With the world’ still talking about the COP26 meeting in Glasgow, climate change is at the top of everyone’s agenda, and Scotland is not immune to its threats. From rising sea levels, to changing weather patterns, and ocean currents, the looming climate crisis is a problem we all must face.
Cooperation between Scotland and Arctic nations dates back centuries. Our northernmost archipelagos were part of the Norwegian-Danish Kingdom until the end of the 15th century. Shetlandic and Orcadian dialects are still replete with Norse words and Norn - a Germanic language bearing a strong resemblance to Faroese, Icelandic and Norwegian - was used widely in the north of our country before being slowly replaced by Scots.
Scotland has a proud tradition of Arctic explorers. In 1854, by tracing the final link of the Northwest Passage, John Rae changed the history of the North American Arctic, charting a commercial sea route that many before him had failed to uncover. A few years earlier, Aberdeenshire-born Thomas Abernethy had distinguished himself as a valiant polar explorer, earning a total of five Arctic medals.
But there is another side to that story, that of the intrepid Scots female adventurers who headed north to forge new friendships with the indigenous peoples of the region.
Breaking the ice
Isobel Wylie Hutchison (1889–1982) wasn’t your typical Victorian lady. An Arctic traveller and botanist, she also wrote poetry, books on her travels and articles in various geographic magazines and painted many scenes from her adventures.
Born near Edinburgh, she soon developed a love for long distance walking. The first steps she took around her native Scotland would eventually lead her to launch expeditions to Iceland, Greenland, Alaska, and the Aleutian Islands.
Travelling, often alone, in the 1920s and 30s, Isobel was no weekend adventurer, she was a serious explorer, often being the first white European female to meet, live with, and observe indigenous communities.
She died in 1982, aged 92.
Although Isobel is less well known than many of her male contemporaries within the fields of exploration and botany, her achievements are nonetheless extraordinary. Carlowrie Castle, Isobel's family home, has launched a program to raise awareness of Isobel, her great endeavours, and her legacy.
The ‘Mother of Scottish Skiing’
Although born in England, Myrtle Lillias Simpson (born around 1930) has been called the "mother of Scottish skiing". She was the first woman to ski across Greenland on an unsupported expedition. She was president of the Scottish Ski Club in the 1970s and has written several books.
Moving to Scotland aged 21, Myrtle, a qualified radiographer and experienced mountaineer, had already explored the high Andes of South America before she turned her sights north to the Arctic.
In 1965 she skied across Greenland with four others on an unsupported expedition, the first woman to achieve this.
In 1969, she and her husband Dr Hugh Simpson were awarded the Mungo Park Medal by the Royal Scottish Geographical Society.
In 2013 she was given the Scottish Award for Excellence in Mountain Culture.
In January 2017 she was awarded the Polar Medal in recognition of her arctic achievements. Her husband Hugh had been awarded the Polar medal 50 years previously. That year, she became one of the Saltire Society’s Outstanding Women.
Setting the scene
Glasgow-born documentary and educational filmmaker Jenny Gilbertson (1902-1990) trained as a teacher before catching the movie bug in 1929, after watching a film about Loch Lomond, while studying journalism in London.
Buying herself a 16mm camera, she began by documenting life on Shetland, where she eventually married and settled, becoming a popular local schoolteacher. She would go on to make a series of films about island life during the 1930s, documenting a centuries old way of life which was already fast disappearing.
It was only after her retiral from teaching, at a time when most people would be looking to take life easy, that she set her eyes, and camera, on the Arctic.
Returning to filmmaking in the 1970s, Gilbertson spent vast lengths of time in Arctic Canada producing some of her last works. People of Many Lands, Jenny's Arctic Diary: Part I and II, and Walrus Hunt were some of her later films that were sold to British and Canadian broadcasters, including the Canadian Museum of History.
All the films Jenny made during her career focused on embracing nature, farming life, fishing, and anything that captured the environment she was in.
Shetland native Shona Main is following in ‘Arctic Jenny’s’ footsteps. In 2018, the journalist turned filmmaker returned to Grise Fiord to revisit some of those documented by Gilbertson.
Situated some 700 miles north of the Arctic Circle, the Greenland community still survives largely on seal hunting and fishing.
Shona, who grew up in Shetland and now splits her time between the islands and Dundee, describes Gilbertson as a “phenomenal” woman and filmmaker who worked outside the system, funding, producing, and distributing her own projects.
Shona says: “I filmed their life 40 years on. Things have changed quite dramatically there over time, so I was walking into a different Grise Fiord that Jenny walked into.”
While the people of Grise Fiord have experienced fundamental political and environmental changes since Gilbertson visited the Arctic, Shona says some things remained the same.
She says: “A supply ship comes once a year in September before winter really sets in, but large amounts of seal and whale are still eaten, which I, of course, fully embraced.
“They have one month of summer and by mid-November, the days pass in total darkness.”
Shona also examined the impact of climate change on the Grise Fiord community, with health, food security, livelihoods and culture of the Inuit considered to be at serious risk from global warming.
Sadly, a planned return visit, to screen her film to her new friends, has been delayed by the global Covid crisis.
Arctic links continue
Today, through the Scottish Government’s Arctic policy framework, launched in 2019, the bonds between our country and the Arctic nations, regions, and peoples remain strong.