Isobel Wylie Hutchison: dancing on Greenland’s remote shore

Isobel in traditional Inuit dress. Photograph: RSGS collections

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In 1927, Isobel Wylie Hutchison became the first Scotswoman ever to set foot in Greenland. A plant collector who was also a talented artist, poet and photographer, she travelled with an open mind and a lively curiosity, not just about nature and history but about the lives of the Inuit people who became her lifelong friends.

At half past ten on a brilliant September morning, on the shore of Tasermiut fjord in south-west Greenland, a group of people were assembled around a traditional ‘umiak’ or sealskin boat. They were busy packing for an expedition. Into the bottom of the boat were placed two large packing-cases containing tents, cooking supplies, and enough food and provisions to last at least five days. On top was a pile of furs, which would bring some necessary warmth and comfort when the temperatures dropped well below freezing at night.

The boat was hauled down to the water, and into it stepped six Inuit people – five rowers and a steersman – followed by Isobel Wylie Hutchison, a 38-year-old botanist, and a young Danish girl called Olga, who would act as her interpreter. A ninth member of the party, a young Inuit named Ananeas, would paddle alongside in his own streamlined kayak, acting as a lookout and navigator.

Isobel was brimming with excitement. She had dreamed of travelling to Greenland ever since she was a young girl, roaming the countryside around her home at Carlowrie Castle in West Lothian. Now aged 38, she was finally here in this longed-for land of majestic icebergs, jewel-like flowers and near-perpetual summer daylight. While initially lodging with a Danish family, she had lost no time in befriending the Inuit people, learning some words of their language and finding out about their daily lives. On hearing that she was a plant collector, they had told her about a place called Kinguadal (Qinngua Valley) in the uppermost reaches of Tasermiut fjord. In this remote spot was a grove of birch trees, unique on their own account in such a windswept landscape, but also revered because they were said to be haunted by the strange figures of very tall men, who left their footprints in the wet sand.

Since Viking times, few people had ventured up Tasermiut fjord, and its inner reaches were only known to Inuit folk through the stories of hunters who occasionally ventured there. Lured by the temptation of rare plants, breathtaking Arctic landscapes and a whiff of mystery, it was for Kinguadal that Isobel and her party were now bound. Isobel had hired the boats and crew for the sum of five pounds, and was delighted to see how eager the Inuit people were to join her; they relished the prospect of exploration just as much as she did. Sitting atop the packing-cases, ‘throned like Cleopatra’, as she jokingly put it, she breathed in the cool, clear air and listened to the rhythmic dip of the oars.

As the umiak slid through the icy water, a panorama of jagged, snowbound peaks began to unfold around them. One of the rowers, whose name was Filippus, entertained them with a song that he made up from the names of the mountains:

‘Ivnarssuak—Angiartarfik—Itivdlerssuak
Tuvilitsiak—Kugssuak—Akorna.’

Isobel’s thoughts turned homeward for a few moments, and she sang in return:

‘The song of the bens, Ben-y-Gloe, Ben-a-Clee,
Ben Nevis, Schiehallion, Braeriach, Ben An,
Ben Ledi, Ben Lomond, Ben Ime, Cruachan!’

Several hours later, they came to a place where a fast-flowing river emptied into the fjord. Here they needed to disembark and travel for a short distance overland. The umiak was therefore beached, upturned, and portaged on the backs of the rowers, giving it the appearance, in Isobel’s opinion, of ‘some monstrous moving centipede.’ For the last stretch the boat was placed into the river and steered up through some rapids towards a glacial lake known as Taserssuak.

Dusk was falling, and it was time to make camp for the night. A fire was kindled beside the lake, and freshly-caught salmon were cooked. As the sun sank behind the mountains a golden moon rose in the east, and the northern lights began to flicker and dance in the darkening sky. Some of the crew whistled to them, believing that they were spirits or ‘Merry Men’ who would venture closer at the sound. Later, lulled by the gentle lapping of the water, Isobel curled up in her tent and fell asleep.

Next morning they were all up at sunrise, and a short walk brought them to the grove of trees at Kinguadal. This small patch of woodland, consisting of downy birch and willow, grew to a height of about 20 feet and made a curious sight in the otherwise treeless landscape. Isobel wasn’t the only visitor who was fascinated: the youngest member of her party, a lad named Kristian, had never seen trees before and couldn’t resist the temptation to climb them. Isobel was slightly disappointed to find no footprints made by the mysterious tall men she’d heard about, but Filippus, who was said to have a strong sixth sense, announced that he could detect traces of unknown visitors. Noticing some low-growing rowan bushes, Isobel explained how rowans, in Scotland, were believed to guard against all kinds of evil spirits. Some sprigs of rowan were promptly cut and brought back to the boat for protection against any misfortune.

Returning to the deep waters of Tasermiut, the explorers continued their voyage to the head of the fjord, where the sharp-toothed mountains gave way to inland ice known to the Inuit as ‘Isblink’. They pitched their tents on a beach and pulled the umiak up onto the sand, turning it over to dry. Its owner, Ferdinand, told Isobel that it was necessary to do this, because the sealskin became porous if it was left for too long in the water. With no travelling in prospect for a day, Isobel clambered around the crumbling ruins of an early Norse settlement, now overgrown with juniper but still evoking a lost time of legendary warriors and heroes.

While another delicious supper of salmon was being prepared, the whole party decided it was time for some entertainment. Ananeas, the navigator and handyman of the crew, showed off his skill at performing somersaults, and then Isobel organised everyone into a tug-of-war with one of the tent ropes, which soon had them all helpless with laughter. Later, someone suggested dancing, and begged Isobel to show them some dances from Scotland. It was impossible to resist. With Greenland’s snow-splashed mountains as a backdrop, and her Inuit friends eagerly trying to match her steps, Isobel got to her feet and danced the sword dance and the Highland Fling.

Isobel Wylie Hutchison made several more visits to Greenland, and later explored Alaska and Arctic Canada. She received the Mungo Park Medal of the Royal Scottish Geographical Society in 1934 and maintained close connections with the Society throughout her life. For more information about RSGS, visit www.rsgs.org