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Your friend "Tuluk"

Edinburgh is a city recognised throughout the world, even if its name often proves tricky to pronounce.  Speak to locals and it’s just as likely to be referred to as “auld reekie” (from the Scots for old smokey), a nickname that originated in the 17th century when the fog of open coal and peat fires obscured the famous skyline.  A hundred years later, inhabitants willing to overlook such historical flaws, had dubbed it the “Athens of the North”, rebranding the city as an intellectual and cultural hub. It would seem that PR and perception setting was as important in the 18th century as it is today.

Isobel signing one of her published book of poems to a friend, "from your friend "Tuluk"

Nickname, literally translated from its Middle English roots reads ‘also-name’ and although nicknames are often associated with teasing, for many the acquisition of one is a sign of affection, acceptance and belonging.  This was certainly the case in Greenland where Isobel earned her nickname, Tuluk.


Though there are multiple hypotheses about the etymology of the word Tuluk, it’s thought to originate from the indigenous Inuit languages spoken in Greenland.  A term typically used to describe an Englishman, (in its broadest rather than nationalistic sense), Tuluk is also associated with biscuits or baked goods, perhaps as a nod to Isobel’s love of all sweet things and transporting and sharing Scottish sweet treats on her travels.  Both definitions suggest her nickname was coined as a mark of admiration.  Here was a woman who wore seal skin and caribou clothing, spoke Greenlandic (as well as seven other languages) and adopted the local culture and customs as her own, yet came from thousands of miles away, bringing tales of other lands, teaching as well as learning, a foreigner but kindred spirit.  Calling her Tuluk was a way of setting her apart but also welcoming her into the community – a colloquial badge of honour.

‘These shops contain very few of life’s luxuries. Beyond a little plain chocolate and dried figs, no sweets or biscuits are, as a rule, to be had. In this biscuitless land, the ‘Tuluk’ (Britain) realises with feeling that Scotland is the land o’ cakes. The Greenlanders, with their talent for nicknames, certainly hit the nail on the head when they called the first Scotsmen ‘Tuluit’ - the Biscuits.’ 


On Greenland’s Closed Shores by Isobel Wylie Hutchison


In 1927 when Isobel first visited Greenland it was still a Danish colony, sparsely populated, lacking in prosperity and generally closed to visitors.  She was only granted access because of her reputation as a botanist with letters of recommendation from organisations such as the Royal Geographical Society and the Royal Botanical Gardens in Kew and Edinburgh. Though she was an experienced traveller and explorer by then (age 38), Greenland seems to have touched her in a way that other countries hadn’t.  Here, Isobel empathised with the native people, their perseverance in such a harsh climate and their thriving Christian community.  It’s clear from her writing that it quickly became her adopted home – especially the tiny rocky island of Uummannaq, where she lived for almost a year.  In Greenland Isobel had found the simple life and solitude she craved and in doing so had become a trusted part of the local community in her new found guise of Tuluk.

Her initial trip to the north of Greenland and the books and poetry it inspired, gave Isobel a solid income and cemented her expertise as an explorer, writer, film maker and botanist. This funded a second trip in 1928 to the west of Greenland, where the reputation which went before her, gave access to some of the most remote and uncharted areas and their flora.  A year later ‘On Greenland’s Closed Shore’ was published to much acclaim, providing a catalyst for lectures and talks on the BBC, where she could share her first hand experiences to a world at the end of the roaring twenties, thirsty for adventure.

A dedication as the foreword of Isobel's book "On Greenland’s Closed Shores" signing herself "TULUK"

As a woman who fought to maintain her independence, accepting a nickname showed Isobel had found a place to belong, free from the judgement and norms of Scottish society.  There was no pressure to marry or conform, no judgement of her chosen path or unconventional way of life.  She described her time in Greenland as some of the happiest days of her life and perhaps that’s why she signed much of her correspondence to close friends, not from Isobel, but from the best version of herself, Tuluk.






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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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