BEING trapped by bad weather in a one-room hut in Alaska with a Bolshevik peasant from Estonia was just one of the many unusual situations experienced by pioneering Scot Isobel Wylie Hutchison.

Yet her extraordinary life is almost entirely forgotten about despite her work as a botanist, writer and filmmaker.

In an attempt to redress this neglect, Hutchison’s films are being featured at this year’s HippFest, Scotland’s only silent film festival.

“Women like Isobel are not so much written out of history as never written into it,” says actor, poet and songwriter Gerda Stevenson who, accompanied by her son, Rob MacNeacail, will introduce the films and perform song settings of Hutchison’s own poetry.

Stevenson also features Hutchison in her new book of poetry, Quines, which celebrates the contribution made to our history and society by some of Scotland’s remarkable women.

Hutchison’s own books are out of print, although Stevenson has a copy of North To The Rime-Ringed Sun, a record of her travels in Alaska in 1933-34. “I found it compelling,” Stevenson says. “She seemed to enjoy these extraordinary adventures which were quite risky because you could end up getting stuck in the ice. She would go into the wilds with these very rough traders but was treated with great respect and in fact they nicknamed her Admiral of the Bering.”


BORN in 1880, Hutchison lived through the advent of moving pictures. Brought up by a wealthy family at Carlowrie, just outside Edinburgh, she initially led a fairly sheltered life but developed a love of nature and walking. When she was 20 she walked the 100 miles from Blairgowrie to Fort Augustus, then 70 miles from Doune to Oban. By this time she could also speak several languages and was honing her skills as a poet and writer.

Writing sustained her after the death of one of her much-loved brothers in a climbing accident in the Cairngorms when he was just 16 and the loss of another brother during the First World War.

She was in her early 30s when she decided to travel further afield and in 1924 went on tour to Israel, Egypt, Morocco and Spain. Her female companion proved overprotective and she resolved to travel alone in future.

This tour was followed by a 150-mile trek in the Western Isles which she wrote up for the National Geographic Magazine. It was on this trip she made up her mind to explore further north and the payment from the magazine part funded a trip to Iceland where, against the advice of many, she decided to walk round the country, collecting flowers on the way.


ON her return home, she again wrote for the National Geographic Magazine and, buoyed by this, she set off for Greenland, officially collecting flowers and plants for the Royal Botanic Gardens both in London and Edinburgh.

Hutchison became fascinated by the country although horrified by the poverty endured by many Greenlanders, giving one woman her last pair of socks and commissioning a carver to make a model of a kayak in order to give him some cash – the model was later gifted to the National Museum of Scotland.

Hutchison began to document the way of life on film, even filming the locals enjoying Scottish country dancing, which had been introduced by Scottish whalers.

She learned the language and returned the following year to collect more plants, often enduring primitive conditions and extreme weather.

Having brought a reel of silent films and a projector she hosted film nights with music provided by Scottish records on the gramophone.

These evenings often ended with Hutchison performing a sword dance. She appears to have been liked and respected by the locals who nicknamed her Tuluk, their word for biscuit, as the Scottish whalers used to share theirs with the Greenlanders.

Hutchison made seven films of her travels in Greenland then moved on to Alaska.


WHAT makes Hutchison’s work unique, according to Stevenson, is the domestic detail in the films. “They are an interesting document of ways of the living, landscape and nature of that time,” she says. “Isobel was very interested in the indigenous people and was unusually liberated for a woman of her time when professional women like doctors had to give up work if they married.

“She remained resolutely single. We cannot imagine now the limits that were put on women then but she determinedly widened her horizons – literally.

“It was an extraordinary thing to be doing in those days and she got the respect of men, even in what was very much a man’s world. It’s intriguing to me that she was so respected – she must have had a lot of self-belief and some sort of authority.”

Hutchison was awarded the Mungo Park Medal, awarded by the Royal Scottish Geographical Society, as a tribute to her explorations and in recognition of her original and valuable research in Iceland, Greenland and Arctic Alaska. She wrote several travel books including North To The Rime-Ringed Sun and Stepping Stones from Alaska to Asia and four volumes of poetry.

In later life, she gave frequent lectures, using films and lantern slides as she described her travels for film-making. She also continued to write for National Geographic.


HIPPFEST director Alison Strauss says she is excited about the event, on Thursday, March 22, at Bo’ness’s Hippodrome, the oldest purpose-built cinema in Scotland.

“So far I’ve only seen Isobel’s films on the little monitor at the National Library, so I am looking forward to seeing them on the big screen,” Strauss says.

“One of the interesting things about them is that some of them have colour. And while lots of people at the time were taking their cameras on their travels and documenting what they saw, she clearly had a connection with the people and did not use the camera as a barrier between her and the things she was seeing, as many others did. They are still a little bit exoticised but you get the feeling the people liked her.

“I’m looking forward to learning more about her from Gerda and also hearing the music that she’s performing to bring the films to life.”

The film festival runs from March 21-25, including Call Of The North: Isobel Wylie Hutchison on March 22. Stevenson will perform for the first part of the evening, followed by award-winning Scotland-based Japanese composer Atzi Muramatsu with his powerful contemporary composition inspired by three Hutchison films.

To find out more go to http://www.falkirkcommunitytrust.org/venues/hippodrome/silent-cinema/ default.aspx