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Isobel on the Fringe

The Scribber' 1909, created by the Wylie Hutchison Family. Isobel was Editor and Illustrated the front covers

During August the population of Edinburgh seems to double, as the Festival Fringe comes to town. The Fringe began in 1947 when eight uninvited theatre companies turned up for the very first Edinburgh Festival. Their lack of official invite and therefore performance venue, paved the way for today’s free for all. Each year, those who skirt the edges of established art forms, flock to the city - every building becomes a possible venue and every tree and lamp post a billboard to promote the performers as they vie for attentiuoDnu.

Not content with hosting the world’s largest festival of the arts, August also sees Edinburgh host a book and a film festival in parallel. Years before such ventures could be imagined, Isobel had created her own version of each at Carlowrie Castle.

In the early 1900’s Isobel and her siblings would often create and star in productions to entertain their family and friends. From acting to stage building and publicity, the five children each learned how to entertain and be entertained in the process. Unfortunately, the concept of motion pictures was still in its infancy then so no footage was captured, but as technology and skills caught up, Isobel would take full advantage of photography and film to bring the new worlds she experienced to the widest possible audience.

A copy of the Programme for a theatre performance written and performed by the Wylie Hutchison children

In 1903 Isobel (aged 14), started a diary and began writing for “The Scribbler”, a bi-monthly family periodical to which a wide variety of friends and family subscribed and contributed. By 1909, following the marriage of her sister, Isobel (now 20) became editor, immediately showing her flare for nature, horticulture, painting and poetry with several talented entries.

A poem written by Isobel for The Scribbler, highlighting her early love of nature and poetry

Like today’s Fringe hopefuls, Isobel’s Scribbler entries drew from her own experiences but were also influenced by the world around her, which at that time was dominated by great advances in telecommunications, medicine and transport alongside the struggle for women’s rights and the looming horrors of WW1.

The Scribbler - A page from a play entitled Votes for Women, written by the family and edited by Isobel

Perhaps as an escape it’s also around this time that Isobel started walking. While many of us struggle to get in our 10,000 steps, 100 miles became a regular outing for her. Not many of us would consider Blairgowrie to Fort Augustus on foot, but this was one of many “strolls” she documented. Each new adventure provided content for the Scribbler, allowing her to hone her writing skills so that others could virtually share her experiences.

Despite her delight at how widely English was spoken on her first trips to Europe, Isobel went on to be a polyglot, proficient in Scots, Gaelic, French, Norwegian, Danish, Greenlandic, Greek, Arabic and Hebrew. It seems her early years on stage and in print had taught her how important it was to be able to communicate, not only to be understood but to build friendships and relationships along the way.

Isobel went on to give more than 500 illustrated lectures to societies across the UK, including the Royal Scottish Geographical Society and the Scott Polar Research Institute, though she was equally happy sharing her stories in a village hall.

Though Isobel’s fame arose from her solo expeditions in the northern hemisphere and particularly the Arctic, it’s clear that she loved people and worked hard to belong. The accounts of her travels never framed her in the starring role, but rather as an observer, learning as much as she taught. Isobel didn’t seek fame, but her words and her actions provided a window to foreign lands, customs and cultures still referred to by anthropologists today. Her unconventional life challenged stereotypes, physical capabilities and societal expectations. It seems then, as now, those on the fringes of society often make the biggest impact.


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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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