Dr John Rae: Arctic Explorer

John Rae statue

John Rae statue (2013) © Copyright Jo Turner

There’s a modest unassuming statue in the centre of Stromness Orkney. It’s of a man who became a leading Arctic explorer and who also became embroiled in a Victorian scandal.

John Rae was born  at the Hall of Clestrain, Orphir, on 30th September 1813 into a large well to do family. As a boy he enjoyed the outdoor life but was also a clever lad and qualified in Medicine from Edinburgh University in 1833.

At that time Orkney was central to the workings of the Hudson Bay Company as the islands provided them with a willing and hardy workforce. Now with the title Dr Rae he signed on as a ship’s surgeon on the Company vessel ‘Prince of Wales’ and was Canada bound.

This turn of events saw Rae securing employment at Moose Factory where he spent much of his time hunting and learning travel and survival skills from the First Nation and Metis people; including how to use sleds and snow-shoes. A pair of his snow-shoes and other equipment he used can be seen in The Stromness museum. Much of it strikes us today as still modern and certainly at the time Rae used it was way ahead of anything else conventional Victorian explorers were using.


John Rae by Stephen Pearce (1819 – 1904)

Rae,however, came to the notice of Victorian society after suggesting that the doomed crew of  the Franklin Expedition had resorted to cannibalism after becoming trapped in the ice. Lady Franklin, wife of the late Sir John Franklin, aided by among others Charles Dickens launched an attack on Rae’s assertions and with the support of the Press Rae was roundly condemned for reporting that this had happened.

For his amazing explorations Rae was awarded the Founder’s Gold Medal of the Royal Geographical Society in 1852 for his discoveries of 1846–47 and 1851. He was also  awarded a £10,000 reward for news of the fate of the Franklin expedition, which he shared with his exploration party.

Some of  Rae’s achievements

  • Mapping around 1,750 miles of Arctic coast either on foot or in small boats
  • Exploring the Gulf of Boothia discovering that it was a peninsula and not an island
  • Discovering that King William Land was not a peninsula but an island
  • Discovering  what became known as the Rae Strait: the last link in a navigable Northwest Passage from the Atlantic to the Pacific Oceans, successfully used by the Norwegian Roald Amundsen in 1903-06
  • Surveying the route for a telegraph link from Britain to Canada, via Iceland and Greenland
  • Surveying the Red River to Victoria for a telegraph link from America to Russia

Dr John Rae died in London on 22nd July 1893. He was buried in the cemetery of St Magnus Cathedral Kirkwall, Orkney. Inside the cathedral a large memorial to him can been seen.


John Rae memorial, St Magnus Cathedral (photo D. Gordon E. Robertson)

The John Rae Festival will take place in Orkney from 5th to 8th of May with a coffee morning being held on Saturday 8th May 10.30 – 1.00pm at the Town Hall, Kirkwall. This is being organised by the John Rae Society.  More about the John Rae Festival will be covered in future editions of The Orkney News.

Reporter: Fiona Grahame


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10 replies »

  1. I wrote this when the commemorative stone at the Hall of Clestrain was un-veiled. Recognition of John Rae’s achievements has progressed since then.

    Thoughts prompted by the John Rae Stone – Hall of Clestrain

    John Rae
    Was disregarded
    For many years,
    Nay, decades.
    And why?
    Because he wasn’t a ‘nob’.
    He wasn’t a ‘Sir’.
    It’s the nobs who tend to write history

    “It’s the same
    The whole world over.
    It’s the poor
    What gets the blame.
    It’s the rich
    What gets the pleasure
    Ain’t it all
    A bleedin’ shame?”

    But, the tide is turning
    And John Rae is
    Finding his place.

    Bernie Bell

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