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The Perseverance of Leithers - Isobel’s connection

Isobel Wylie Hutchison was born the third of five children, at Carlowrie Castle in 1889, (a year which also heralded the arrival of Coca-cola and the Eiffel Tower).

The family in the gardens of their home, Carlow(from left: Hilda, Walter, Isobel & Nita, brother Frank not present)

Hers was a life of privilege, with every opportunity to learn the arts, languages (she eventually spoke eight fluently), history and botany. The Suffragette movement was in its infancy and lady authors were beginning to emerge with the publishing of Anne of Green Gables and The Tale of Peter Rabbit. The future looked bright, yet, by 1918 she had lost her father and two brothers (one to an accident the other in training for the war), shattering this fairytale existence and driving her on a quest to quell her grief.

Unusually for the time, Isobel’s father had split the family wealth equally among his children, which gave her the freedom to shape her life, without adhering to societal norms. In an age when only 10% of women went to university, Isobel studied business and marketing on top of being a published poet and linguist. The loss of her father and brothers kept male suiters from her mind and her charmed childhood ensured she was happy in her own company. Nature was her best friend and she found solace in wild places.

Having tried the chaperoned Grand Tour of Europe and the Middle East she became determined to spread her wings on solo trips. First it was a 150 mile trek around the Outer Hebrides where she documented her travels for the readers of National Geographic. This fuelled and funded her next leap – crossing the interior of Iceland, at this point uncharted territory.

It was from Leith that Isobel set sail on her first unaccompanied trip in 1924. Throughout her travels it would be her first and last sight of home and she soon discovered that she wasn’t alone in her love for the port.

For centuries Leithers had been fishing the waters around Greenland for whales, and had developed a rapport with the local communities, teaching them highland music and dancing. Isobel would later capture this on film, as well as adding the sword dance to the islanders repertoire. The experience lingered as she remarked on the Aurora Borealis ‘They too were dancing to the rhythm of the world, their long silver stockinged feet pulsing up and down and in and out to the secret music of some celestial reel.’

The whalers shared their traditions and their provisions with the Greenlanders and quickly the word for a Scottish person became synonymous with the word for biscuit. Isobel built on this hospitality, ordering a large sack of dog biscuits to be sent to Greenland to boost the rations of the sled dogs.

Yet, not all those who set sail returned. During her travels, Isobel encountered the grave of a whaler from Leith in a remote Greenlandic cemetery. Interred over a century before in 1825, Hugh Liberton was a reminder of the very real dangers of arctic exploration in an age before penicillin and when telecommunications were still in their infancy. Around Liberton’s grave was a small willow and Isobel brought the seeds from this tree back to Scotland with her to repatriate and honour the Leither buried so far from home.

Every trip from Leith seemed to strengthen Isobel’s sense of adventure. Between 1927 and the outbreak of WWII she trekked hundreds of miles along arctic coastline as well as exploring Alaska, Estonia and the Aleutian Islands. She lived like a local, learning how to hunt, cook and eat alongside the Inuit communities. They taught her how to survive in a climate far removed from Edinburgh comforts, helping her to embody Leith’s motto and enrich a waiting world with her stories, artefacts (many of which remain in the National Museum of Scotland to this day).


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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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