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“Holidays” the Isobel way

According to the Oxford English dictionary, a holiday is ‘an extended period of leisure and recreation, especially one spent away from home or in travelling.’

Onboard The Trader, catching a lift on a local trading vessel, Isobel with feet dangling over the Arctic sea ice

For most it’s two weeks away from daily routine, doing as little as possible in a sunnier clime, but in 1925 Isobel took fourteen days to cross Iceland, covering a distance of 418km/260 miles. That’s the equivalent of Edinburgh to York, on foot – not something often attempted or indeed considered a holiday. Add to this that Isobel made the trip with only a hand-drawn map for a guide and our modern-day holiday aspirations begin to feel a bit lame.

While Isobel’s explorer credentials weren’t earned on our usual definition of a holiday, her attitude and commitment to travel continue to inspire. For example …

Ahead of our travels we might try to pick up a few words in the local language of our chosen destination. Isobel learned Scots, Gaelic, French, Norwegian, Danish, Greenlandic, Greek, Arabic and Hebrew. Her motivation was a longing to live and work alongside native people, with no expectation that they would change their world to suit her. Learning to communicate was a commitment, which earned her respect and created opportunities at a time when a solo female traveller would have been treated with suspicion. Google translate doesn’t provide the same sense of achievement.

We deliberate over our packing. Isobel packed for survival. She knew that the contents of her luggage had to sustain her in the harsh climates she travelled to, but also show her intention for friendly exploration. In the 20th century, the Arctic regions were under the governance of many different countries, including Russia, Canada, Denmark (Greenland), Norway, and the United States (Alaska). Indigenous communities were used to colonisation, but Isobel was not here to conquer. Across Alaska and Canada, she carried her traditional Greenlandic costume and a box of lantern slides, so residents and schoolchildren could appreciate other Arctic cultures – as she learned, she shared. Ships logs show her cargo also included tinned foods to celebrate Burns Night and Christmas, cakes and confectionary and even dog biscuits for the sledge dogs she relied on during her extended trips. Lucky for her baggage allowances hadn’t been introduced yet.

While we document our travels through countless photographs on our ever-accessible phones, Isobel carried chemicals for processing film in her luggage and stopped to develop photographs at regular intervals (in make shift dark rooms) as she travelled across the Arctic. She also kept diaries and filled sketch books with detailed line drawings and water colour pictures. Many of her paintings of Arctic life and landscapes were exhibited at the Royal Scottish Academy or reproduced for magazines. Her dedication to recording her travels allows us to learn from them even today – quite a contrast to our instantly forgettable scrolling.

Isobel's Kodak Negative Film Album, neatly documenting each photograph taken. From the RSGS archives.

Holidays have a way of encouraging us to try new things and Isobel chalked up a number of ‘firsts’ during her travels. She was the first Scotswoman to set foot in Greenland when she landed at Angmagssalik (Ammassalik) in 1927 and the first non-native woman to cross from Alaska into Canada at Demarcation Point. Isobel went on to be the first woman ever to receive the Mungo Park Medal of the Royal Scottish Geographical Society (presented to her in 1934 by the future King George VI). Yet alongside the historically noteworthy, Isobel would have been breaking new ground on an almost daily basis, adapting to unknown customs, climates and cultures – regularly expanding her comfort zone.

Isobel's water colour paintings. From the RSGS archives.

While we put our faith in travel comparison sites, Isobel believed in providence. In the winter of 1933, she spent seven weeks marooned in an isolated cabin on a strip of shingle off the northern coast of Alaska. In other adventures igloos and snow houses became home. Her open mindedness to explore lead her to experience the “joys” of dog sled, whaling ships, coastguard boats, cargo vessels, kayak and aircraft – and all this in the days when travel insurance was in its infancy.

The right to paid annual leave officially started in 1939, (by which point Isobel was 50 years old), but it took until 1975 before most UK workers had secured their two weeks off. Within Isobel’s lifetime, holidays morphed from the self-improvement grand tours of the gentry, to all-inclusive package tours for everyone, yet few of us would class ourselves explorers in the true sense. Perhaps it’s time to rethink what can be achieved in those 14 days.


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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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