Dr John Rae, Arctic explorer & navigator

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The Hall of Clestrain

Orkney has many famous sons and it would be invidious to declare one of them THE most famous. This post is about my personal favourite, Dr John Rae, Arctic explorer and navigator. John Rae was born at the Hall of Clestrain near Orphir on 30 September 1813, fourth son of John Rae senior. Between the time of his death in 1893 and his 200th anniversary in 2013, Rae was little regarded outside of Orkney due to a Victorian smear campaign which persisted, quite extraordinarily, until the 21st Century.

John Rae’s father was factor (land agent) to Sir William Honeyman, judge, baronet and wealthy landowner in Orkney and elsewhere. Sir William is described as the proprietor of the Hall of Clestrain, which was a fine house in its day and the Rae family enjoyed considerable privilege at a time when most Orcadian folk lived on the edge of poverty. Sir William was notorious for being one of the first landowners to evict tenant crofters in order to graze sheep in what became known as the Highland Clearances. Meanwhile the young John Rae enjoyed all manner of healthy outdoor pursuits which served him well in his future life. There are interesting parallels to the privileged life of Charles Darwin (1809-1892).

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Show season – winter cometh!

The Orkney agricultural show season has come and gone in a week! Several Orcadians kid us that this signifies the end of summer, when the tourists leave, the nights draw in, the weather turns to cold raging gales, and they shut their doors. This is a little harsh (even though a gale was raging outside as I started to write this) because there are several festivals still to come in the next few months including the Orkney Science Festival which has justifiably earned an international reputation, together with the Rock and Jazz festivals all in September. Others have commented that Orkney community activities only really get going in the winter months when the farming is less intense and the locals have the place to themselves.

Meanwhile, the last week has seen a fast-moving circuit of agricultural shows held in East Mainland, Shapinsay, Sanday, St Margaret’s Hope and Dounby, culminating in the grand Orkney County Show held in Kirkwall today (Saturday 13 August 2016). Entirely by chance, Tish and I visited the nearby isle of Shapinsay on the day of their show last Tuesday. It was bright and breezy after the last set of gales blew through the day before. On the small ferry we found we were the only non-commercial vehicle but we chuckled that we were not pressed up against the huge tractor with the massive bale prongs and intimidating raker attachment (only to find it was our close companion on the return crossing). This is one of the inter-island ferries that require you to reverse on, care being needed not to end up in the harbour as reported in my It’s Gone Technical post).

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Batten down the hatches…

Strong winds gusting to at least 60 mph are forecast across the Northern Isles tomorrow (Sunday 7 August 2016) and Monday. The effects of this impending breeze are already evident: the Ness of Brodgar archaeological site, where we work in the shop at weekends, is closed tomorrow and heavy rain on Monday morning will probably ensure no digging gets done then. The gargantuan Caribbean Princess cruise ship (3,599 pax) has cancelled its visit tomorrow and run for shelter. Intriguingly, the cancellation of this cruise ship has released a full day’s-worth of places on pre-booked tours of the magnificent Maeshowe chambered tomb. Visitors to the Ness today have been quizzing us about the impact of the weather forecast on their own plans which are in some disarray, but at least we have been able to offer them short-notice tours of Maeshowe. We might have asked for commission but Historic Environment Scotland are already generously giving us a staff discount on shop purchases so we can’t complain!

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