John Rae Society Open Day at Clestrain House

On Sunday the 23rd July 2017, we decided to visit Clestrain House, for the John Rae Society open day.

There is a plaque on the approach to the house. This was made by the stonemason at the St. Magnus Cathedral in Kirkwall, depicting the North West Passage.


The approach to the house is very impressive, on your right the high wall of what was the flower and vegetable garden and on your left the beautiful views of Hoy and Graemsay.


This hall was built in 1769 for Patrick Honeyman. He inherited the Graemsay Estate after his father and brother drowned crossing the Pentland Firth on a journey south. The Honeyman family then left Orkney to stay on the mainland and left the house in the charge of their agent John Rae. This is the birthplace of his son John Rae in 1813 who became a famous explorer. In 2016 the John Rae Society  purchased the building and started the renovations.

We went round to the rear of the building where we met Norman Shearer.


Norman explained that the house was occupied by the farmer until 1952 approx, when a storm blew part of the roof off, so the farmer moved into a farmhouse close by. The lower floor which would have been the kitchen area originally was then used as pig pens.

These pens will all be removed, as it has caused dampness to penetrate the walls. They will also remove the concrete floor, as they are pretty sure there is a flagstone floor underneath. They are also hoping to find a fresh water well here or possibly in the garden.

20170723_151359All the work done so far has been funded by sponsors. Approximately £45,000 raised to date and £25-£35,000 spent on props, 3 dimensional surveys, archaeology, wood surveys etc. This shows the ground work and the commitment needed to apply for the grants, that will be used to complete the project. The kitchen range will be fitted and exhibition cooking demos will be on show for the visitors.

We then went up the first set of stairs to the next floor. These steps are self supporting from the wall. These are Georgian style and very rare in Orkney. They had to remove 4 inches of bird poo which unfortunately had leeched into the steps. They will erect scaffolding steps for the workers to use on the opposite side of the room to preserve these steps.

There were 5 fireplaces on this floor, the original layout of the rooms is unsure until the plans are found. There will be a lift installed to allow wheelchair access to this floor.

The furniture will be the same as John Rae would have sat in and used while living here, and visitors will be allowed to sit and touch the furnishing, unlike a museum which are usually view only.

We then went up to the top floor using the beautiful Georgian stairs. This floor will be used as the quiet space, library etc. The Hudson Bay Company are happy to share their archives all about Northern Canada. When the renovations are finished they will gift a large meeting room table for this floor. This will not be accessible by wheelchairs as the lift is not allowed to reach this floor due to height restrictions.

We then went back down and outside to the building adjacent which will be turned into a cafe with beautiful views of Hoy.

We look forward to our next visit to see how the restoration has progressed and see this beautiful house in all its glory. Thanks to Norman and all the volunteers who made this a very pleasant open day.

Reporter: Kenny Armet

9 replies »

  1. It was a great day! So many folk enjoyed their visit. Tea and cakes were provided in Ivan and Jean Craigie’s garage. Several folk joined The John Rae Society on the spot and others took membership forms with them.

    Our Society is very active, with a huge list of commitments to fulfil. If there are volunteers out there who would like to join in, please go to to ring out more.

    You can email me, Andrew Appleby, President JRS on

    • Yes! It is amazing. It is the only home of an Arctic explorer that will be open to the public. This gives it international importance. Please visit we have a donations page there, or you can to MyDonate to help with the purchase of The Hall of Clestrain as well.

      GoFunddme also has a page to help buy the hall too.

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