known landscapes, and even if whalers and explorers had seen them before her, none had viewed them through the eyes of a naturalist. When she came home she would go on a dizzy round of lectures, sharing her findings with many academic organisations, including the Royal Scottish Geographical Society. But, like a migrating bird, the north would soon draw her again like a magnet, and she would be off to the land of sparkling snows and dancing lights.
She did her job brilliantly well, as she did everything. She collected thousands of plant specimens, preserved and labelled them, and despatched regular parcels by ship to the British Museum. She examined historical sites, traded with the Inuit people, and accepted their hospitality with general cheerfulness and a remarkable constitution. She expressed the beauty of what she saw in poetry, prose and paintings, and she filmed the people of the Arctic as they went about their daily lives.
“Up and on I climbed, filling my press with specimens, trailing white saxifrage, whose bright-green cushion made a rock-garden out of the slopes above a little stream golden with mimulus, and covered the mossy hollow where a bird had made her nest and laid in it four blue eggs… The constant hush of the air in the spruce boughs was like the sound of falling water.” Travelling in the Aleutians, from ‘Stepping Stones from Alaska to Asia’ by Isobel Wylie Hutchison
I can’t help considering Isobel in comparison with Isabella Bird. Both had the same wandering spirit that knew no rest; both sought temporary companionship with a rugged pioneer who was living alone and on the edge. Isabella, on the face of it, seems more hard-boiled, ready to wield a gun or a saucepan in self-defence; Isobel, on the other hand, hid her vulnerability behind a wall of ice. As her biographer, Gwyneth Hoyle, suggests, Isobel was like a pure Arctic flower, destined to bloom brilliantly and alone.
She certainly had some spirit, though…
One of the more spooky phenomena of the Arctic seas was a ‘ghost ship’, which would occasionally drift into sight and cause a great deal of excitement among even the toughest seamen. Her name was the Baychimo, and she was in fact a former supply vessel of the Hudson’s Bay Company that had been abandoned by her crew when she was engulfed by ice near Point Barrow in 1931. The crew made it back to shore, but during a two-day blizzard the Baychimo mysteriously disappeared, leaving a mountain of cracked ice 100 feet high. For years afterwards she was glimpsed occasionally, still caught fast in an ice pack, sailing the waters of the Arctic Ocean like the Marie Celeste, creaking in eerie emptiness with no one at the helm.
In 1933 the Trader, a small schooner which was carrying Isobel northwards, came alongside the Baychimo, and several of the crew scrambled over the ice and boarded her. Nothing daunted, Isobel followed them up the broken ladder. What she saw both fascinated and spooked her:
“All was as silent as the grave. In the deserted saloon a table stood ready set with cups and saucers for a meal. A breakfast menu lay nearby. In the captain’s cabin charts were scattered about in haphazard disarray. Here and there in the hold sacks of old furs and other cargo were piled in heaps or propped against the walls. In one corner there were several rusted but unused typewriters.” Scotsman, 2nd November 1939
While the men salvaged a few things that they could sell, Isobel picked up a handful of writing paper adorned with the emblem of the Hudson’s Bay Company, astonishingly still in good condition. Back on the Trader, she used it to write to her sister:
“I got a lot of this HBC notepaper on which I am writing you! Also some charts, nugget polish, British flags, and odds and ends including films which still seem quite good, but unluckily don’t quite fit my camera! Most of the valuable cargo had already been removed, but Pete and Kari [Palsson] got the ship’s compass… it was a most exciting and uncommon adventure… ” (letter dated 17th August 1933, in RSGS Archives)
Describing her passage on the Trader, she revealed: “The three men on board are awfully decent fellows… I’m getting quite handy at knowing how to make stew out of cans… My one regret is a hot bath.” (RSGS Archives)
Of all the messages written by intrepid travellers from far-flung locations, a letter from a ghost ship has got to be one of the most extraordinary. As Isobel herself says, with remarkable understatement, “Golly! I will have lots to tell if I ever get home again!” (RSGS Archives)
(Out of interest, the Baychimo continued her silent voyage until at least 1969, which was the last sighting recorded in the Hudson’s Bay Archives.)
The fact that Isobel gained comparatively little recognition for her mental and physical endurance is partly down to her distaste for drama: she played down the hardships and the discomforts, although she endured them all. It would, of course, have been easier if she had been trying to do something newsworthy, like crossing the Arctic on foot; in the harsh footlights of posterity, plant collecting didn’t quite cut the mustard.
The interesting thing about Isobel is that, inside the well-ordered mind of a respectable woman were the instincts of a truly wild child. Her Arctic adventures were an escape in more ways than one. In the early decades of the 20th century women in Britain were still taking their first tentative steps towards equality, and it wasn’t until 1928 that all women over 21 were entitled to vote. For Isobel, who delighted in travelling wherever her spirit took her and befriended whom she wished, the society that she returned to every time at Carlowrie must have seemed stifling. She never married, and it’s tempting to wonder if her solitary travels were prompted by a feeling of being an outsider, an “onlooker” as she put it. But I feel that it might go a lot deeper than this. The title of one of her early compositions, ‘The Calling of Bride’, suggests a kind of enlightenment, and indeed she suffered a period of prolonged depression in 1920, followed by a moment of profound revelation, as if waking from a dream. She spent that winter in a kind of spiritual recuperation on the Isle of Tiree, and from there she gained the confidence to set forth on her own path. Had she been born in a later era, how different her life might have been: but perhaps, had she not had the oppression to push against, the door might never have opened. It is the friction that supplies the spark.
“The man who confides his course to Providence is always sure of adventure – always sure to find that Heaven’s ways are infinitely more interesting and adventurous than his own plans!” (‘North to the Rime-ringed Sun’)
Isobel seems to have been a fascinating blend of gentleness, determination, spontaneity, modesty, primness and irrepressible optimism. She certainly had faith in a powerful but unseen guiding presence, watching over her adventures. And she forged some warm and lasting friendships: perhaps the closest to her heart was Gus Masik, whom she saw twice more after he drove away from Herschel Island behind his dog team, and they kept in touch by letter until Gus died in 1976.
What a legacy Isobel left behind her. She collected plant specimens for the Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew and Edinburgh, and for the British Museum; many of the artefacts that she brought back from her travels can be seen in the National Museum of Scotland, and the National Library of Scotland holds many of her papers and drawings. Other treasures are held in the Cambridge University Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology and in the Scott Polar Research Institute. The Royal Scottish Geographical Society has a varied collection of Isobel’s slides, films, poetry, paintings, broadcast scripts, notes and books. She was honoured with the Mungo Park Medal of the RSGS in 1934, and was both a Fellow and Vice-President of the Society. She died at Carlowrie in 1982.
“I’ve found the way to Fairyland,
The secret path and straight,
Red rowan berries hedge about
Its long unopened gate…”
Extract from ‘Under Greenland’s Greenwood-Tree’, a poem by Isobel published in her book ‘On Greenland’s Closed Shore’)
Isobel is one of the explorers featured in my new book, ‘The Great Horizon‘ (Sandstone Press).
Sources and reference:
‘Flowers in the Snow‘ (biography) by Gwyneth Hoyle
Books by Isobel Wylie Hutchison:
– ‘North to the Rime-ringed Sun’
– ‘On Greenland’s Closed Shore’
– ‘Stepping Stones from Alaska to Asia’
Manuscripts and news cuttings in RSGS archives
Quotes from Isobel’s letter dated 17th August 1933, reproduced courtesy of the RSGS; image of it (together with signed photograph of Isobel) taken by Jo Woolf with kind permission of RSGS. Thanks also to the RSGS for allowing me to reproduce a number of other b&w photos from Isobel’s collection.
Thanks to the National Library of Scotland for allowing me to reproduce Isobel’s drawing of Gus Masik.