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Teaching and Learning in Equal Measure

A well-known quote reads “the best teachers show you where to look, not what to see”- it’s a thought worth remembering, in an age when we’re bombarded with information and ‘experts’, broadcasting their views as the only ideas worth knowing about.

Isobel sitting on the edge of the fountain at her home at Carlowrie Castle with 'Punch' her Dalmatian dog

While Isobel and her brothers and sisters had the benefit of home schooling, her childhood teachers were also the books she surrounded herself with and the gardens of her home in Carlowrie Castle. Learning by doing was the order of the day, and this mix of theory and practise, installed a sense of confidence in not only building knowledge, but also finding ways to fill the gaps where questions remained.

Isobel is remembered as a pioneer for her travels in the Arctic, but she was 36 when she embarked on her first international solo trip to Iceland (1925), and many of the skills she would have needed to take on that challenge were self-taught. Nothing could fully have prepared her for the 260 mile/418 km trek she undertook there, but faith and self-reliance gave her the confidence to address her own curiosity and not be daunted by the lack of maps, guides or assurances that the trip across the interior was even possible.

In the early 20th century, Iceland became an independent and sovereign state with Denmark (1918), a union which would last until 1944. The fishing industry created early ties between Scotland and its Arctic neighbours and Isobel would have heard stories via sailors in the Port of Leith, which undoubtedly inspired her to find out more.

Records from 1920 show Reykjavík, the largest town and the capital, was home to about 20% of Iceland’s population, with the rest being predominately farmers, land-labourers and their families, scattered around the country’s coastline. By the time Isobel arrived in Reykjavik, it boasted banks and corporations, over 100 registered students at its University and refreshingly for the time, a strong women’s movement.

With deep-rooted traditions of knowledge being passed down to successive generations, rather than formal schooling, Iceland would have had a familiar appeal to Isobel. It speaks of her character that she headed for the largely uninhabited and vast interior of the country, rather than stay in its capital with all the middle-class trappings. Isobel learned from experience and it wasn’t enough for her to simply hear about the world beyond Reykjavik - she had to go there. Her subsequent adventures, recorded in film, poetry and prose were the first account many westerners had of this Arctic nation and they continue to inform our understanding of a population who worked in harmony with nature to feed, clothe and educate themselves. Isobel showed the native peoples to be charismatic and insightful, challenging the popular beliefs of the day and fascinating us even now.

Isobel giving a talk and showcasing her Inuit kamiker boots and beaded 'shawl' she had commissioned

From this first solo expedition, Isobel would continue to travel in Greenland, Alaska and various inhospitable parts of the northern hemisphere until the beginning of WWII. By then, age 50, Isobel had become a trusted source of geographical and anthropological information. She was published in books and magazines and an experienced lecturer, travelling across the UK to recount her adventures. As radio and TV became mainstream her accounts reached even more people, making her abilities as a teacher (of geography, history, art, horticulture, photography, language and humanities) just as respected as her explorer credentials.

After the war, Isobel returned to Carlowrie Castle, where she continued to work and live until her death in 1982, the last of the Hutchison line. Yet, like all good local hero’s, her life continues to be celebrated and in 2018 Isobel’s adventures were revisited through a collaboration between Craft Design House and the Royal Geographical Society. Today, the Isobel Wylie Hutchison Collection is on display in Carlowrie Castle for all to see, and her past home continues to share her story to interested school parties, who can now tour the Castle and it’s Gardens to understand more of what inspired Isobel to live such a remarkable life.

Kirkliston Primary School Eco Club learning more about Isobel through a tour of Carlowrie Castle

If you are interested in bringing your class or school for a tour please contact Gillian Scott -


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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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