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Decisions. Actions. Results.

The Oxford English dictionary defines providence as “the protective care of God or of nature as a spiritual power; timely preparation for future eventualities.” Christianity speaks of ‘divine providence’, as a benevolent intervention in human affairs and a quick google search leads to Providence, the capital of the U.S. state of Rhode Island, so named as a new settlement because of its policy of religious and political freedom. A mighty word indeed.

Isobel was a big believer in providence. Perhaps shaped by the age in which she lived, her Christian faith sat happily alongside her interest in faeries and her knowledge of the natural world through botany and horticulture. During her lifetime, advances in science, technology and communications were paralleled by a rise in superstitious and supernatural beliefs. The 1900’s saw the dawn of TV and radio but also the celebrity status of Harry Houdini, Arthur Conan Doyle and the Loch Ness Monster. It seemed anything was possible.

While we can’t know for sure whether Isobel felt she had a higher calling, we do know that having experienced the standard path of finishing schools and grand tours of Europe and the Middle East, the de rigueur left her far from satisfied.

By 1924, Isobel was on a 150 mile/241 kms trek across the Outer Hebrides. At that point, it was her longest ‘stroll’ and she sold the account of her travels to National Geographic magazine. This partially funded Isobel’s first solo trip to Iceland the following year. As ‘The Great Gatsby’ was published, a plan was being hatched. Isobel would buck convention, as an unchaperoned female in a relatively unknown country. The lack of maps, information and assurances of any kind leaving plenty of room for providence to be her guide.

What started out as a tourist trip to the capital Reykjavik, fast became a full blown adventure after attending a lecture there, given by Jean-Baptiste Charcot. A man of medicine as well as science, he was also one of the few to have explored the polar region at the time. Call it serendipity or providence, but his photographs and accounts of the Arctic, inspired Isobel to change the nature of her trip. The capital city was no longer enough. She set her sights on crossing the 260 mile/418 km interior of the island.

The psychology of choice is well documented today. Many of the decisions we make are based on probability judgements of the possible outcome(s). Imagine then, being in an unexplored country, inexperienced, underequipped and alone. For most, the possible outcomes could only be failure, injury and perhaps even loss of life – a bad decision for sure.

We can only speculate that it was neither bravery nor stupidity, but rather blind faith and a strongly held belief in providence, that urged Isobel on. No doubt her previous travels across Scotland and the many losses she had suffered to that point, had taught her resilience and self-reliance. By 1925, Isobel, at 36 years of age and unmarried, was already off the beaten societal path and used to making unconventional decisions.

Her Iceland adventure, (a 30-page supplement in National Geographic), was filled with accounts of getting lost, relying on the kindness of strangers and being adaptable to ever changing plans. It seems she was undaunted by extreme weather, lack of transport and the dangers of a world before penicillin. Her self-doubt, if indeed she ever had any, drowned out by a certainty that she was there for a purpose and that God would keep her safe and guide her way.

Isobel’s Christianity definitely made future Arctic travels easier, with many Ministers and Pastors providing hospitality and recommendations along the way. Their network, built trust in Isobel’s skills as a poet, filmmaker, author and botanist and gave authority to her credentials as an explorer.

Iceland was the first of a string of adventures which most notably took Isobel across Greenland (1927), Alaska (1933) and the Aleutian Islands (1936). Each trip was only partly planned because Isobel saw them as her destiny. She believed that she could, so she did.

“Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back, always ineffectiveness. Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation), there is one elementary truth, the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one's favour all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamt would have come his way. I learned a deep respect for one of Goethe's couplets:

Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it.

Boldness has genius, power and magic in it!”

W.H. Murray The Scottish Himalayan Expedition


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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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