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Doing the impossible. “Do or do not, there is no try”

Fifty-five years before Yoda uttered this now famous quote, it could have been Isobel Wylie Hutchison’s mantra, as she set off on her first international solo trip to Iceland.

Isobel wearing what is now recognised as Princes Leia's iconic 'cinnamon bun' hairstyle, 43 years prior to the release of Star Wars. Isobel could have been the real life inspiration for this adventure heroine.


It was 1925 and the ‘Roaring Twenties’ were in full swing. Progress such as television, cars and votes for women, overshadowed the rise of radical political movements - communism and fascism. It was also the year The Great Gatsby was first published, with Jay Gatsby, capturing the mood in his indelible line "Why of course you can!"


Against this background and perhaps because of it, Isobel sought solitude, something she had come to equate with wide open undiscovered places.


Iceland’s tourism industry was in its infancy in 1925. A cruise ship landing in Reykjavík was rare enough for national newspapers to report detailed information about it and the daily itinerary of the 400 passengers onboard. It urged its readers to treat the foreigners with “the utmost kindness and friendliness,” an attitude that no doubt encouraged Isobel to complete her 260 mile trek across the countries interior, (from Reykjavik to Akureyri), despite the lack of maps and guides and the popular believe that it was impossible.


Though a Danish King remained head of state, Isobel was exploring a country which had only recently become an independent nation (1918), paralleling her own gains in confidence to take on the challenges of this adventure alone. Her Iceland trip was funded by National Geographic, who had, the year before, paid Isobel $250 (a sum equivalent to about $4,010.38 today), for her account of a 150-mile trek across the Outer Hebrides.


Iceland was a test of Isobel’s self-belief and her resolve to explore. Solo women travellers would be viewed by many as foolhardy and even scandalous, but ultimately, she was embodying the age of change in which she lived, challenging the widely held beliefs of female capabilities and their role in society.


Like Luke Skywalker discovering the force, each trip fuelled Isobel’s desire to go further and learn more. By 1927 she was in Greenland, backed by the Royal Horticultural Society as a certified botanist, on an expedition which would take two years to complete. From there she took on the Arctic, Alaska and several Canadian provinces – each time downplaying the hardships to quietly revel in her discoveries.

Isobel Wylie Hutchison, 'On Greenland's Closed Shore: The Fairyland of the Arctic'


Whether part of a grand plan or serendipity, Isobel’s adventures made a valuable contribution to our global understanding of the indigenous peoples in the northern regions she visited. Her curiosity resulted in books, poems, botany samples and some of the first documentary footage ever seen. A legacy that remains today in the Royal Botanic Gardens (both Edinburgh and Kew), the National Museum of Scotland and the National Library of Scotland.


Ironically each trip to a wilderness was followed by an exhaustive speaking tour. Here she swapped anonymity for celebrity, giving hundreds of lectures and reaching many more through TV and BBC radio broadcasts.


“Do or do not, there is no try” suggests anything is possible with the right state of mind. Isobel believed she could and found a way. She didn’t wait to be chosen, but instead trusted that she was enough. The fact that her achievements are still being celebrated today are testament to that.


Happy Star Wars Day. May the 4th Be With You.















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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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