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Influencers Before It Was A Job Title

The hit TV series ‘Friends’, began with a pilot episode, broadcast in September 1994. Over the next 10 years, spanning 236 episodes, viewers got to watch six young adults navigate life in New York city, with the common theme that friends make the journey more enjoyable. Isobel may well have seen parallels with her own story.

Gus Masik visited Isobel at Carlowrie Castle. They met in the Arctic in 1933 and remained life-long friends until Gus's death in 1976, National Library Scotland

Though she favoured the Arctic over the Americas, her expeditions in the region lasted a decade and were never fully planned but rather guided by the people she met along the way. Locals and fellow explorers became her friends and trusted advisors, sharing the highs and lows of daily life. Many are recorded in her books and letters, showing just how much, she relied on their hospitality and expertise to achieve her goals. Six seem especially worthy of a mention.

Pre internet, books and later radio, would have provided Isobel with inspiration to pack her bags, and she wasn’t the only one exploring. Colonialism raged through the Edwardian era and many countries encouraged their citizens to search the wider world for national gains. It’s likely that Isobel would have met or at least known of fellow pioneers such as Fridtjof Nansen, a Norwegian scientist, diplomat and explorer, celebrated for his contribution to Arctic discovery, and Sir Hubert Wilkins, an Australian, best known for his innovative use of aircraft in exploring the poles. Perhaps her closest peer though was an American woman, Louise Arner Boyd who shared a remarkably similar upbringing albeit on the other side of the world. She too had lost siblings and found solace in travel to Greenland and the Arctic, and while there are no particular records of their paths crossing, it’s likely that two females causing such a stir in society would have kept abreast of one another’s travels.

Knud Rasmussen on his boat Nanortalik, 1927. Photo by Isobel Wylie Hutchison, National Library Scotland

Some of those Isobel met on her expeditions became firm friends, with several visiting Carlowrie during her lifetime. Dr Knud Rasmussen, was one such person. His parents were Greenlandic and Danish, and he shared Isobel’s love of adventure. Knud was an anthropologist who would have respected how Isobel chose to live like a local and how she documented the people and their customs in her writings, photographs and film. Gus Masik was another trusted companion. He became her roommate in Alaska when they were stranded in his cabin together for six weeks, waiting for the worst of the winter storms to pass. Gus’s understanding of how to survive and even thrive in this inhospitable terrain, was fundamental to Isobel reaching Herschel Island, though as a trapper and trader, his company would have been rather different from the learned circles Isobel knew at the time. Yet just as weeds and flowers grow together, unlikely friendships litter the records of Isobel’s expeditions.

For Arctic peoples, nature is such a fundamental part of culture, community and lifestyle that they don’t see a distinction between it and themselves - an ideology which Isobel seems to have adopted. Her trips to the northern hemisphere were often driven by her passion for botany and her desire to find, record and collect plants was undoubtedly supported by those who knew their intrinsic value and where to find them. Dr Morton Porsild, one-time Director of the Arctic Research Station, played a key role in advising Isobel on the seeds and specimens the Royal Horticultural society would be most interested in. His help ensured she was able to fund future trips and so secure her place in the history of plant science.

Kirsty Macdonald behind the bell Isobel donated to the Uummannaq Church, Greenland as seen on BBC ALBA

While much of Isobel’s UK life was spent in solitude, records of her international travels show a woman surrounded by people eager to share and aid her adventures. Perhaps the longest lasting symbol of Isobel’s appreciation is the church bell, which still hangs today in Uummannaq Greenland. BBC ALBA recently produced a documentary covering Isobel’s time here and her lasting contribution to the history of the community. It’s well worth a watch though her story could definitely fill another 235 episodes.


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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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