Isobel Wylie Hutchison: Peak Beyond Peak

Cover of Peak Beyond Peak by Isobel Wylie Hutchison

I am quite clear in my own mind that I’d set my face in the right direction, though I don’t pretend to know why I should be destined to visit Greenland any more than Timbuctoo. Maybe I’m not, and I shall be able to visit Timbuctoo another day, for one journey leads naturally to another. One thing I am sure of, I have never regretted any journey I have ever made, and I do not imagine any other traveller ever regrets having travelled. I wish every person in the world, as part of his or her education, could have at least one year of world travel.

Isobel Wyle Hutchison was born in 1889, at Carlowrie Castle in West Lothian, back in the day when that was a private family home rather than a wedding venue—so that wing of the Hutchison family were clearly not short of a bob or two. The fact that she had a trust-fund income allowed her to dodge the conventional domestic fate of young women in those days—she built a career on independent travel. Inspired by a trip to Iceland in 1927, she spent a decade botanizing her way around the Arctic, and documenting her journeys in a succession of books: On Greenland’s Closed Shore (1930), North To The Rime-Ringed Sun (1934) and Stepping Stones From Alaska To Asia (1937)*. She also published a semi-autobiographical novel (Original Companions, 1923) and several volumes of poetry. One of her earliest poetic works, How Joy Was Found (1917) is still available in several knock-off reproduction editions—you can find a scanned version freely available on the Internet Archive.

From an early age she was an enthusiastic walker, and quite soon seems to have decided that she preferred her own company. A lot of her travel-writing involved long-distance walks that she self-deprecatingly described as “strolls”—for her “Stroll To Venice” (which she narrated in a National Geographic article in 1951) she started in Innsbruck and walked across the Dolomites, for example.

Much of her botanizing ended up in Kew Gardens; many of her manuscripts ended up stacked in a box at the Royal Scottish Geographical Society, or on file with the National Library of Scotland. They were rediscovered in 2014 by Hazel Buchan Cameron, who set about transcribing and editing them for publication in Peak Beyond Peak (2022).

Twelve essays are assembled in this collection. Although it is subtitled The Unpublished Scottish Journeys Of Isobel Wylie Hutchison, three of the pieces collected have been previously published in National Geographic. Cameron explains in her preface that in these cases she amalgamated Hutchison’s original text with the edited and revised published version, while “trying to be as true to Isobel’s writing intentions as possible.” The earliest essay is dated 1909; the latest, 1956—so we have glimpses of Hutchison across four-and-a-half decades of her life, from an enthusiastic twenty-year-old clambering over the Corrieyairack Pass, to a knowledgeable woman in her late sixties, taking a National Geographic photographer on a motor tour of Scotland’s “literary shrines”.

Having descended the Corrieyairack fairly recently, I was interested to read Hutchison’s account of the old Wade Road zigzags, “disused since 1830” and “nearly washed away by the mountain torrents”. The thing is now a Scheduled Monument, and has been restored to its former glory. And her tour of literary shrines is a positive blizzard of information about Scotland’s writers. I was particularly struck by her story of Scott’s View over the Eildon Hills.

Driving out from his beloved home of Abbotsford, Sir Walter was wont to halt his carriage on the high road at Bemersyde and feast his eyes upon the hills he loved. On the day of his funeral one of the horses drawing the hearse stopped here of its own accord, bringing the mile-long cortege to a momentary halt.

The time between these two essays spans two world wars, and Hutchison gives us glimpses of life on the islands of Scotland during those times. During the First World War she is in the Outer Hebrides, and describes how the Atlantic beaches received a constant burden of the wreckage of ships and the bodies of seamen—and the occasional drifting mine, striking the rocks and exploding with “deep thundering reverberations” over the quiet landscape. She visits Orkney and Shetland at the end of the Second World War, and recounts the story of the German bomber pilot who made a low pass over Lerwick, waving the citizens back from the harbour area before returning to drop his bombs on the ships, and of the Norwegians who arrived on the islands in small boats, having escaped German-occupied Norway. And her later “Stroll to London” (from Edinburgh!), in 1948, is along roads largely untroubled by motor traffic, because petrol is still strictly rationed.

It’s also interesting to see Hutchison experimenting with different narrative styles. Her later works are often pell-mell data dumps, because a lifetime of reading has filled her head with so much information about the places she visits. But in her early work “A Pilgrimage to Ardchattan” (1926), she plays with a narrative style evocative of traditional Gaelic storytelling.

The day was hot and very glorious, fragrant with the honeysuckle that lay in great swathes upon the hedges, and the first thing I came to was a Gaelic well called Tober Donachadh. There was an iron cup hanging from a chain with a worn inscription in the Gaelic which I could not read, but I made no doubt that it told the tale of the finding of the well, and it is this: Thirty-five years ago there was a water-famine in the country and a man of Clan Donachadh found a spring that never ran dry and he sold the water to the people, and it’s the rich man I’m thinking he would be, for the spring never ran dry in all the time of drouth, and all the time he sold its water. But I can’t help thinking it’s the greedy man he was all the same.

And then there’s her tongue-in-cheek and wonderfully evocative account of “meeting a fairy” while sitting in the “haunted peace” of a sunny evening on the Isle of Skye in 1925:

Suddenly I heard a pattering noise. Two rams came running from behind the cliff at my back chased by a barelegged little girl of four or five in a faded blue-green frock. She had a celandine in her hand and came running straight towards me holding it out without the least fear or shyness. Climbing up on the seat beside me she handed it to me.
“Is this for me?” I asked. But she only smiled and nodded without speaking. It was then that I began to suspect that I had to do with a fairy. I put several questions to her, to all of which she smiled and nodded and whispered “Ay.”
“Are you a fairy?” I asked at last.
“Ay,” with a radiant smile.

I could go on quoting Hutchison at you for some time yet, but now is probably the time to stop. Better just to leave you with that image of the unselfconscious little girl and the serenely enchanted Isobel, sharing a bench in the cool sunlight of a long-ago Hebridean evening.

* This last volume was republished as The Aleutian Islands: America’s Back Door in 1942—presumably in response to the Japanese invasion of these islands at the start of the War in the Pacific.

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