DCSIMG

Action woman

From Elizabeth Balneaves’s kitchen window you can see a bird-table all a-flurry with shrill visitors.

It’s a far cry from the weekday afternoon lassitude of Cullen, the quiet Banffshire resort where Balneaves now lives; not quite so distant in memory, however, as this disconcertingly vigorous 90-year-old is busy writing her memoirs on the computer her sons gave her for her birthday last September. Balneaves’s main document sorting area is the kitchen table. It is littered with diaries, scrapbooks and photographs - depicting her stooped over a camp fire in the Hindu Kush, or wading in an African river hanging on to what she calls "the nonoperative end" of a sizeable python.

She is surveying her eventful life just as a biography has appeared of another Scots traveller, author and film-maker Isobel Wylie Hutchison. Balneaves herself was friendly with a third adventurer and chronicler, the Shetland-based Jenny Gilbertson, who, like Hutchison, filmed the indigenous peoples of the Arctic circle. All three ventured, often alone, into what was very much men’s territory.

Artist, author, film-maker, Balneaves has led what most of us, save perhaps the terminally adventurous, might describe as a full life. The daughter of an Aberdeen headmaster, she graduated from the city’s Gray’s School of Art in 1934, already engaged to psychologist Dr James Johnston: "We met at Wormwood Scrubs. He was on the staff and my uncle was a visiting doctor there."

At the end of the 1940s, they were living in Edinburgh and she was combining painting with looking after their four children until, as she puts it with a disarming insouciance, she "took off" for Pakistan, and not with her husband. "It’s … um … I’m writing my memoirs just now and it’s rather difficult, but I met this chap and went off with him and by the time I’d decided it wasn’t on, it was too late."

If the emotional attraction proved misguided, the relationship with Pakistan would be a lasting one, and formative - in order to live, she nursed, became temporary head of arts and crafts at the University of the Punjab in Lahore, wrote for Punjab Gazette and helped found and edit the Pakistan Review.

Returning to London, she launched into freelance journalism and promptly landed a commission for a book on Pakistan which sent her back there, taking her own photographs after the arranged snapper fell through. The result, The Waterless Moon, sported a foreword by Sir William Barton, former political agent in Swat and Chitral, describing it as "an extraordinary book, written by an extraordinary young woman of courage and grit … and with all this that rare gift of close observation and the faculty of describing what she sees in vivid language."

Plaudits apart, the book hardly made her fortune and, by this time in her late forties, she started taking photographs for companies involved in hydro-electric power and other schemes in Pakistan. One such job involved clambering up the outside ladder of a water tower. "I managed to get to the top and the German engineer I was with said , ‘Ach, you vomen of today!’ If he’d only known that the woman of today was shaking like a jelly. But I got the photograph."

Another book, Peacocks and Pipeless, resulted. Around that time, largely at the behest of their children, she re-married the long-suffering Johnston who was posted to Carstairs State Hospital. "I had a marvellous time. I taught eight murderers to paint," she says with some glee.

When one of her sons, Stewart, got a job in tobacco farming in what was then Northern Rhodesia, she seized the opportunity and ended up documenting the rescue of animals as, during the late 1950s, the Kariba dam project was flooding a vast area, displacing both people and animals. Her Elephant Valley was about game and tsetse supervisor Joe MacGregor Brooks, who was carrying out a private animal rescue operation of his own.

She returned with her first film camera and also a commission from Edinburgh Zoo, for whom she’d been working as a PR, to bring back some animals. She made a short film for schools television on the capture of an aardvaark: "I edited it in the attic, wrote the commentary and read it. They wanted ten minutes and I think it was just a minute out," she recalls.

Further films followed, articles in The Scotsman and National Geographic, among other journals; there was a return to Pakistan and the Hindu Kush, and another book, Mountains of the Murgha Zerin.

Many of her forays were made virtually alone, or in very much men-only environments. Did she ever feel at risk? "No. I feel more at risk here when someone bashes on my door at half-past 12 at night. The only time I did feel at risk was in Calcutta, where I was burgled one night."

She and her husband moved to Shetland, which prompted another book, The Windswept Isles, and where, through their respective daughters, she got to know the Glasgow-born documentary film-maker Jenny Gilbertson.

Gilbertson had become hooked after seeing amateur holiday film of Loch Lomond and, self-taught, had gone on to make a string of film documentaries about Shetland life at a time when, thanks to the likes of Michael Powell and Robert Flaherty, films about remote communities were becoming popular. Gilbertson emerged from the Scottish hotbed of documentary film making, encouraged by the crusty pioneer John Grierson, who described her first effort, A Crofter’s Life in Shetland, in 1931 as "an extraordinary job of work.

Among Gilbertson’s other films were The Rugged Island, made in 1934 about the life of a Shetland crofter - whom she ultimately married - and a film about Shetland ponies which took her four years to make.

Gilbertson, recalls Janet McBain, curator of the Scottish Film Archive in Glasgow, may have been small in stature, "but she was ten feet tall in action and energy". Gilbertson died in 1990 and the archive now holds much of her material, while seats in both the Glasgow Film Theatre and Edinburgh Filmhouse are dedicate in her name by Shetland Islands Council.

"We had a lot of fun together," Balneaves recalls of Gilbertson. The pair travelled together to Papa Stour, filming the island’s famous sword dance, though the film itself seems to have vanished without trace.

Still feeling that outward urge in her 70s, Gilbertson headed for the Canadian Arctic to film the changing life of the Inuit, among other things documenting the 300-mile journey made by one dog team. Balneaves was supposed to join her on one such Canadian expedition, but caught pneumonia beforehand so Gilbertson, as she did so often, went alone.

Balneaves, for her part, made her last working trip in 1982, after her one-time book subject, Brooks MacGregor, asked for help in publicising elephant poaching in Zambia. "I did 15 miles through the bush, twice, with a game guard - got some super photos of buffalo." She was 71.

Jenny Gilbertson would almost certainly have known, or at least known of, the third and perhaps most remarkable in our triumvirate of doughty Scots women travellers, authors and (all self-taught) film-makers, Isobel Wylie Hutchison.

Brought up at Cardownie, a Scotsbaronial mansion outside Kirkliston, West Lothian, Hutchison grew from a reserved and private girl into a remarkable yet still little-known traveller, botanist, poet, author and film-maker, who between 1927 and 1936 made four major journeys to Greenland, the northern coasts of Alaska and Arctic Canada, at a time when it was rare for women to go any further north than the goldfields of Alaska and Yukon. She brought back botanical specimens, film footage and the makings of several books, including On Greenland’s Closed Shore, North to the Rime-Ringed Sun and Arctic Nights’ Entertainments. Her film footage, held by the Scottish Screen Archive, shows Greenlanders stepping out enthusiastically in Scottish dances taught to them by visiting whalers a century before.

Hutchison, who died in 1982, was an enigmatic combination of the wilfully determined and the near-mystical, seeing the hand of God in the sublime and awesome Arctic environment, and who did much of her travelling alone, or in the rough and ready, all-male company of sailors, trappers and hunters. As Gwyneth Hoyle of Trent University, Ontario, puts it in her newly published biography of Hutchison, Flowers in the Snow (University of Nebraska Press), "Leading a sheltered life in a Victorian home until she was nearly 30, Isobel expanded and blossomed in personality with each new adventure … She was like a flower whose bud remains tightly closed until the right circumstances cause it to open."

She was, as another commentator puts it, "gloriously out of step with the conventions of her time".

Was there something in the air, or the water, that should produce the likes of Hutchison and two other redoubtable Scots women traveller-film-makers within a couple of decades? David Munro, current director of the Royal Scottish Geographical Society, whose journal Hutchison edited for ten years, points out that within the Scottish tradition of producing notable explorers, several of them were women, such as Hutchison, or Ella Christie from Dollar, who travelled on foot from Istanbul into Central Asia and made a similar journey from Moscow.

"We seem to have a remarkably high proportion of women with boundless energy and insatiable curiosity, and that’s a very Scottish trait," says Munro. "In Hutchison’s writings she is always pulled on by what’s beyond the horizon. And she is undaunted by the discomforts, another Scottish trait. And you have these traits balanced against the fact that it was very unfashionable for women to be doing this sort of thing."

The Scottish education system, he reckons, was crucial, "but there was also the social system, with all sots of push-pull factors operating, from the Highland clearances to the claustrophobia of Edinburgh society."

Hutchison assiduously noted domestic details among the Icelanders, Greenlanders and Inuits she visited, what they cooked and how - not the kind of thing you’d find, as Hoyle remarks in her biography, "in the heroic narratives of male Greenland explorers".

Munro agrees that women travellers observe differently from their male counterparts: "With Hutchison you get to meet the people and you encounter the landscape, she notices everything, whereas with many another early travel writer it’s all about them … I can think of writers who don’t even tell you the names of the guys who are carrying the baggage for them."

According to Hoyle, Hutchison would never have called herself a feminist - "merely an independent person who may have observed the bonds of conventional society at home but was prepared to be as unconventional as necessary in her travels". Unconventional all three women’s lives may have been, but they were also long. Elizabeth Balneaves is still rattling away at her computer, a spry 90; Gilbertson was re-editing some of her films within two years of her death at the age of 88; Hutchison was 92 when she died, outliving all her family and most of her friends. Whatever the rigours of going it alone as a woman traveller, it doesn’t seem to require a government health warning.

 
 
 

Back to the top of the page