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The people of the Arctic

The most northerly of the five major circles of latitude, is the Arctic. It spans roughly 7,700,000 square miles, or about 4% of the Earth’s surface. The Arctic Circle marks the region above which, for at least 1 day a year, there is all day sunshine in the summer and 24-hours of darkness in the winter (which lasts for 9 months). This was Isobel’s adopted second home.

Isobel 'Self with Nurses Alaska'

The native people who inhabit the Arctic Circle are many and varied and it’s likely that Isobel would have encountered many of them as she explored the region. Members of the Athabaskan language family live in Alaska and Canada, the Inuit and Inupiat. The Russian North includes the Komi, the Sakha and the Karelians and a group called the Saami live in the north of Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia. These people still rely upon and utilise the land and sea for food and clothing in much the same way as they would have in Isobel’s day, yet few of us will ever see for ourselves.

'Call of the North' Isobel Wylie Hutchison

In 1927, as Charles Lindbergh made his famous solo, non-stop transatlantic flight in the Spirit of St. Louis,

Isobel reached Greenland, home to some of the earliest settlers in the world – the Inuit people. A country census taken in 2012 states that 89% of the population of Greenland are Inuit, formed of three distinct groups Inughuit, Tunumiit and Kalaallit, each with its own language, in 1927 this percentage would have been close to 100. Lucky for her, Isobel was a polyglot and her mastery of Danish, Icelandic, Greenlandic and some Inuit (alongside her abilities in Italian, Greek, Hebrew and Gaelic) would have made her northernly travels all the more rewarding. She could no doubt have verified the urban myth that the people of the Arctic have 50 words for snow (a ‘fact’ attributed to the work of Franz Boas who studied Inuit’s in Canada during the late 1800s).

Greenland’s most northernly point is just 708 km away from the North Pole, where each year the sun doesn’t set for 180 days. In the early 1900’s very little was known about this part of the world and less still about the people who lived there, so Isobel was careful to capture the details of everyday life, living with families to better understand their struggles in this icy wilderness. Her observations, delivered via lecture, article and interview, changed attitudes. Isobel educated the western world that these ‘foreigners’ were creative, friendly, intelligent and resourceful, who respected nature and mirrored her curiosity for learning and each trip inspired her to learn more.

Though she saw herself as a botanist, filmmaker, author and poet, Isobel was less likely to identify as an anthropologist and yet her sense of belonging in this seemingly inhospitable part of the world, was in large part down to its people. She may have come from a privileged background, but Isobel was keen to live like a local and tales of her adventures recount travel by dog sled, sleeping in basic cabins and even ice houses and eating whatever was available – mostly whale meat and fish during the long winters. Isobel was fascinated by the simple way of life, customs and culture she witnessed, and she quickly set about sharing ‘Scotland’ (think Highland dancing and Burns suppers) with them. What she captured in writing and on film, is some of the earliest known documentary of indigenous people in the Arctic and you can see it for yourself in the archives of the National Library of Scotland.

Out of a total of 4 million inhabitants of the Arctic today, approximately 500,000 are Indigenous Peoples

They have protected rights to manifest, practise, develop and teach their spiritual and religious traditions, customs and ceremonies, though Isobel’s first hand experiences remind us that these ‘rights’ originated long before the international legal system of sovereign states came into existence.


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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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