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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Portrait of Dr John Rae by Stephen Pearce, 1861 (courtesy Wikipedia)

After qualifying as a surgeon in 1833 Rae signed on with the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC), initially as a ships’ surgeon and then joining the Moore Factory at Hudson Bay in Canada for 10 years. During his time here Rae befriended and learned many survival skills from the Inuit, although even in these distant outposts many of his contemporaries frowned upon his close relationship with the native population. During this time Rae explored the inhospitable and uncharted high Arctic territory of northern Canada and learned to live off the land while travelling very lightly.

In 1849 Rae was given charge of the HBC Mackenzie River District at Fort Simpson and was also commissioned by the Admiralty to assist in the search for the Franklin Expedition which had disappeared in 1845 while searching for the fabled Northwest Passage between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. This expedition had been a hugely expensive affair with two Royal Navy ships led by Admiral Sir John Franklin. Rae and a small party of his men and Inuit guides undertook several extended searches for the expedition in 1846/1847 and in subsequent years thereafter, while at the same time continuing to survey the ice-bound northern coastline. As usual, Rae travelled primarily overland while portering lightweight boats to traverse open water. Despite suffering great hardship, Rae and his men survived Arctic winters with no loss of life (one Inuit guide died some years later trying to save a boat from rapids). During this time Rae also completed his geographical survey and proved the existence of the Northwest Passage.

Rae abandoned the search  for Franklin in 1854 after receiving reports from distant Inuit hunters that a party of some 40 men had been seen dragging a boat and sleds across the ice four years earlier. Other Inuit hunters subsequently reported finding graves and mutilated bodies and Rae received some artefacts of the dead men, including a medal belonging to Admiral Franklin. Rae thus concluded that the Franklin Expedition had perished in 1850 and the last survivors had resorted to cannibalism. For whatever reason, Rae chose not to make the trek to see the remains for himself, reporting that the Inuit were unwilling to lead him there even though the round trip might have taken only a month.

When Rae subsequently reported his conclusions, his confidential report to the Admiralty was ‘leaked’ and he became the subject of a vicious campaign by Franklin’s widow who whipped-up polite Victorian society into a frenzy at the assertions of cannibalism based upon unsubstantiated Inuit reports. Prominent figures such as Charles Dickens rallied to Lady Franklin’s side. Rae thus never received the recognition he justly deserved for establishing that the Northwest Passage existed – in fact, that ‘discovery’ was still being attributed to Admiral Franklin as late as 2013, after which the British Admiralty was forced to publish a correction.

In spite of the vitriolic slur campaign, the truth of Rae’s conclusion was grudgingly acknowledged in May 1859 when an expedition financed by Lady Franklin herself found a cairn containing a message from Admiral Franklin’s second-in-command reporting that Franklin and many of his a crew had died in June 1847. Skeletons of later survivors were also discovered which appeared to support the cannibalism claims.

Rae retired from the HBC in 1856 but he continued to undertake significant exploration and survey commissions in the high Arctic. He died at his London home on 22 July 1893, aged 73 years. His body was rapidly conveyed to Orkney aboard the Paddle Steamer St Magnus. He was buried on 29 July with great ceremony at St Magnus Cathdedral where his remains are marked by a modest gravestone. Inside the cathedral however is a splendid memorial to the man in the form of a recumbent carved stone figure, erected a year later.

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Memorial to Dr John Rae in St Magnus Cathedral, sponsored by public subscription

The Stromness Museum has for several years curated a major display dedicated to Rae and his achievements. In 2013 in the 200th anniversary year of Rae’s birth, the Orkney-based John Rae Society was formed. A year later on 30 September 2014, after a huge amount of behind-the-scenes canvassing, a memorial was erected in the St. John The Evangelist’s Chapel of Westminster Abbey, London, recognising Dr John Rae as an Arctic explorer, accompanied by a private service of dedication led by the Dean. In 2015 a plaque mounted on a carved stone was erected at the Hall of Clestrain.  Pictures of the event can be seen on the Society’s website and Facebook page.

On a recent visit to view the Hall of Clestrain, Tish and I were fortunate to meet the present land owner, the charming Mr Ivan Craigie, for whom the significant but ruinous building slowly crumbling on his land is at best a mixed blessing. We were escorted around the site by his delightful old sheepdog who can just be seen in the heading photograph.

My personal admiration for John Rae was stimulated by his own account of his first major expedition, “Narrative of an Expedition – to the Shores of the Arctic Sea in 1846 and 1847“. This is predominantly a direct transcription of his expedition logs that recorded the daily minutiae of his travels. The matter-of-fact way in which he describes survival in the high Arctic is inspirational and I regard it as genuine “Boys’ Own” Stuff. The narrative was (and hopefully still is) available as a free download on Kindle due to the work of a volunteer transcription group.

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