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St Andrew and Isobel – Kindred Spirits

The 30th November (St Andrew’s Day), officially became a public holiday in Scotland in 2007. Though it doesn’t yet carry the festivities of Burns Night or Hogmanay, there’s no doubt that Scottish people love their national hero’s, even the adopted ones, (St Andrew was actually born in Israel).

The 1320 declaration of Arbroath officially named Andrew as Scotland’s patron saint, and the saltire flag representing his death on the cross, quickly followed (1385). Though separated by centuries, Isobel would have known all about St Andrew. Her strong Christian faith was built on biblical teachings and the Gospel of John names Andrew as the first apostle. Though he began life as a fisherman, his quest for knowledge and his daring to spread ‘the word’ definitely shares parallels with a woman who turned her back on societies expectations, believing in providence to guide her way.

According to early chronicles of the Christian religion, St Andrew was inspired to preach as far north as Kiev (over 2000km/1242 miles from Israel), which is why countries such as, Romania, Georgia and Russia also celebrate him as their patron saint. Like Isobel, his travels would have been slow, uncharted and dependant on those he met along the way for success. Such adventures suggest levels of resilience and courage that set them apart from peers of their time, as well as social skills most of us could only aspire to, and yet, neither character lived their lives for recognition or personal gain.

St Andrew's commitment to selflessness and compassion are recorded throughout the bible, and he’s even credited with providing the loaves and fishes that allowed Jesus to feed the 5,000. Similarly, Isobel’s cargo records show her luggage contained one stone (6.5kg) of dog biscuits for the sled dogs, cakes, confectionary and even haggis to repay the kindness of those who made her explorations possible. Like St. Andrew, she understood how to respect and acknowledge the indigenous peoples and their customs, and Uummannaq bares a lasting reminder of her commitment to the local community, in the shape of the church bell which still operates today.

Isobel gifted the local church in Uummannaq a church bell, seen here with Kirsty Macdonald for BBC Alba

History will forever link Isobel with exploration and although St Andrew was also a world traveller, it was only after death that he came to Scottish shores. Having been crucified in Greece, his remains were moved to Istanbul and later Italy. Legend has it that during the 15th century, St Regulus brought some of St Andrew’s bones to the town which later took his name, putting it on the map as a popular medieval pilgrimage site. Those bones were lost during the reformation, but in 1870 the Archbishop of Amalfi sent a piece of the saint’s shoulder blade to be stored in St Mary’s Cathedral in Edinburgh and Pope Paul VI sent more pieces in 1969, securing St. Andrew’s ties to Scotland.

It seems strangely fitting that it was the University of St Andrews that awarded Isobel an honorary Doctorate of Laws for her work as an explorer, botanist, writer and artist. On receiving the news Isobel is recorded as saying “I really can’t think why they are giving me this degree.” They do say that modesty is a saint like virtue …

Isobel's newspaper cutting having received her honorary Doctorate of Law from St Andrew's University


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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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