On the morning of 25th January, 1929, Isobel Wylie Hutchison was standing, transfixed, outside her house at Umanak on the west coast of Greenland.   Two months previously, the little community had enjoyed its last lingering glimpse of the sun before the onset of Arctic winter.  Now the light was beginning to return, and although she’d been told that the sun’s rays wouldn’t reach the windows of the houses until 5th February, a blaze of brilliant scarlet light was already catching the top of the mountain that rose above the bay.

Umanak Mountain   

It was a sight that could only be greeted with joy, and Isobel would normally have reached instinctively for her watercolours and sketch pad.  However, she had spent much of the previous night in attempting to capture the magical gleam of the full moon over the water;   and besides, she had a busy day ahead of her.  She was preparing for a special evening of celebration, in which she would be upholding a tradition that was very dear to her Scottish soul.  She wrote: 

“It is Burns Night!  Can one be the only Scot in Greenland and forget to celebrate such a festival?  One cannot!” 

Isobel Wylie Hutchinson 

No one in Umanak had even heard of the national bard, apart from one Danish man who was under the illusion that Burns had been a famous mariner.  This didn’t discourage Isobel at all.  In her voluminous luggage, which consisted largely of botanical presses and collecting-cases, she had secreted a few things that might come in useful for occasions such as this.  A sprig of white heather, picked in the Highlands, adorned her table, and on the sideboard she placed a portrait of Burns that she’d taken from the cover of her journal.  She had copied this portrait by hand onto 12 invitations that had been sent out two weeks previously.   

Robert Burns Portrait

Now, all she had to do was prepare the food.  Admittedly the haggis had been consumed at Christmas, and Isobel had no whisky with which to toast it, but she didn’t waste any time in regret.  She reckoned that coffee would do just as well, because the Greenlanders loved to drink it.  She helped her housekeeper, Dorthe, to bake scones, syrup cakes and biscuits, and that evening she welcomed her guests warmly as they arrived out of the ice-cold night. 

No Burns supper would have been complete without at least one reading of the bard’s work.  Isobel was delighted to discover that the one man who had heard of Burns was also in possession of a book of his poems, translated into Danish.  This proud guest was happy to read ‘John Anderson, my Jo’, which Isobel then recited in Scots. 

John Anderson, Min Fryd, John 

Da först vi to blev kjendt, 

Dit Haar var mörkt som Ravnen, 

Din Pande brun og brændt; 

Nu er din Isse bar John 

Og bleget Lokkens Pryd, 

Velsign dog Gud din Tinding Graa 

John Anderson min Fryd.” 

John Anderson my jo, John, 

When we were first acquent, 

Your locks were like the raven, 

Your bonie brow was brent; 

But now your brow is beld, John, 

Your locks are like the snaw, 

but blessings on your frosty pow, 

John Anderson, my jo!” 

From an encyclopaedia, the local pastor read aloud an account of Burns’ life, so that, as Isobel put it, “my guests are now aware that he did not plough the sea, but the land and his own mind.”  Laughter, warmth, good food, friendship… her party was a tremendous success.  She felt that Burns might have listened to it with his tongue in his cheek, but she was delighted all the same.   

Isobel remained in Greenland until August of that year, during which time she explored remote fjords by sledge and on foot, collected hundreds of plant specimens, and made lifelong friends.   


-  Isobel wrote that Burns’ poems had been translated into Danish by Jeppe Aakjær, “of whom perhaps only one or two persons in Scotland have heard!” 

-  Umanak (as it occurs in Isobel’s book) is now Ummannaq 

Quotes from:  Isobel Wylie Hutchison, ’On Greenland’s Closed Shore’ (1930) 

Images of Isobel from RSGS Collections;  portrait of Burns by Alexander Nasmyth;  other images public domain.