Compulsive explorers: five Scots who stepped off the map into the unknown

03 August 2017
Sir-John-Murray-(3)-23343.jpg Sir John Murray
Jo Woolf explores the adventures of five pioneering Scots whose adventures into uncharted lands provided inspiration for the generations of explorers who would follow in their footsteps.

In the archives of the Royal Scottish Geographical Society are countless stories of adventure and exploration - stories that were often told by the explorers themselves when they were honoured guests of the Society.  Here are five Scots who trod bravely into uncharted lands, lured by the thrill of geographical discovery.

1. Sir John Murray (1841-1914)

When the Challenger expedition set sail from Portsmouth in December 1872 on a four-year scientific voyage around the world’s oceans, she carried with her a young naturalist by the name of John Murray. Under the supervision of the Challenger’s chief scientist, Charles Wyville Thomson, Murray helped to survey many thousands of miles of ocean, using weighted hemp ropes to plumb the deepest parts of the sea and discovering a wealth of marine creatures that were new to science.

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Photographing Antarctic icebergs for the first time, and encountering a now-extinct tribe in Patagonia, it is fair to say that the Challenger’s crew enjoyed a round-the-world cruise like no other; their perpetual astonishment was mimicked by a parrot that they acquired in Madeira, which would regularly exclaim: “What? Two thousand fathoms and no bottom?” On his return to Britain, Murray was given the daunting task of cataloguing the Challenger’s findings, and was later acknowledged as the ‘father of oceanography’.

2. Isobel Wylie Hutchison (1889-1982)

Born at Carlowrie Castle in West Lothian, Isobel Wylie Hutchison answered a soul-felt urge to explore the lands of the Arctic. At a time when women were expected to immerse themselves in home life, she defied convention and wandered at will around Iceland and Greenland, staying with local people and immersing herself in their culture.

She then took herself to Alaska, sailing around the Aleutian Islands and voyaging into the high Arctic with the help of rugged fur-trappers and traders who became lifelong friends.  

Isobel’s twin passions were botany and adventure: she travelled on impulse, following her heart and later writing about her experiences with energy and passion. Sweeping over the sparkling ice by dog sled and warming herself in candlelit igloos at night, Isobel is likely to have been the first woman to cross from Alaska to Arctic Canada at Demarcation Point.

3. William Speirs Bruce (1867-1921)

In the ‘heroic age’ of polar exploration, it is sometimes forgotten that Scotland has her own polar hero: William Speirs Bruce. Bruce was shy, stubborn, patriotic and independent: finding himself unable to join the British National Antarctic Expedition under Captain Robert Falcon Scott, he threw himself into launching his own ‘rival’ expedition, with the aim of conducting important scientific research in the Antarctic.

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The Scotia set sail from the Clyde in November 1902, and five months later a simple Scottish bothy was being built on the shore of Laurie Island in the South Orkneys, to provide sleeping quarters for the crew and to house the first ever meteorological station in the Antarctic. The Scottish National Antarctic Expedition was a huge success: Bruce and his colleagues surveyed over 4,000 miles of uncharted ocean, recorded some 1,100 species of wildlife, and took the first moving pictures of penguins in the Antarctic.

4. Isabella ‘Ella’ Christie (1861-1949)

It is said of Ella Christie that, while she was waiting for a train one day at Dollar station, a fellow traveller enquired politely about her destination. Was she heading for Edinburgh? “No - Samarkand,” replied Ella, with typical directness.

And she was telling the truth. In the early 1900s Miss Christie of Cowden Castle forged a reputation as a fearless and independent traveller: she was the first woman to travel from Samarkand to Khiva, and she was also the first western woman to meet the Dalai Lama.

Carrying trunks of evening dresses in case a formal occasion presented itself, she was equally at ease dining with the Maharajah of Kashmir or camping in the snows of the Karakoram. Ella’s restless feet took her all over Asia and the Far East; she was later inspired to create an authentic Japanese garden in the grounds of her Clackmannanshire home.

     5. John George Bartholomew (1860-1920)

In the nineteenth century, the idea of stepping off the map into new and uncharted territory was one of the thrills that spurred explorers towards new horizons. The excitement was felt also by the cartographers whose job it was to re-draw the maps, filling in the blank spaces with new names and topographical features.

Edinburgh map-maker John George Bartholomew is credited with dreaming up the name ‘Antarctica’ for the continent that was slowly taking shape in the human mind, as successive teams of explorers disembarked from their ships to make an attempt on the South Pole. Although the word ‘Antarctic’, meaning ‘opposite to the Arctic’, had existed for centuries, ‘Antarctica’ as a name for the continent is thought to have first appeared on Bartholomew’s 1887 ‘Handy Reference Atlas’, and by the 1920s it was firmly established.

John George Bartholomew was both a visionary and a well-connected businessman, passionate about the benefits of geographical knowledge. Together with Agnes Livingstone Bruce and Sir James Geikie, he was one of the co-founders of the Royal Scottish Geographical Society.

‘The Great Horizon’ is published by Sandstone Press. More details here.

Originally published August 2017. Reviewed July 2023.

Photo credits: Sir John Murray - public domain; Isobel Wylie Hutchison - public domain; William Speirs Bruce - public domain; Ella Christie - with kind permission of Sara Stewart, Cowden Castle; John George Bartholomew, portrait by Edward Arthur Walton (1911) - public domain.