Isobel Wylie Hutchison (1889-1982)

Isobel Wylie Hutchison was a Scottish botanist, filmmaker, author, poet, and Arctic explorer.  Between 1927 and 1936, she travelled the Arctic by any means available, including rowboats, snowshoes, and dog sledges.  She had a long association with the RSGS, both as an Honorary Editor of the magazine and as a Fellow and Vice-President.  She was awarded the RSGS’s Honorary Fellowship in 1932, and the Mungo Park Medal in 1934, in recognition of her researches in the Arctic.


Isobel Wylie Hutchison, a Real Illuminator   by Shona Main

A film by the explorer, botanist, writer and RSGS honorary fellow Isobel Wylie Hutchison will be screened as part of the Real Illuminator: Scotland’s Pioneers of Documentary Filmmaking event at this year’s Inverness Film Festival (at Eden Court at 2pm on Sunday 13th November).

Hutchison is one of eight women filmmakers: women who, although largely unknown and uncelebrated, were at the very fore of documentary filmmaking in the early 20th century. With the exception of Marion and Ruby Grierson (two of only three women members of London’s documentary movement) they worked alone, or as Hugh MacDiarmid said of Margaret Tait, “ploughing a lonely furrow”, without funding, technical support or distribution networks. However, all had the vision and perseverance to use film to creatively document the people, places and issues of their age.

The films that will be screened are:

  • Peat from Hillside to Home (1932) by Jenny Gilbertson (1902-1990), following the practice of peat cutting in Shetland.
  • Flowers and Coffee Party at Umanak (1935) by Isobel Wylie Hutchison (1889-1982), a study of alpine flowers alongside a social gathering of the island community in Greenland.
  • Beside the Seaside (1935) by Marion Grierson (1907-1998), a paean to the great British day out, and one of the first (and most inventive) uses of sound in documentary.
  • Challenge to Fascism / May Day 1938 (1938) by Helen Biggar (1909-1953), a document of the culture of solidarity and resistance in Glasgow during the Spanish Civil War.
  • Ceylon Calling (1939) by Nettie McGavin (unknown), a travelogue taken while on a business trip with her tea-importing husband Nathan McGavin.
  • They Also Serve (1940) by Ruby Grierson (1904-1940), filmed to honour the war effort of Britain’s housewives.
  • A Portrait of Ga (1952) by Margaret Tait (1918-1999), a poetic portrait of the Orcadian filmmaker’s mother.
  • The Aardvark or Ant Bear (1961) by Elizabeth Balneaves (1911-2006), where we bear witness to the capture of an aardvark in the Rhodesian wild.

In her Explorers of the RSGS blog, Jo Woolf notes that Hutchison was not a trained botanist, but developed an interest in collecting Alpine flora as a means to enter Greenland. But that interest became a genuine and productive passion. Hutchison arrived on the island of Umanak in the Danish colony of Greenland in September of 1928. Only knowing the warm greeting Ajungalik, she was helped by the Danish pastor Otto Rosing to settle in and become acquainted with the Danish and native community.

Gwyneth Hoyle, who wrote Hutchison’s biography Flowers in the Snow (Bison 2005), tells how Hutchison, having brought with her a projector and reels of silent movies, featuring documentaries of Alaskans and Arabs and an American comedy, hosted film nights in the schoolhouse with “sounds provided by Scottish records on the gramophone, and to finish the evening Isobel performed her sword dance.” She was liked by the natives, something you can see through her camera: they called her Tuluk, the word for biscuit, something Scottish whalers would share with Greenlanders when passing.

Flowers and Coffee at Umanak (7 mins) was filmed on 16mm film in 1928 but the footage was not edited until 1935. It begins with a close examination of the various alpine flowers (for example Cerastium Alpinum, Eriophorum, Pedicularis, Dryas, Cassiope Tetragona) and a shot of “Other growing products of Greenland”: two smiling children. Then, as if to show the recording and collection work was done, it moves to the Governor of Greenland’s outdoor kaffeenik or coffee party, where a mix of natives and Danes enjoy coffee, a large basket of what looks like bannocks and, for the men, cigars. The sun then sets and we see boys and girls dancing (these dances were taught to them by Scottish whalers).

Hutchison, an RSGS honorary fellow since 1932, made seven films documenting her travels to Greenland (1927-29), Alaska (1933-34) and Aleutian Islands (1936), and one in Italy (1950). NLSMIA hold these in their archive and they can be viewed onsite at their new premises at Kelvinhall in Glasgow. She wrote six books of poetry and seven non-fiction books including On Greenland’s Closed Shore: The Fairyland of the Arctic. (Blackwood, 1930) and North to the Rime-Ringed Sun: Being a Record of an Alaska-Canadian Journey Made in 1933-34 (Blackie, 1934). Real Illuminators casts a brief light on this extraordinary woman’s films but a serious study of all her work is long overdue.

Shona Main is a SGSAH practice-led PhD student at Stirling University who is exploring the nature and ethics of the relationship between documentarist and subject through the films of Jenny Gilbertson who filmed Shetland crofters in the 1930s and the Inuit of Nunavut Canada in the 70s, when she was in her 70s. Her research will take her to the Arctic in 2018. After the screening she will be in conversation with Dr Sarah Neely of Stirling University who has written widely about Margaret Tait and early Scottish women filmmakers. They will explore the different interests and approaches of these women filmmakers and their remarkable, if yet to be fully acknowledged, contribution to film. This programme has been kindly supported by DCA, BECTU and Democratic Left Scotland.


 

Isobel Wylie Hutchison images in the RSGS Collections

Greenland

Isobel Wylie Hutchison and the crew of her umiak at lunch, Tasermiut Fjord, Greenland, 1927.

Isobel Wylie Hutchison and the crew of her umiak at lunch, Tasermiut Fjord, Greenland, 1927.

Our image of Greenland has been seriously distorted by the phrase “From Greenland’s icy mountains”, which comes from the opening line of a hymn by Reginald Heber, Bishop of Calcutta in the early 19th century. In fact, although Greenland does indeed have many icy mountains, it also has much greenery, which the outlaw Erik the Red preferred to emphasise when he named the world’s largest island in 982, to encourage future visitors.  It can also be a very warm place, which partly accounts for the popularity of picnics among Greenlanders.  Hutchison occasionally found insects to be a problem in hot weather, but there seems to have been nothing of that sort to spoil the occasion illustrated here.

Umiak and crew on the shores of Taserssuak Lake, Greenland.

Umiak and crew on the shores of Taserssuak Lake, Greenland.

The Greenland umiak is a fairly large boat constructed on a light wooden framework covered with sealskin.  It can hold up to about twenty people, and the women-folk often had the duty of propelling it by the use of wooden paddles.  As Greenland is almost treeless, wood is a very valuable material, and so, in the event of breakages, these implements would be repaired carefully with leather-bound splicing, rather than being replaced.  In spite of this scarcity, the Greenlanders used branches from rowan bushes to decorate this particular boat, and to carry the Danish flag in the stern.  In former times, the umiak was often the nomadic Greenlander’s only means of travelling from place to place.

Inuit Greenlander in traditional costume.

Inuit Greenlander in traditional costume.

This Inuit woman, photographed by Hutchison in the 1920s, is dressed in her colourful traditional national costume.  The most characteristic part of this outfit is perhaps the kamiker, or heel-less sealskin top-boots, which reach up to the knee in the case of men, but well above that in the case of women, as illustrated here.  The outer surface of the women’s boots is dyed white, scarlet, or blue, and decorated with abstract geometrical patterns of brightly-coloured leather strips.  There is a removable inner lining which keeps the feet and legs warm.  Hutchison found that such footwear was essential, not only for negotiating the slippery rocks and shingle, but for protection against insect bites.

Lofoten Islands

Norse boat at Östvågöy, Lofoten Islands.

Norse boat at Östvågöy, Lofoten Islands.

Among her extensive travels at home and abroad in the 1920s, Hutchison visited the mountainous Lofoten Islands, within the Arctic Circle off the north-western coast of Norway, from whose inner island-group of Vesterålen they are separated by a narrow stretch of water called the Raftsund.  On her first morning at Svolvær, Hutchison discovered the local bathing beach, where a party from one of these picturesque high-prowed Norse boats was besporting in the water.  She found, however, that beaches suitable for bathing were commoner on the smaller and more remote islands, and that a plunge in the pellucid green water was one of the greatest delights of this archipelago.

Boatmen at Trollfjord, Östvågöy, Lofoten Islands.

Boatmen at Trollfjord, Östvågöy, Lofoten Islands.

On the largest island of Östvågöy, the Trollfjord, with its vertical rock walls, is arguably the wildest fjord in the whole of Norway: little wonder it was named as the home of such supernatural creatures as the trolls.  Hutchison visited this remote area in the motor-boat in this photograph on a three-hour voyage from Digermulen at the southernmost tip of the Vesterålen island of Hinnöy.

Peat-gatherer on Östvågöy, Lofoten Islands.

Peat-gatherer on Östvågöy, Lofoten Islands.

Hutchison found the local people rather reluctant to allow her to photograph them, until she discovered that they had been expecting to pay for the privilege.  However, this shy young Östvågöy peat-gatherer remained embarrassed by the whole procedure, and turned his head away at the crucial moment.  He was also astonished when asked if he spoke English, replying indignantly that he spoke Norwegian!

Canada and Alaska

Isobel Wylie Hutchison with trapped fox in Arctic Canada.

Isobel Wylie Hutchison with trapped fox in Arctic Canada.

For the start of her 1933-34 Canadian-Alaskan Arctic journey, Hutchison travelled by sea from Manchester to Vancouver via the Panama Canal.  A further sea voyage took her up the west coast of Canada to Skagway, the gateway to Alaska and the Yukon.  The next leg of her journey was by train inland to Whitehouse, where she transferred to river-boat, by which means she eventually reached Nanana, the river-port for Fairbanks.  From there she went by plane to Nome, and thence round the north coast to Aklavik.  Another plane took her south again to McMurray, from where she travelled south by rail to Edmonton.  Here we see her with a fox-skin acquired during the trip.

Plane at Fort Resolution, Mackenzie River, Canada.

Plane at Fort Resolution, Mackenzie River, Canada.

Hutchison made use of air transport on two legs of the journey: firstly, from Fairbanks westwards to Nome by Pacific-Alaska Airways; and secondly, from Aklavik southwards to McMurray by Canadian Airways.  She had previously only once travelled by plane, and that was merely on a brief 15-minute flight, compared with these lengthy journeys of several days each.  Neither plane had a conventional undercarriage: the first was a pontoon plane with floats for landing on water, while the second had skis for landing on snow or ice.  Here we see the second plane at Fort Resolution on the Mackenzie River.

Inupiat man outside his house, Point Hope, Bering Strait, Alaska.

Inupiat man outside his house, Point Hope, Bering Strait, Alaska.

Between the two plane journeys, Hutchison sailed round the Alaskan coast from Nome to Barrow, a sea-voyage of 500 miles, in the ten-ton motor-vessel MS Trader.  A stop was made at the archaeologically interesting Inupiat village on the long flat headland at Point Hope (Tikigaq), at the northern extremity of the Bering Strait, about 200 miles north of Cape Prince of Wales.  The origins of this settlement are ancient, but its graveyard, with a spectacular whalebone fence, was modern.  The local Anglican mission was making an effort to collect the previously scattered human remains from the surrounding tundra for ‘decent’ burial here.  This photograph shows the doorway of a sod house, with whale-ribs.

Gus Masik with dog-team at his home on Sandspit Island, Martin Point, Alaska.

Gus Masik with dog-team at his home on Sandspit Island, Martin Point, Alaska.

From Barrow, Hutchison continued her journey towards Herschel Island (a further 400 miles distant) in Gus Masik’s similar-sized motor-boat, the Hazel.  Gus was an Estonian, whose mother and grandmother had both been born in Alloa, and who lived in the trading-post which he himself had constructed of wood, turf, and canvas, on Sandspit Island off Martin Point, Alaska.  Hutchison lived here as his guest for six weeks, and wrote about his life in her book Arctic nights’ entertainment / being the narrative of an Alaskan-Estonian digger August Masik, as told to Isobel Wylie Hutchison during the Arctic night of 1933-34 near Martin Point, Alaska, published by Blackie & Son in 1936.

 

For more information about Isobel Wylie Hutchison, please see Gwyneth Hoyle’s biography, Flowers in the Snow: The Life of Isobel Wylie Hutchison.