Born in the late 1880s, Isobel Wylie Hutchison overcame the constraints that the age, her class, and her own personality placed upon her, to become a solo adventurer in the far North, an accomplished plant collector and a successful poet and writer.
Carlowrie, a Scots baronial mansion near Kirkliston in West Lothian, was the comfortable upper-middle class home into which Isobel Wylie Hutchison was born in 1889. It was there her father, Thomas Hutchison, a successful wine merchant in Edinburgh, looked after his gardens, and passed on to Isobel his fascination for plants and his habit of meticulous note-taking. Carlowrie and its warm family life gave scope too for her other passion – writing – in family plays, diaries, early poetry and in the family magazine, the Scribbler, which she and her sisters continued to produce into their twenties.
Three deaths were to shatter Isobel’s youth. Her father died suddenly, shortly before her 11th birthday; and her two brothers when she was in her early twenties – one in a climbing accident in 1912, and the other during the First World War. She did not write directly of her grief, but perhaps grief gave an extra impetus to the determination with which she pursued her writing, and her walking. Always keen on long-distance walking, either alone or with her sister Hilda, she hiked first in mainland Scotland, then in 1924 across the Hebrides, and Shetland, and in 1925 achieved a solo trek across Iceland. Greenland then beckoned. Travel there required a permit, for which she obtained the backing of the Royal Horticultural Society for her study of the native plant life. She was by then a qualified naturalist – she had enrolled herself for a course at Studley Horticultural College for Women in Warwickshire in 1917. Her ensuing remarkable travels, explorations and plant collecting work are well documented in Flowers in the Snow, the 2001 biography by Gwyneth Hoyle, and there is no doubt that Isobel Wylie Hutchison made a valuable contribution to the understanding of the indigenous peoples of the northern regions she visited as well as to knowledge of the regions’ botany. And her contribution was not just to the academic world; despite her innate reserve, she gave hundreds of lectures to diverse audiences, in village halls as well as universities, and also presented her explorations in many readable articles and books.
In the citation for her Honorary degree from St Andrews in 1949, Isobel Wylie Hutchison is described as a scientist by training but a poet at heart, and certainly the distillation of the beauty of nature and her own tightly held emotions into poetry was something she hoped to achieve. Writing and publishing poetry was acceptable for a young woman of her time, so her way, for that goal at least, was clear. In 1910, in her early twenties, she started a notebook recording the fate of each poem she sent off for publication; the following year she succeeded with seven. Scottish Field and the Glasgow Herald regularly took her work. Though writing with the expected clear eye for nature, she wasn’t blind to the industrial heritage of her native county: ‘… and all the bings / Of Broxburn stand like tombs of Theban kings / Black on the crimson, crowned by fierce blue stars.’ (from ‘Winter Twilight in West Lothian’.) In 1916 she published privately a small book of her poems, Lyrics from West Lothian, the proceeds of which went to the Scottish Branch of the Red Cross – Isobel and Hilda had reported to the Red Cross in Edinburgh to do voluntary work soon after the war started. In August 1914 she commenced a journal, but by November was devoting the pages to working on poems. She was moved to write on Liège, the opening battle, but there are only a handful of poems specifically on the war, and though in some she attempts to put herself in the persona of a soldier in Europe, most accentuate the distance and the difference between the peace in the countryside at home and what was happening on the fields of war.
A verse play and four more books of poetry followed in the 1920s and 30s. The detail of description shows her to have been an instinctive naturalist, as in the first lines of ‘In Front of March’,
Here is a list of inconsidered things
Whose names recall a thousand Scottish springs.
The buxom elm-flower in her satin kilts,
The red-tailed willow-catkin that uptilts
Her fingers for the other catkin’s pollen;
The golden saxifrage all wet and fallen
With one foot in the burn.
She writes not just of plant life, but of the ways of the people of the North among whom she went to live; she puts translations of Eskimo folk songs into verse, indeed, she puts her whole heartfelt longing for the North into her poems. The University of St Andrews did well to award Isobel Wylie Hutchison an honorary degree. In the words of the citation, she contributed much to the collections of rare plants in Britain’s botanical gardens and to the literature of Arctic travel, but above all she displayed ‘that indomitable spirit which defies hazard, danger and discomfort, and is the source of all great human achievement.’