Historian Jo Woolf, writer in Residence for the Royal Scottish Geographical Society, tells the story of Isobel Wylie Hutchison - a female explorer who broke free of her obligations to marry to study plants in the world's most remote places.

At 100 Princes Street we will pay homage to Edinburgh's rich history and take inspiration from the explorers who put 100 Princes Street on the map. In design, our teams will look to create a 'sense of place', working with local artisans to create bespoke pieces and feature a mural honouring the adventures of several great Scottish explorers by Croxford & Saunders. Read more about this rich history below.

In the early hours of an August morning, a four-masted schooner was easing her way through dense fog off the coast of eastern Greenland. The few passengers on board were wakeful and anxious. Every few minutes there was an earth-shattering jar as the boat struck an iceberg and forced its way past, amid much groaning and creaking of timbers. The Gertrud Rask was a Danish supply ship, purpose-built to resist such impacts, but at 4am, in freezing waters with an eerie stillness settled all around, it was hard to push aside doubts about her strength.

At the sudden, shrill blast of the ship’s siren, Isobel Wylie Hutchison abandoned her last hopes of going back to sleep. She got out of bed, dressed quickly, and went up on deck. Wrapped in oilskins, the first mate was scanning the sea in the half-light of dawn. As time passed the other passengers gathered on deck, bleary-eyed but optimistic. The siren sounded again and again… and then someone spotted what they were looking for and let out a joyful yell: “Kayak!” A lone paddler, slicing effortlessly through the water in his sleekly pointed boat, had emerged from the mist and was heading straight for them.

Within minutes, the Greenlander was hoisted up on deck, jubilant at having won the annual prize of piloting the Gertrud Rask into harbour. His competitors were somewhere behind him, still enveloped in fog. Standing on the bridge in his blue shirt and cloth cap, puffing in celebration on one of the captain’s cigars, he began to issue instructions as the ship nosed her way gently towards Angmagssalik. Isobel leaned over the side excitedly, forgetting that she was freezing.

“Out of the mist a dark cloud, out of the cloud a soaring mountain-peak, sun-gilt, snow-splashed, apparently unattached to solid earth, the mists boiling about its feet — Greenland!”

Arriving at Angmagssalik

On the face of it, Isobel Wylie Hutchison was the most unlikely candidate for a life of Arctic adventure. Born in 1889 into a prosperous and happy family, educated by governess and then at a select girls’ school in Edinburgh, she had everything that she might be expected to need or want… except that she craved something different, which was freedom and independence.

Isobel’s family home was Carlowrie Castle, which had been built by her grandfather on the outskirts of Kirkliston. She was the third of five children of Thomas Hutchison, a wine merchant, and his wife, Jeanie Wylie. As a young girl, she had a talent for writing and cherished a secret ambition to be a poet. From her father, she also inherited a love of plants, and tended her own little patch of garden next to the greenhouses at Carlowrie.

Calowrie Castle

Carlowrie Castle

An idyllic early childhood was shattered by tragedy. The unexpected death of her father in 1900, followed shortly afterwards by the loss of both her brothers, left scars in Isobel’s heart that were deep and long-lasting, although she hid them well. As a young woman, seeing her elder sister respectably but unhappily married, she yearned to walk her own path, regardless of what other people thought.

Isobel studied horticulture, and indulged in week-long hikes in the Highlands. By enjoying the wildflowers and the mountain scenery she could temporarily forget about her obligation to marry well and settle into a life of domestic routine. In the face of her mother’s hopeful matchmaking she was never openly defiant, but a quiet kind of rebellion was simmering below the surface. Instead of being a decorously feminine occupation, botany became Isobel’s passport to adventure.

In 1925 Isobel visited Iceland, unaccompanied, which brought both exhilaration and frustration. Exhilaration, because the wild and mountainous landscape sparked a strong urge to explore; and frustration, because she was expected to stay on the well-trodden tourist paths. But Isobel was well-read, and she knew there were other possibilities. She asked a scandalised tour guide to draw her a map of northern Iceland and spent the next two weeks walking across it from west to east, calling at remote farmsteads in the hope of accommodation and helping out with the harvest in payment for her board. Isobel was beginning to learn that if she could dream it, she could do it.

On her voyage home from Iceland, Isobel met some Danish people who had been living in Greenland. Their descriptions of the country filled her with a desire to see it, and on returning to Carlowrie she started to make plans. After discovering that the Danish government would not permit casual visitors to Greenland, she put herself forward as a botanist, and prepared to undertake a plant-collecting expedition. In July 1927, she set sail from Copenhagen.

Angmagssalik harbour

Angmagssalik harbour

As the mist lifted from the sea, Isobel could see that the harbour at Angmagssalik was teeming with onlookers. Hundreds of people had come down to greet the Gertrud Rask, all chattering excitedly. The annual visit of their supply ship was a huge occasion, eagerly anticipated throughout the long dark winter.

Isobel gazed in fascination, not just at the vivid flowers that she could see growing along the coast, but at the Greenlanders in their traditional dress. The women were clad in colourfully-embroidered kamiker (sealskin trousers), with their hair pulled tight on top of their head and tied with a bright ribbon. A flotilla of kayakers was bobbing expertly in the water, waiting to help unload its cargo. Meanwhile a rowing boat was lowered, and the passengers were helped down into it. Stepping briskly ashore, Isobel reflected that she was likely to be the first Scotswoman ever to set foot in Greenland.

After the warm welcomes and introductions, Isobel could scarcely wait to see what botanical gems awaited her around Angmagssalik. Exploring a river valley, she found Alpine azalea (Kalmia procumbens), glacier buttercup (Ranunculus glacialis) and the bright pink cushions of moss campion (Silene acaulis). Her collecting cases began to fill with prized specimens. She wrote: “The stones about the stream were purple in patches, with a handsome species of willow-herb (Epilobium latifolium), which I had only seen before in Iceland. It was a botanist’s paradise…”

Alpine azalea

Alpine azalea

Amazed at how hot the weather was, Isobel longed to bathe in the clear and fast-flowing rivers. With admirable forethought, she had even packed her swimming costume. But she was prevented from stripping off by one of Greenland’s less attractive summer features: its hordes of mosquitoes. With her legs bitten and swollen, Isobel quickly understood why Greenlanders wore thick sealskin trousers. She bartered for a pair, offering in exchange some colourful ribbons and textiles that she had brought from Scotland. The women were thrilled, and meanwhile Isobel posed for photographs in her new costume.

Isobel and Regina

Isobel (right) with Regina, a new friend

At night, Isobel went back on board the Gertrud Rask to sleep; she stayed for four days at Angmagssalik and then travelled with the ship down the coast to Julianehaab, where more communities were awaiting their yearly supplies. Here, she was a guest of the Mathiesons, a Danish family, but she also had opportunities to explore on her own. On hearing about an ancient and sacred grove of birch trees that grew on the shore of a remote glacial lake, Isobel set her heart on going to see it. The only way of getting there was by umiak or skin-covered boat. Some local enquiries brought her an eager crew of oarsmen and guides - men, women, and children - and on an idyllic September morning they set off on a five-day voyage up the Tasermiut Fjord.

Isobel and crew

Isobel and crew picnicking by the fjord

Isobel was exhilarated by the prospect of discovery and awed by the snow-capped mountains, dropping steeply into the deep blue waters of the fjord. The crew, catching her enthusiasm and eager themselves for an adventure, sang traditional songs as they rowed. Half-way up the fjord, the vessel was beached, then pulled by rope up the rapids of an icy river, and finally portaged across rocky terrain rich in willow-herb, bluebells and blaeberries. Beside the lake of Taserssuak they pitched their tents and ate freshly-caught salmon, cooked over a camp fire.

Next morning, Isobel was taken to see the birch trees. These turned out to be about 20 feet high - not spectacular by normal standards, but tall enough to amaze Kristian, the youngest member of the party, who had never seen a tree and clambered happily up into their branches. The whole place had an aura of utter peace and other worldliness. When the Greenlanders told her that the grove and the lake shore were haunted by strange, tall figures that were never seen but left their footprints in the sand, she had no difficulty in believing them.

birch trees by the lake

Birch trees by Taserssuak lake

A fiery sunset subsided gradually into a night filled with stars. Isobel watched, entranced, as the northern lights flickered and streamed across the sky. Her companions kept a respectful distance at first, but after a couple of evenings she joined them in singing songs around the fire. The Greenlanders loved to sing and dance, awakening an instinctive response in Isobel’s Scottish soul. They begged her to show them the sword dance and were delighted when she obliged. Two of the oarsmen tried to copy her, amid much hilarity.   

For the return journey, the umiak was decked with branches cut from low-growing rowan bushes, heavy with scarlet berries. Isobel had told her companions that, in Scotland, the rowan was the fairies’ tree, believed to guard against evil spirits, and this folklore found a deep resonance with their own. They bombarded her with questions: What was Scotland like? How far away was it? The young people wanted to go there and see for themselves. In her own quiet way, Isobel was not just exploring, she was sharing joyful experiences and forging friendships that would last a lifetime.

At the end of her first visit to Greenland, Isobel was fulfilled and happy. Her collecting cases were overflowing with plants, but just as importantly she was beginning to find herself. In particular, her expedition to the birch grove had shown what happiness could come from trusting her instinct. This was just the beginning. Ahead of her lay the vast Arctic tundra, ablaze with brilliant flowers, and human encounters that would touch her heart in deep and unexpected ways.

I’ve found the way to Fairyland,

The secret path and straight,

Red rowan berries hedge about

Its long unopened gate.

They guard its shining passage well

From witchcraft, woe and sin,

But those who love the rowan-tree

Shall find the entrance in.”

(Isobel Wylie Hutchison, Song for my Umiak Decorated with Rowan Branches from On Greenland’s Closed Shore, 1930)

Isobel Wylie Hutchison and crew

Isobel and crew in their umiak, decorated with rowan branches

Isobel returned to Greenland in 1928, and then followed her wandering star across Alaska and Arctic Canada, collecting plant specimens and seeds for the botanic gardens of Edinburgh and Kew. She became a respected author, photographer, and artist, and gave many public talks about her experiences. She was awarded the Mungo Park Medal of the Royal Scottish Geographical Society in 1934 and was for many years its Vice-President.


All black-and-white images courtesy Royal Scottish Geographical Society. Other images (Carlowrie and azalea) public domain.


All quotes from On Greenland’s Closed Shore by Isobel Wylie Hutchison, 1930