Meet Isobel Wylie Hutchinson - a Scots lass who received the Danish Frihedsmedailje (Liberty Medal).
Photographs: Andrew Marshall / Unsplash
Text: Heather Storgaard
Isobel Wylie Hutchison was a Scottish writer, amateur botanist, and explorer from Carlowrie Castle, a 15-minute drive from my house in Scotland. In the 1920s, she learnt Danish and used the language solo travelling in Greenland. In the Second World War, she continued using her Danish skills for the British Government and received the Danish Liberty Medal. For these reasons, she was a must for me to mention in this International Women’s Day edition of The International!
Isobel’s travels to Greenland in the 1920s are particularly notable because female solo travel was rare at the time, and the Danish authorities had effectively sealed Greenland’s borders. You were not allowed in the then-colony without being on official Danish business. Isobel learnt Danish at home in Scotland, used it to convince the Danes to let her visit Greenland alone as a botanist, and then was left all on her own in a country with little infrastructure.
Colonial Greenland of the 1920s was a highly segregated place, with Danes and Greenlanders only mixing occasionally. As a Scot and outsider, Isobel got to know both communities while living in eastern Greenland. Despite the hundred year gap, much of her writing on living in a Danish community is still very relatable today. She discusses the many long coffee meetings and the fairly flat class structure, as well as the differences between Scottish and Danish attitudes to animals (still a much-discussed topic in my home as recently as last week!)
There was no international community, so Isobel had to use her Danish and attempts at basic Greenlandic for everything. In her book “On Greenland’s Closed Shore”, she described how she stayed connected to her native Scotland, including English-Greenlandic language exchange, tins of Haggis for special occasions and visiting the lonely grave of a Scot buried far from home. The most surprising, though, was discovering that the Greenlanders she lived with had been taught Scottish country dancing by visiting whalers. A ceilidh in 1920s Greenland must have been an unexpected but wonderful experience!
"Isobel received the King Christian 10th Liberty Medal and invitations to speak at events in Denmark following liberation."
Second World War
Isobel later travelled to Canada, Alaska and the Aleutian Isles, to name a few, but during the Second World War, she worked for the British Government thanks to her Danish language abilities. As a result, she received a King Christian 10th Danish Liberty Medal and invitations to speak at events in Denmark following liberation.
Isobel’s first travel abroad after the war was back to Denmark in 1948. She wrote a fascinating article called “2000 Miles through Europe’s Oldest Kingdom” for National Geographic, visiting Zealand, Funen, Jutland and Bornholm as well as many of Denmark’s smaller islands. The accompanying colour photos show a mix of modern scenes that wouldn’t look out of place in contemporary Denmark, such as a young woman in shorts cycling to the shops with a toddler towed behind her and others where the destruction of occupation is stark.
Isobel Wylie Hutchison isn’t particularly well known in Scotland or Denmark. I had lived near her home for years before reading an article about her travels in the North, and then a book called “Flowers in the Snow” about her life. I am glad I got to write about her here, so she can hopefully inspire foreign women in Denmark 100 years after she first started grappling with the language and exploring the Kingdom we are all still learning about today.
Thank you to Andrew Marshall, current CEO of Carlowrie Castle, for the photos and lovely talk comparing life in Norway and Denmark.