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Encompassing a celebration of all kinds of creativity

It can be hard to place any boundaries around Isobel, as it was for those who knew her in life. When trying to explain her life and work, the usual titles seem almost superfluous- she was at once a botanist, poet, explorer, photographer and videographer, polyglot, painter and writer.

Her work transcended the limitations and borders of her own time, with Isobel travelling to places said to be impossible to reach in ways considered quite outrageous to locals. Her achievements continue to thrill, touch and inspire today, a century after her first trips exploring the North. Yet, despite the incredible breadth of her work and achievements, Isobel remained a humble person, getting embarrassed when Icelanders threw her a party complete with British flags and expressing confusion when the University of St. Andrews awarded her a doctorate degree for her work. Perhaps that is why it is still so easy to see something of yourself in her, and draw inspiration to bring more creativity to life.

One of the most inspiring facts about Isobel’s creativity was that it went far beyond her own endeavours. While documenting her journeys via almost every creative mean possible, Isobel also supported those she met on her travels. Her written and in-person storytelling brought Scottish culture to remote communities in Greenland, and Innuit-Greenlandic culture across the frozen North to their North American cousins (to use her own description of the relationship). Her videos of local and Scottish dancing in Greenland not only show an exchange of cultures and traditions, but also preserves them, giving a unique insight to Greenlandic life in the 1920s. During her trip there, she also commissioned Greenlanders to create artwork for her to take back to Scotland, encouraging the creativity and traditional crafts.

Perhaps the most touching examples of uplifting the creative works of others came through Isobel’s contact with Gus Masik. An Estonian-born Alaskan prospector, Gus told Isobel his stories from the USA’s wildest frontier during their travels together in the region. Living with him for seven weeks during the winter in his cabin at Martin Point, Isobel recorded his tales and published the rather literally titled “Arctic Nights’ Entertainment” to great success. Unbeknownst to either of them, their joint creative efforts reached Gus’ native Estonia, where his family were shocked to learn that he was still alive and re-established contact with their lost son. 

Gus Masik and Isobel at Carlowrie Castle with Isobel's newly written book, an account of Gus's life

Isobel also used her language skills to bring the poetry, stories and folk songs of her temporary homes and new friends to curious audiences abroad. Although it may sound simple, quality translation requires a fine focus and delicate hand. Preserving the rhythm of songs or poetry while also translating meaning and the foreign concepts of the cold North must have required great innovation on Isobel’s part. Greenlandic, a language Isobel returned to time and time again, is acknowledged as an especially challenging language for outsiders to learn, with long compound words and dialects that lie far from one another. Isobel’s English translations of Knud Ramussen’s transcriptions of folk songs brought the Innuit way of life, linguistics and culture a step closer to recognition and understanding in the English-speaking world.

Knud Ramussen, who asked Isobel to translate The Eagle's Gift and who contributed to her own book 'On Greenland's Closed Shore: The Fairyland of the Arctic'

May 30th is National Creativity Day in the UK, encompassing a celebration of all kinds of creativity, it would also have been Isobel’s 135th birthday. The broad nature of these celebrations makes it a fitting day to laud the incredible breadth of inventive works both created by Isobel personally and those by others to which she contributed or nurtured. Continuing to engage with her work, inspiring people to be creative, seems the best way to honour her legacy.

Isobel's diaries, noting her 35th birthday entry, held at the National Library of Scotland


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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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