Out of the Arctic
Why a little-known Scottish explorer is coming in from the cold
She walked across Iceland solo, when everyone was telling her not to. In the 1930s while travelling as a lone woman across the top of Alaska she was marooned for seven weeks on a sandspit with a fur trader. Too few people know about Isobel Wylie Hutchison, Scotland’s greatest female explorer – but a new design collection is about to change all that. By Vicky Allan
‘MY situation would certainly have been unconventional in any region of the Arctic,” wrote Isobel Wylie Hutchison in her 1934 travel memoir, North To The Rime-Ringed Sun. “I was a prisoner on a snow-covered strip of shingle about a mile long, and scarcely in any part more than a hundred yards wide, washed on all sides by the sea. Escape – had I desired it – was impossible after the first few days, during which the lagoon between the sandspit and mainland was still open.”
Being trapped on a remote Arctic spit was not all that was unconventional about her situation. There was also the fact that the Scottish explorer, poet and botanist had arrived there by boat, after catching a ride with the only person willing to risk the rapidly freezing seas and take her eastwards, an Estonian Arctic trader called Gus Masik – and that, for seven weeks she would be stuck there in a tiny cabin with him as they waited for the ice to freeze enough for them to get out over-land by dog-sled.
It was the kind of intimate boarding arrangement that might have been considered scandalous to those back home in the Scotland of the 1930s. But, that autumn, there were few options for the unmarried 44-yearold than to stay with Masik. When, she writes, she proposed that she sleep in the canvas-covered entry to his cabin, rather than inside, Masik balked: “What! And freeze to death! Nothing doing! Isn’t this room plenty big enough?”
Her companion assured her she would be “treated like a lady” and this, she observes in her book, was kept “to the letter”. She recalls him telling her:“You took an awful chance travelling alone in these parts. This is the most God-forsaken corner of Uncle Sam’s attic … I could point out one or two murderers going at large round here and that’s a fact … There’s not a hospital or school or a mission nearer than Barrow, and that’s over 400 miles … You’re the first white woman I’ve ever heard of that’s stopped off at Barter Island or Martin Point.”
If, by chance, you haven’t before heard this story about Isobel Wylie Hutchison, or any of her other tales of Arctic adventure, then you are not alone. Such is the lack of public awareness of her solo expeditions to the far north – to Greenland, Iceland, Alaska and the Aleutian Islands – that Jo Woolf, writer in residence at the Royal Scottish Geological Society (RSGS) and author of Great Horizons: 50 Tales Of Exploration, describes her as the “quiet explorer”. “I’d be surprised to meet anybody who had heard of her before,” she observes. “There are several reasons for this. She wasn’t doing showy stuff. She wasn’t going for the big goals, the North Pole or any kind of firsts. That wasn’t her style. When she came back she wanted to write about the beauty of the landscape and the flowers she found and people she had met.”
It’s not that Wylie Hutchison has not been recognised at all. In 1934 she became one of the early recipients – and the first female one – of the Mungo Park medal for astounding contribution to geographical knowledge. The stories of her travels were published in numerous books and magazines. Those writings are not only testimony to a ferocious sense of adventure, but also a rich poetic vision. An account of her first solo journey, in which, in 1925, she walked 260 miles across Iceland, in spite of warnings by guides that it was unnavigable, was published in National Geographic, as were descriptions of her later trips.
Artefacts that she brought back from her travels are on display at the National Museum of Scotland – including a small model canoe she had carved by an Inuit in Greenland, which she commissioned as a means of providing him with the resources to build his own canoe. Compared, however, to her male peers, she doesn’t have anything like the public profile. Partly that’s because of the slow, gentle style of her exploration, and partly it’s the fact that she didn’t shout about it. She was a botanist, collecting flowers, and submerging herself in the local culture, rather than a glory-seeker out to put down a flag or be the first to cross some remote region.
The launch this month of a collection of hand-crafted and designed pieces inspired by Wylie Hutchison, should bring her name to a new generation. Bespoke design studio Craft Design House has collaborated with Carlowrie Castle, Wylie Hutchison’s family home, to produce a range of knitwear, accessories, home furnishings and jewellery that channels the spirit of the explorer – wallpaper featuring the wildlife she would have seen, Fair Isle jumpers coloured with botanical and medicinal dyes, a ring that contains a hidden compartment. Each is inspired by Wylie Hutchison’s story. For example, textile and wallpaper maker Ursula Hunter has drawn on her Arctic expeditions when creating a wallpaper featuring the endangered wildlife she would have seen and the plants she would have collected, including crowberries and bearberries.
The woman behind this project is Gillian Scott,
founder and creative director of Craft Design House, who, when she learned of the explorer’s adventures, felt that there was something in her way of living that could be of inspiration to all of us today. When people hear about Wylie Hutchison, she says, often they are amazed and inspired. The botanist was a patient traveller, with a light footprint, who paid gentle attention to the nature and human culture around her, and it’s this spirit that is being channelled by Craft Design House.
“Collaboration and inspiration are key to Craft Design House,” she says, “as they were for Isobel Wylie Hutchison. We work alongside talented designers and makers to capture the essence of a commission and translate that into something relatable and communicable to a wider audience. It is especially poignant for us that Isobel first told her story through creative mediums such as painting, writing and film.”
It’s the opposite of fast fashion – and fast was certainly not Wylie Hutchison’s way. Her love of the flora beneath her feet meant that she was quite happy to take her time, as she collected the specimens, many of which she would bring back to Kew Gardens. “She didn’t mind if she had to stay somewhere for four or five weeks,” says Jo Woolf. “She would just make the most of it. Whereas with a lot of the bigger polar expeditions time was of the essence and there was an urgency about it, there was no urgency at all about Isobel’s travels. The exact opposite. She had all the time in the world.”
“Is there any thrill,” Wylie Hutchison wrote, “to equal that which stirs the heart of the botanist when he first sets eyes upon a new flower?”
One of the great mysteries around the explorer is why, in the first half of the last century, this woman felt able to do what she did. Why reject the conventional path of settling down to a marriage and go off on a first solo trip, as she did in 1925, across Iceland? Why choose risk and hardship, over the comforts of her home at Carlowrie Castle? Why, the far north?
Wylie Hutchison was the daughter of a wine merchant, from an affluent family, and thus with access to independent means. Her travels were funded partly by her allowance, partly by the money she made from lecturing and writing. “That was what unfortunately defined the woman explorers of that time and earlier,” says Jo Woolf. “They had to have some kind of financial independence – unless they became missionaries. But Isobel was lucky in the sense that she had the money to do it and a good education, so she had read lots of books and she would have known of these places and that’s what would have inspired her.”
From a young age she wanted to be a poet, and her poetry and paintings bring her books to sparkling life. But her early adulthood was troubled. She lost three male family members. Her father passed away suddenly when she was just 10, then later her two brothers died in quick succession – the youngest, Frank, while
For seven weeks she was stuck in a tiny cabin with Gus Masik, an intimate boarding arrangement that would have scandalised people in 1930s Scotland
climbing in the Cairngorms in 2012. This left her grief-stricken.
In 1920, after a spell of deep depression, she woke up in her bed at Carlowrie Castle and saw, written on her ceiling, in light, the word “Love”. Shortly after this vision, she travelled to Tiree, for recuperation, and underwent, according to her biographer, Gwyneth Hoyle, “a period of heightened awareness, dreams with messages, the spiritual sensation of ‘signs’ from God”. At the end of that period, “fear had been banished forever from her soul and never again was death a source of sorrow”.
That she lacked that fear, and believed in providence, is evident from her tales of her travels.
One of the most surprising things about Wylie Hutchison’s attraction to the north, is that it is steeped in the mythology of fairyland. As a young woman she had been inspired by JM Barrie’s play Mary Rose. Based on a Celtic legend, the story tells of Kilmeny, a “pure maiden” who is stolen by fairies then returns to recount her visions. According to Wylie Hutchison’s biographer Gwyneth Hoyle, this legend “resonated so deeply that many years later she used [it] to explain the strong impulse that drew her to northern travel”.
It is, however, the way she travelled that is most fascinating about her. Her chief purpose was to collect flowers for collections back home. It was what took her to the Aleutians, a string of islands in the Bering Sea, which she toured on the US Coastguard Ship in 1936. “She had
It is especially poignant for us that Isobel first told her story through creative mediums such as painting, writing and film Gillian Scott
this thing,” says Woolf, “that she wanted to get to the most inaccessible furthest island to see what sort of flowers were there and to collect them.”
Her travelling style was also in contrast with the more colonial style of travel of a lot of male explorers at the time. Rather than stay at the local governor’s house, frequently she would live with local, native families. She gave her last pair of spare socks to a Greenlander. When packing for her trips she would think of the women she might be staying with and take gifts of ribbons and fancy stuff. This, she exchanged for things she needed along the way, including a pair of decorative mosquito-proof sealskin trousers seen in some of her photographs.
On her second visit to Greenland, she took a long list of provisions for the Arctic winter, which included “my Christmas dinner of tinned haggis, a 3lb tinned plum pudding as well as three smaller ones, and a bottle of French brandy with which to set the puddings ablaze”. These foodstuffs had a purpose. “She was going to give the locals the whole Scottish experience,” says Woolf. “She had a Christmas and New Year party at the house where she was staying.”
But it’s her atmospheric writing about her adventures that makes her truly compelling. In North To A Rime-Ringed Sun, she describes coming across a deserted “ghost” ship, Baychimo, in the Arctic sea and boarding it. “A strange spectacle the decks presented, calling
up pictures of Robert Louis Stevenson, Captain Hook, and Long John Silver. The hold was open to the winds, but its half-rifled depths still contained sacks of mineral ore, caribou skins, and cargo of various descriptions. As if to lend colour to the piratical appearance of the ship, a pair of handcuffs lay upon the hatch. On a sack of sinew thread stood a rusted but unused typewriter.”
Why did she never marry? “She never really got close to men,” says Woolf. “Possibly she felt that something could have happened with Gus but she walked away and always very much emphasised that it was a platonic relationship. She lost all the men in her life when she was young. I wonder if she then built a wall around herself because she didn’t want to be hurt?”
Wylie Hutchison’s way of living and moving through the world feels particularly relevant now. Those who come in contact with her story talk of the inspiration she provides. Those involved in the Craft Design Scotland project appear to feel a genuine connection to the explorer and what she represents. For instance designer Hannah Rumsey, creator of knitwear for the Isobel Wylie Hutchison Collection, talks of how the botanist’s pursuit of the road less travelled reminds her of the kind of commitment it takes to work at dyeing and knitting her own jumpers in the fast fashion world of today: “Not many people are doing what I’m doing. It’s tricky. It takes time and commitment.”
Or there’s Jo Woolf who observes that Wylie Hutchison has given her the confidence to follow her own instinct. “She was such an example of that and of believing that things would turn out all right if you follow your heart.”
Her books convey that – what it really means to be called by something, and follow it. Towards the end of North To The Rime-Ringed Sun, for instance, she describes how her travels stirred her. “But I had heard the call of the wild, on star-lit nights under the Northern Lights. I had slept in a snow-hut; I had broken a new trail at the foot of the splintered Endicotts, and my heart beat for the wilderness’.”
The Isobel Wylie Hutchison Collection will launch on October 24 and be available to purchase exclusively through the website of Carlowrie Castle, www.carlowriecastle.co.uk. For more information about Craft Design House see https://craftdesignhouse.com
She believed you should always follow your heart
Wylie Hutchison wearing Eskimo dress in Greenland
Left: with women she met in Alaska; above, travelling with Masik
Wylie Hutchison at the cabin she shared with Estonian Arctic trader Gus Masik