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Isobel Wylie Hutchison the Teacher

"When one teaches, two learn,” so said essayist, novelist and short story writer Robert Heinlein.

Isobel wearing the local Inuit costume. The long sealskin kamik boots were a necessity, worn to prevent insect bites

Much of what we know of Isobel today is thanks to her passion for teaching. In her lifetime Isobel gave more than 500 illustrated lectures to organisations such as the Royal Scottish Geographical Society and the Scott Polar Research Institute. She also gave regular talks on BBC radio and made appearances on children’s hour, which was broadcast every weekday evening from 1922-1964.

While Isobel’s explorations were driven by her curiosity, she felt an obligation to share the privileges of her experience with both a home audience and the people she met on her travels. All across Alaska and Canada, Isobel carried her traditional Greenlandic costume, which she wore when she gave slide shows to residents and schoolchildren, so they could learn about another Arctic culture.

As word of her travels and her teaching spread, letters of introduction were carried by the network of explorers and supportive enthusiasts who shared her love of the northern hemisphere. There are many stories of accommodation and berths on various ships being offered when they knew that Isobel needed them. Imagine the kudos of hosting the most famous, (partially because she was the only), female adventurer of the time.

Isobel travelling by umiak with the local Inuit community in search of plants around the islands of the Umanak fjord

While her reputation opened doors, Isobel took pride in being self-sufficient. She spoke eight languages fluently, (Gaelic, French, Norwegian, Danish, Greenlandic, Greek, Arabic and Hebrew), and that’s not counting Scots. During WWII, Isobel moved first to Liverpool and later Glasgow to work as a translator and censor for Danish and Norwegian correspondence.

Even when she didn’t speak the language needed, her goodwill, humour and patience did the talking for her. Isobel was a teacher, but she was also willing to learn - adopting customs, sharing what she had and never expecting special treatment. She lived, played, worked and travelled like a local.

While not much evidence remains of her speaking engagements, Isobel’s art (a number of paintings were accepted by the Royal Scottish Academy), contributions to our understanding of botany and her written work, live on. She wrote six books of poems, seven books on her travels and twelve articles for the National Geographic Magazine.

1911 – Isobel began publishing poetry.

1916 – Isobel privately publishes her first book, Lyrics from West Lothian (poetry)

1917/18 – How Joy was found: A Fantasy in Verse in Five Acts. London: Blackie; New York: Frederick A. Stokes

1926 – The Calling of the Bride. Stirling: E. Mackay

1927 – The Song of the Bride and The Northern Gate. London: De La More,

1928 – Walking Tour across Iceland, National Geographic

1929 – Original Companions. London: Bodley Head

1930 – Flowers and Farming in Greenland. Edinburgh: T. A. Constable and On Greenland’s Closed Shore: The Fairyland of the Arctic. Edinburgh: William Blackwood

1934 – North to the Rime-Ringed Sun: Being a Record of an Alaska-Canadian Journey Made in 1933-34. London: Blackie; New York: Hillman-Curl, 1937

1935 – Lyrics from Greenland. London: Blackie and Arctic Nights Entertainment: Being the Narrative of an Alaskan Estonian Digger, August Masik, as told to Isobel Wylie Hutchison. Glasgow: Blackie

1937 – Stepping Stones from Alaska to Asia. London: Blackie

1938 – Isobel travelled to Estonia and later published an account of rural life there

1942 – Riddle of the Aleutians, National Geographic

1943 – Scotland in Wartime, National Geographic

1944 – Wales in Wartime, National Geographic

1946 – Bonnie Scotland, Post-war Style, National Geographic

1949 – 2000 Miles through Europe’s Oldest Kingdom, National Geographic

1950 – A Stroll to London, National Geographic

1951 – A Stroll to Venice, National Geographic

1953 – Shetland and Orkney, Britain’s Far North, National Geographic

1954 – From Barra to Butt in the Hebrides, National Geographic

1956 – A Stroll to John o' Groats, National Geographic

1957 – Poets' Voices Linger in Scottish Shrines, National Geographic

As much as she craved solitude, each trip resulted in acclaim both at home and abroad. In 1934 she received the Mungo Park Medal from the Royal Scottish Geographical Society and later become honorary editor of the Scottish Geographical Magazine (1944-1953) and Vice President (1958-70). In 1946 she was awarded the Danish Freedom Medal, with the King of Denmark regularly acknowledging her birthday thereafter and all she had done to put Denmark on the map.

Isobel receiving an honorary Doctorate of Laws from St Andrews University

In 1949 the university of St Andrews awarded Isobel an honorary Doctorate of Laws for her work as an explorer, botanist, writer and artist. The citation at the granting of this degree gave a graceful summary of her life and work. “[A] scientist by training, a poet at heart, [she] has braved the lonely icy wastes of Greenland and Alaska, the mist and fog of the Aleutian Islands, and the untrodden spaces of Canada not only, we believe, to collect plants, but also, we surmise, to satisfy the restless surging of that indomitable spirit which defies hazard, danger and discomfort, and is the source of all great human achievement. Journeyings worthy of romantic saga, contributions to the rich collections of rare plants gracing our botanical gardens, books swelling the exciting literature on Arctic travel, these are signal achievements. They are enriched by a mastery of six strange tongues, and novels and poems written in her own.” With typical modesty, Isobel confessed “I really can’t think why they are giving me this degree”.

The best teacher’s both educate and inspire. Isobel continues to do both, though it’s only now, 40 years after her death, that her true contribution is beginning to be realised.


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