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An Edinburgh-local who met King George the VI

At a time when most women couldn’t vote and few ventured beyond the domestic sphere, Isobel Wylie Hutchison travelled alone on expeditions that few would attempt, even today. Isobel explored Iceland, Greenland, Alaska and the Arctic, risking life and limb in pursuit of adventure and rare botanical specimens.

The Duke and Duchess of York, the future King George VI and Queen Elizabeth attending the RSGS 50th Jubilee in 1934, Grandfather & Grandmother to King Charles III (from the RSGS Archives)

On 24th October 1934, the Royal Scottish Geographical Society celebrated its Golden Jubilee. The newspapers were full of the arrival of the Duke and Duchess of York, who were visiting the Society as representatives of its Patron, King George V.

In the Usher Hall in Edinburgh, RSGS members joined delegates from other scientific and geographical societies at an afternoon reception for 2,000 guests. This was the opening session of the Society’s Edinburgh branch, and the Duke of York had agreed to present some awards. Among the recipients were Isobel Wylie Hutchison, who was awarded the Mungo Park Medal for her explorations in the Arctic, and Lord Meston of Agra and Dunnottar, who received the Scottish Geographical Medal “for distinguished services to geography over a period of many years.” After the ceremony, Lord Meston, a statesman whose family hailed from Aberdeen, addressed the company on the subject of India.

Photographs from the occasion include a lovely image of the Duke and Duchess of York smiling and chatting to Principal Smail of Heriot-Watt College, who was the Chairman of the Council. The Duchess, clad in a fur-trimmed coat and carrying an enormous bouquet of roses, is beaming delightedly at her husband, who, not to be outdone, holds in his hand a top hat that has been polished to a dazzling shine.

To a 21st century audience, it is difficult to convey just how radical Isobel’s actions were in the early 1900s and how challenging a path she chose.

In the 1920’s, Polar exploration was very much a male activity, one that tested endurance and perseverance. Isobel was 26 years old when Ernest Shackleton’s ship ‘Endurance’, was crushed by sea ice and sank to the bottom of the Weddell Sea, of which many of us know the story.

While Isobel's goal was never to reach the North Pole, she exposed herself to the same risks and endured the same climates and hardships.

What was interesting about Isobel at the time was, that unlike the teams involved with the Scott and Shackleton expeditions, Isobel was a solo explorer, travelling on anything that was going in the right direction. By plane, a small schooner ‘The Trader’, Danish Supply Vessels, Coast Guard Patrol Boats, an Umiak (sealskin covered boat) and dog-sleigh.

But it was her love and passion for botany that allowed Isobel her freedom to travel, providing both the legitimacy she needed to get beyond these strict borders, such as Greenland, and a way to fund herself along her way. The Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew and Edinburgh paid her handsomely for her specimens.

Botany, like writing, became a source of both respect and income for Isobel as she struck out alone, defying social expectation and making for increasingly remote and treacherous territories. It was also a way of opening doors.

What was interesting about Isobel at the time was, that unlike the teams involved with the Scott and Shackleton expeditions, Isobel was a solo explorer, travelling on anything that was going in the right direction. By plane, a small schooner ‘The Trader’, Danish Supply Vessels, Coast Guard Patrol Boats, an Umiak (sealskin covered boat) and dog-sleigh.

Isobel in an Umiak (sealskin covered boat) travelling around the islands with locals (from the RSGS Archives)

Isobel was drawn to the Arctic North on an almost spiritual level and readily embraced the opportunity to become part of the communities that she came across and was welcomed warmly in return. It was not only her habits and the foods she ate that were subject to change but also the clothing Isobel wore. Eminently practical, Isobel frequently adopted the local clothing style when exploring - who better than the local communities to know what to wear for their climate? Isobel commissioned a full deerskin parka and trousers and kamiker boots made from sealskin.

One example of Isobel’s travel experiences was when Isobel was trying to reach Herschel Island along the frozen coastline of Alaska. She was unable to continue her journey north by boat due to the ice freezing the sea, so Isobel stayed the 7 weeks with Gus Masik, an Estonian digger, trapper and trader, in his one-room cabin on Sandspit Island with his husky dogs, until the ice became solid enough to dog-sleigh the 120-mile route.

“Her situation there, as the boarder of Gus Masik, a trader who had run away from Estonia at the age of 16, would, as she puts it, “have been unconventional in any region but the Arctic!” Her days were spent in taking the dogs for walks and writing up her host’s adventures, the book being published later. “

The Scotsman

(Arctic Nights' Entertainments - The Life-Story of an Alaskan-Estonian Digger August Masik as told by Isobel W. Hutchison)

With a 600 lb load, of mainly botanical specimens, Isobel travelled the 120-mile journey to Herschel Island with Gus by dog-sleigh, staying overnight in trading posts, Inuit homes, which were left available to travellers and an igloo or snow-house, built by Gus enroute. Isobel and Gus remained friends for their rest of their lives exchanging letters until Gus’s death in 1976.

After this expedition in 1934 Isobel became one of the first recipients, and the first woman, to be awarded the prestigious RSGS Mungo Park Medal for ‘an outstanding contribution to geographical knowledge through exploration’ this was presented by the Duke of York, the future King George VI at the Usher Hall and afterwards attended the banquet at the North British Hotel (now the Balmoral).

"This medal was presented to Isobel Hutchison on Oct 24 1934 in the Usher Hall Edinburgh by the Duke of York (late George VI) Isobel was introduced to the Duke and Duchess before the ceremony, and attended the banquet after at which they were present."

Isobel Wylie Hutchison was the first woman to be awarded the prestigious RSGS Mungo Park Medal (from the National Library of Scotland archives)

Isobel attended the RSGS Jubilee Banquet in 1934 held at the North British (from the RSGS archives)

An article from the Glasgow Herald, October 1934, Isobel Wylie Hutchison receiving the Mungo Park Award (from RSGS archives)

“…Their Royal Highnesses attended in the afternoon a lecture given by Baron Meston of Agra and Dunottar, previous to which the Duke presented medals awarded by the Society to Baron Meston and to Miss Isobel W. Hutchison, a noted traveller..”.

Ultimately Isobel is remembered for her curiosity and kindness, the evidence being clear to see in her botany specimens, drawings, poems, books and collected artefacts. Isobel also gave over 500 lectures in her lifetime and her BBC broadcasts on radio and TV, show her dedication to education – she wanted everyone to share her adventures.

As do Carlowrie Castle.

Carlowrie Castle are launching a free School Tour of the Castle and Gardens shares the story of this amazing woman.

“I was truly blown away by our visit yesterday and the children who came with me haven't stopped talking about it. I don't think some of the children in the group have ever been in a Castle. Thanks for an utterly wonderful afternoon, the children loved it.”

Jennifer Lawrie, Teacher, Kirkliston Primary School

We welcome children from primary school’s Eco and Gardening Clubs. Tours take place once a month on Monday or Tuesday over two hours:

· Learn first-hand what inspired Isobel’s passion for nature and creativity

· Visit Isobel’s Greenhouses and secret garden areas

· Experience Isobel’s ‘Fairlyland’ Turret and be transported to Greenland

· See some of Isobel’s artefacts and read some of the family’s ‘Scribbler’ diaries

· A rebel of her time, learn how radical Isobel’s experiences were in the early 1900s

Contact for more information and to organise a school tour.


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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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