01 January 2022
Jo Woolf celebrates the achievements of West Lothian explorer Isobel Wylie Hutchison who is believed to be the first Scotswoman to have set foot in Greenland.
A Scotswoman with a vagabond spirit who was irresistibly drawn to the north
Modest and quietly observant, Isobel Wylie Hutchison never boasted of her geographical achievements – but in August 1927, when she stepped off a ship at Angmagssalik on the east coast of Greenland, she believed that she was the first Scotswoman to set foot there. It is likely that she was also the first European woman (outside of Denmark) to visit that remote part of Greenland’s ‘closed shore’.
Visiting the 'closed shore'
Permission to visit Greenland was difficult to come by at that time, as the country was still strictly controlled by Denmark: to obtain a visa, Isobel had been obliged to give a valid reason for her visit. Her purpose was botany, and in her luggage she carried collecting cases to preserve her precious finds.
She also carried a bathing suit, but her first encounter with Greenland’s voracious midges prompted her instead to purchase a pair of thick sealskin ‘kamiker’ or leggings, which the Greenlanders wore for protection against bites.
The people who lived in the remote coastal villages took Isobel to their heart, offering simple hospitality and taking her by umiak – a traditional open boat – up into a beautiful fjord to see a sacred grove of birch trees, which she was told were the only trees that grew in Greenland.
Exploring the frozen landscape
The magic of the far north beguiled Isobel for the rest of her life. In 1933, as a million stars glittered overhead, she slept inside a candlelit igloo on her journey through the frozen landscape of Alaska. Her mission was to collect wild flower specimens and Inuit artefacts for museums; as she sped eastwards by dog sled she became the first non-native woman to enter Canada at Demarcation Point, where an obelisk marked the boundary between the two countries.
Isobel Wylie Hutchison received the Mungo Park Medal of the Royal Scottish Geographical Society in 1934, and she features in Jo Woolf's book The Great Horizon (Sandstone Press).
Find out more about the Royal Scottish Geographical Society on their website.
Flowers in the Snow: The Life of Isobel Wylie Hutchison by Gwyneth Hoyle
Text originally published on History Scotland on 5/2/2018, reviewed 6 May 2022.