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In good company at the RSGS

In October 1934 Isobel Wylie Hutchison became one of the first recipients, and the first woman, to be awarded the prestigious Mungo Park Medal by the Royal Scottish Geographical Society. The award recognises significant contributions to geographical knowledge, often acquired at grave personal risk. It was presented to her in Edinburgh by none other than the Duke of York, the future King George VI.

Isobel's Mungo Park Medal, in recognition of her original and valuable researches in Iceland, Greenland and Arctic Alaska, National Library Scotland

Isobel Wylie Hutchison was an active and valued member of the Royal Scottish Geographical Society (RSGS), she was awarded the Society's Fellowship Diploma in 1932, served on its Council from 1936-1940, as honorary editor of the Scottish Geographical Magazine from 1944-1953, and as the Society’s Vice President from 1958-1970.

Defying convention, Isobel travelled alone on expeditions that few would attempt even today. She risked life and limb collecting plants, pioneering new routes across inhospitable terrain, boarding ghost ships and capturing some of the earliest documentary footage ever recorded.

In Iceland Isobel walked the 260 miles north from Reykjavik to Akureyri, a journey thought to be impossible due to the lack of maps, guides and the dangers involved. Her next challenge was Greenland. Probably the first Scottish woman to ever set foot in Greenland, Isobel had to wait almost two years for permission to travel there because the border was fiercely guarded by Denmark. A legitimate reason had to be provided for travel to be considered. Eventually she was permitted entry to Greenland as a botanist, and collected thousands of botanical samples during her travels.

In the early 1930s she set off again, this time for Alaska. From Alaska she sent back more botanical specimens, for the Natural History Museum and the Royal Botanical Gardens, and ethnographic observations and artefacts for the Cambridge University Museum of Ethnography. This trip was not without its challenges, requiring a variety of transport methods to navigate the terrain. Occasionally Isobel was forced to improvise. When she couldn't reach a ship that had agreed to take her up the Alaskan coast, she hired a team of sledge dogs and made the 350-mile journey overland.

In November 1939, The Scotsman wrote a profile on Isobel in which the writer declared:

Miss Hutchison is, you feel, much too fragile and gentle for the rigours of Arctic exploration. Dispensing tea in her sunlit sitting room, or sketching the glowing colours of her garden, she seems far more in her correct setting than battling against cold and hardship in half-civilised lands.”

The Royal Scottish Geographical Society was established in 1884, just 5 years before Isobel was born, one of the oldest geographical societies in the world. With a distinguished history of supporting and promoting geographical education, research and exploration, Isobel is one of the many significant figures linked to the RSGS of the last 150 years, including Antarctic explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton, leading mountaineer Sir Edmund Hillary, pioneering astronaut Neil Armstrong, endurance explorer Sir Ranulph Fiennes, travel writer Dame Freya Stark and broadcasting legend Sir David Attenborough.

Isobel was in good company.


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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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