Out of the Arc­tic

Why a lit­tle-known Scot­tish ex­plorer is com­ing in from the cold

The Herald on Sunday - Sunday Herald Life - - Front Page -

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

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.