The men and women who conquered the world

Isobel Wylie Hutchison

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Have you heard of Isabella Bird or Isobel Hutchison, or how Scotland’s west coast inspired them to explore the world?

Their stories, and 50 more of explorers and scientists, are told in a new book, The Great Horizon, by the Royal Scottish Geographical Society’s  writer in residence Jo Woolf, who lives at Lunga, on the Craignish Peninsula.

Woolf has always had a passion for writing, history and the natural world, and in 2014 she began digging into the archives of the Royal Scottish Geographical Society (RSGS), on a mission to bring to light some half-forgotten figures in the field of exploration.

In her own exploration she came across some remarkable stories of endurance and survival, and started to piece them together into this book, which celebrates the society’s ongoing support of explorers and scientists.

Her work led her to being invited to become writer in residence at the RSGS  in 2016.

When the society started in 1884, there remained blank areas on the world map that curious, intrepid men and women set out to explore. Woolf’s book, a who’s who of adventure, tells remarkable stories of endurance and survival dug up from the society’s archives.

Jo Woolf, writer in residence at the Royal Scottish Geological Society
Jo Woolf, writer in residence at the Royal Scottish Geological Society

It portraits the famous and forgotten, from Shackleton, Scott, Livingstone, Mallory, Dame Freya Stark and Michael Palin, to Annie Taylor, Frederick Marshman Bailey, and Hubert Wilkins, who repeatedly cheated death from firing squads, cannibals, airplane crashes and polar storms

One reviewer writes: ‘Their fearless journeys helped us unlock many of the mysteries of the wildest parts of our world, and gave us an understanding of what it is like to be faced with the most terrible conditions and still have the determination and grit to carry on.’

The Scottish Mountaineer added: ‘We get an inkling of what drove these pioneers, how they engaged with the people they met, and what it would have been like to journey alongside them.’

We discover Borge Ousland always packed an almond cake as a treat for his solitary polar expeditions, or a photograph of Fanny Bullock Workman on the Karakoram Siachen Glacier in 1912, holding a sign for the suffragette movement.

We also learn about plant collector Isobel Wylie Hutchison and how Tiree gave her the confidence to explore the Arctic, and about Mull explorer and photographer Isabella Lucy Bird (1831-1904), the first woman fellow of the RSGS, who rebelled against Tobermory’s wet and windy climate, sailing in a leaking, infested vessel for Hawaii.

Isabella Bird
Isabella Bird

‘When a hurricane inflicted extreme nausea on most of the passengers, Isabella was unfazed,’ Woolf explains: ‘She helped to nurse one of her fellow passengers, read some Tennyson, got out her sewing and occupied her idle moments by killing cockroaches with a slipper. Life was starting to get interesting.’

Ashore, Bird gathered a small exploring party, the ladies armed with umbrellas against the warm tropical rain, and set off up the volcano of Kilauea.

Woolf writes in the book: ‘Several times Isabella fell through the cooling crust into holes of sulphurous steam, burning holes in her gloves as she raised herself out. She had found freedom and it was exhilarating.

‘Isabella’s journals glowed with the joy of discovery, discomforts only adding spice to the mix. She rode a yak over a Tibetan mountain summit in falling snow and traversed raging rivers in boats made of bamboo.

‘Isabella’s life often hung by a thread, she carried a medicine chest as well as a revolver. She strapped her camera under a travelling chair, and developed photographic plates under the dark night sky.’

Bird wrote: ‘The tripod of my camera served for a candle stand, and on it I hung my clothes and boots at night, out of the way of rats. With absolute security from vermin, all else can be cheerfully endured.’

‘Writing about her experiences gave her purpose, and her books received worldwide acclaim,’ Woolf writes: ‘Her images capture a way of life that existed before the permeating influence of the western world.’

The book also introduces William Speirs Bruce, who led the Scottish National Antarctic Expedition, which explored 4,000 miles on uncharted ocean, recorded 1,000 species, and discovered Coats Land.

William Speirs Bruce
William Speirs Bruce

After training for a year at the top of Ben Nevis, Bruce’s ex-Norwegian whaler Scotia slipped her moorings on the Clyde in 1902, the strains of Auld Lang Syne floating over the water, bound for the bottom of the world.

Stuck fast in ice in Scotia Bay in the South Orkneys, 375 miles from Antarctica, the expedition quarried rock in frozen ground to build a magnetic observatory, modeled on a Highland but and ben, and named it Omond House after Robert Trail Omond, the Ben Nevis weather station’s first superintendant.

Celebrating midwinter, they opened a barrel of porter gifted by the Guinness Brewery, only to find it had separated into ice and extremely potent alcohol. It went down in history as ‘The Night of the Porter Supper’.

Bruce established the continent’s first meteorological station, whose recordings continue to this day. Scotia sailed back into Millport, the Isle of Cumbrae, on July 21 1904, carrying Scotland’s modest and humble Antarctic hero.

In bringing together these stories of classic heroes of exploration, such as Scott and Livingtstone alongside lesser-known names, Woolf’s book sheds new light on the art of exploration as it develops into the 21st century.

The book is published by Sandstone Press and is available from all good bookshops, including Waterstone’s Oban.