Dr John Rae is one of Orkney’s most famous sons. An Arctic explorer, this remarkable man discovered the last navigable link in the Northwest Passage and the fate of the doomed Franklin expedition; one of the great mysteries of the Victorian age.
John Rae was born at the Hall of Clestrain in the parish of Orphir in Orkney in 1813. His Orcadian childhood spent fishing and hunting prepared him for a life of adventure and endurance. He graduated from medical school in Edinburgh and sailed from Stromness to join the Hudson’s Bay Company as a doctor.
His Orcadian character helped him quickly adapt to life in the harsh Arctic conditions in Canada, learning his survival skills from native people. He went on to lead four successful expeditions charting the coast and found what would be named Rae’s Strait, the last link in the Northwest Passage, in 1854. He also discovered what had happened to the 1845 lost Franklin Expedition which had attempted to find the passage. Inuit hunters told Rae that all members of the expedition were dead. Rae returned to London with the sensational evidence that the doomed naval men had been driven to cannibalism in a bid to survive. This courageous Orkney man stood by his report and evidence, despite his being damned by a shocked society. A fierce campaign was mounted against him by Lady Franklin, Sir John Franklin’s widow, which was joined by Charles Dickens. Rae was deprived of a knighthood, unlike Franklin.
The Orkney doctor was, however, made a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1880. He died in 1893, aged 80, in London and his body was taken home to Orkney. He is buried in St Magnus Cathedral kirkyard in Kirkwall. Inside the cathedral you can see his magnificent stone memorial. His effigy wears Arctic clothes, his gun by his side. Calls for official recognition for the extraordinary achievements of this unsung Orkney hero have been made by survival expert Ray Mears and comedian Billy Connolly, who have both visited Orkney.
Dr John Rae, his life and legacy were the subject of a major international conference in Orkney in 2013, the bicentenary of his birth. A statue of the Arctic explorer by local sculptor Ian Scott was unveilved at the Stromness Pierhead during the event.
The John Rae Society has been launched locally to help raise awareness of the man and his achievements. You can also find out more about Dr John Rae at Stromness Museum.