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A Life Nurtured by Nature

“A garden is a delight to the eye and a solace for the soul,” according to Saadi Shirazi a medieval Persian poet.

Glasshouses, Carlowrie Castle

Though he died almost 600 years before Isobel was born, he clearly understood the physical and mental health benefits of nature. Indeed, the Egyptian and Persian civilisations are attributed with being the first to establish gardens as we know them today.

During the 18th century, rich Victorians treasured plants, treating them as botanical status symbols. They filled their gardens and glasshouses with unique specimens from far flung places and were so excited by orchids and ferns that several species were collected to the point of extinction. Ironically this excitement for flora, paved the way for botany to become one of the few sciences considered appropriate for genteel educated women. Isobel’s home at Carlowrie Castle would have been the perfect, 32 acre classroom.

Isobel would have spent many an hour in the Glasshouses at her home at Carlowrie Castle

An early edition of The Scribbler, (the Hutchison family newsletter), shows Isobel listing over 60 different plant species found in the grounds, including their Latin names, observational descriptions and details of their status as native to Scotland (or not). In Isobel’s first family newsletter as Editor, March/April 1909, it’s clear that she is already passionate about the great outdoors. Bi-monthly publications, always included a section on nature, often supplemented with photographs and sketches, helping Isobel to hone the skills she’d need for her future role as a plant collector and botanist.

Isobel was the Editor of the family magazine 'The Scribbler' a clipping from March -April 1909

The gardens of Isobel’s childhood included giant redwood Sequoias (planted by her Uncle), cold frame greenhouses, (which as well as protecting plants from winter frosts also nurtured grape vines) and a series of walled gardens to supply the kitchens with fresh herbs and berries. Isobel designed and planted several areas within the grounds of Carlowrie, which continue to inspire visitors today - testament to her horticultural knowledge of what would thrive in the Scottish climate.

By 1917 Isobel (now 28 years old) was enrolled to study business and marketing with a focus on agriculture at the Studley Horticultural College for Women in Warwickshire. Here students learned skills which directly contributed to College finances - selling jams and marmalades made from the fruit grown on the grounds. Alongside the practical studies, Isobel found Studley to be a place full of new ideas, particularly around women’s social reform. Yet just as she was beginning to flourish, she lost her closest classmate to Spanish Flu, which triggered her initial need to travel as a solace for her grief. By the winter of 1920 she was living on Tiree, the most westerly island of the Inner Hebrides, recovering from a mental breakdown by withdrawing from people and losing herself in the sandy grasslands of the remote microclimate.

Restored by nature, by 1923, Isobel was once again adding to her botanical expertise with a grand tour of Europe and the middle east, but while her interest in the natural world grew stronger, so did her commitment to be a self-funded solo traveller in charge of her own destiny. Accounts of her adventures, published by National Geographic, financed her first trip to Iceland – building the confidence she needed to voyage even further.

Nature was her first love and the catalyst for her explorer credentials. Being a botanist opened the door to Greenland and later, Alaska. The plant specimens Isobel collected during her lifetime were sent to Kew Gardens, the Royal Botanic Gardens Edinburgh and the British Museum. Isobel’s expeditions across the Arctic region and the plants she found there, would have been particularly interesting to the botanical institutions of the time, but the process of transporting such specimens would have been far from straightforward. It could take months by dog sled and boat to send each plant ‘home’ and once out of her hands, Isobel had to rely on those transporting her precious cargo to keep them alive and get them safely to their destinations. It’s a miracle that any survived.

There are now, quite rightly, strict rules for importing plants to the UK and removing them from their native countries, but in Isobel’s day botanic gardens would often employ botanists to find and bring back plants to expand their collections. In a letter to Sir Arthur W Hill dated 11 February 1934, Isobel wrote that she was relieved to hear that Kew received the 308 species she sent them, (for which she was paid £10.10.0d), but went on to state “the fun of collecting of course is not the payment but the joy of getting the flowers.” Surely the words of a true nature lover.

Letter from Isobel to Sir Arthur Hill, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew Gardens, July 1934 (from RBG, Kew Archives)


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The North Star Explorer

Learn more about Isobel’s passion for the natural world, her experience of travelling to remote places and her encounters expressed through art and creative writing.

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