"Peak Beyond Peak: The Unpublished Scottish Journeys of Isobel Wylie Hutchison" is a superb addition to the already rich vein of available accounts of travellers in Scotland that have been written over the past few centuries. It has been compiled and transcribed by Hazel Buchan Cameron, who came across Hutchison's (largely) unpublished works while Writer in Residence at the Scottish Geographical Society. It is her we can thank for bringing into the light these beautifully written and finely observed traveller's tales: tales that would otherwise perhaps have remained unknown and unappreciated.
You get a very good sense of the book - and your first introduction to the author of these accounts of her travels - from the publisher's blurb: "Isobel Wylie Hutchison was many things: a botanist, traveller, poet and artist. She travelled solo throughout the arctic collecting plant samples, wrote and published extensive volumes of essays and poetry, and was - in short - one of the most remarkable Scottish figures of her time. However, since her death in 1982 her legacy has been forgotten compared with her male counterparts. Now Isobel can speak for herself again. While better known for her solo journeys across the Arctic, these essays detail Isobel's journeys across Scotland, including visits to Skye, John O' Groats and the various literary shrines across the country. Written with characteristic wit and a keen interest in both science and myth and folklore, the essays serve as important cultural markers not just of Scotland as it was and has developed, but of a woman's experience of travelling alone and a testament to the importance of cultural connection, exploration and communication."
In writing her tales of her travels around Scotland, Isobel Wylie Hutchison was following a in fine tradition of Scottish travel writing by women, a tradition that includes Elizabeth Isabella Spence and Dorothy Wordsworth. What perhaps sets her apart is the remarkable sense of self-sufficiency that comes over in her writing. The tales in this book are dated between 1909, when the author would have been 20, and 1956, when she would have been 67. Isobel Wylie Hutchison's capabilities are amply illustrated in her account, written in 1952 when she would have been 63-years-old, of "A Stroll to John o' Groats". It seems she simply left Edinburgh by the ferry from Granton to Burntisland with the intention of walking the 410 miles to her destination, taking in as many ferries as possible and perhaps the odd bus en route. She made it as far as Falkland on her first day, and then: "After supper... I climbed the 1471 feet of the East Lomond..." Four years earlier, as a mere 59-year-old in 1948, she had taken "A Stroll to London", covering 570 miles from Edinburgh in thirty-eight days.
But in many ways it is her slightly less extreme exertions that form the magical core of this book. Her journeys before, during and after both the First and Second World Wars took in places like the Western Isles, Skye, Ardchattan, Shetland and Orkney, and "Famous Literary Shrines of Scotland". Isobel Wylie Hutchison was a keen observer of the world around her and travelled with an empathy for those she met along the way. These admirable qualities come over in her writing and add much to the reader's enjoyment. For me, the most significant aspect of her writing is the timeframe. She travelled across and wrote about a Scotland that can be easily recognised by the modern traveller: yet which is also sufficiently far removed in time to have changed hugely since, ensuring a constant stream of surprises and discoveries. I'd highly recommend this book to anyone interested in Scotland and the way it has evolved over the last century.