The Two Johns – A Personal Perspective

By Bernie Bell

I initially joined the John Rae Society, for two reasons.  The first reason being – I dislike injustice.  The injustice of John Rae’s achievements being ‘squashed’ – largely because he told the truth, irked me.  I am a Socialist – from a peasant family , not the cap-doffing kind of peasant – but the ‘burn their house down if they don’t treat us right’ kind of peasant. I’m not saying that’s  the right approach to have!  But I was brought up with a strong sense of the importance of fairness, and of standing up for yourself and what you believe to be right behaviour.  So, the injustice of Mrs. Franklin squashing John Rae’s achievements, and her side-kicks helping to promote her own husband’s achievement, at the expense of John Rae’s reputation, very much went against the grain with me.

The second reason was…the Hall of Clestrain.  It’s just such a great little building.  It’s a grand building, on a small scale. I love symmetry, and it’s all about symmetry – everything balances.  I hoped to see the deterioration of the Hall, being halted.  I don’t know if I’ll live long enough to see it fully restored, but time and patience, and the work will get done, whether I’m there to see it or not.

So, that’s why I joined, initially.  My ire about the ‘nobs’ re-writing what happened increased when I learnt that John Rae’s expedition had survived largely because they listened to and learnt from the Inuit people. They weren’t too proud to do so – and so they survived. Mr. Franklin and his team, as far as the story goes, were too proud to learn from ‘natives’, and so…they perished.  It’s tempting to go off on one about how , to me, that reflects the situation with the British Empire at the time – it was all about domination and suppression of those seen as being ‘lower’ than the ’nobs’, but that would be heading off down a slightly different road.

At this point in my understanding of the story I wrote this………

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.

Putting right the wrongs, had begun.  There has been a statue of John Rae in St. Magnus cathedral for years, but, I have to say it’s  kind-of way down at the back, and I’m not sure how many people pay much attention to it, unless they know it’s there, and are looking for it. (Editor’s note: You can also visit his grave in the Cathedral cemetery)

In recent years, there has been  a plaque placed in Westminster Abbey, honouring John Rae.  There is now a statue in Stromness, nice and prominent, right by the harbour.  A smart ‘standing stone’ was erected by the Hall of Clestrain , with a plaque on it – made by local stone-masons.

Hall of Clestrain

Handing over the keys (B Bell)

And then – a really  big step – last September, when the owners of the Hall of Clestrain sold the Hall to the John Rae Society, and there was a ceremony to mark this.  I attended the ceremony for the ‘handing over of the keys’, and folk got the chance to actually go into the hall itself.

Standing outside the hall, a very striking feature is the position – the view.  The people living there could have watched the ships coming in, and watched them going out – often probably carrying folk that they knew and that they wondered if they would see again.


Hoy and the sea-way (B Bell)

It’s stunning – just stunning, with, as always in the West Mainland – the Hoy Hills over-looking it all

The hall looks good  outside – pleasing symmetry, even down to the balance of the out –buildings which used to be at the back. Only one remains – but it’s a neat little building – just right for a visitor centre?!




Potential visitor centre? (B Bell)

Inside – though the lower room-space still has the concrete pig-pens from when it was used for keeping animals – you can imagine how the Hall was.  This lower level would have been the kitchens and other utility rooms, and the steps then take you up to the ‘living quarters’.  These steps are of interest, in themselves.  Solid stone, free-standing, just coming out from the wall, in a pleasing sweep, with the sweep of the upper stair-way, balancing it, over-head.

I know I have a strong imagination – but I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch for anyone to picture this building in the height of it’s  Georgian/Regency /Victorian grandeur.  There are paintings of it – how it might have been, one of which is I think is in the possession of the John Rae Society – these can all be displayed once the visitor centre is in place.

And, most recently , John Rae has been given the ‘Freedom of Orkney ‘ by OIC, in recognition of his achievements.

And now I move on  to the story of The Two John’s, and how my mind was sent into a different track, on Sunday 23rd July this year, when I went to an open half-day at the Hall.

As Andrew Appleby ( Chair of the JR Society) was talking with someone, I heard him say that the Franklin family and the Rae family had been firm friends, until John Rae came back with The News.  Andrew was also saying that he hopes that the Hall of Clestrain will become “a place of healing and reconciliation” about the story of the two expeditions.

This made me think, and think hard.  I had seen Mrs Franklin as the villain of the piece.  But…..her husband went off on an expedition, and didn’t come back.  His good friend and her good friend then went to look for him.  The friend then came back, not only with news that Mr. Franklin’s expedition had failed, but that there were reports of them resorting to cannibalism to try to survive. For a ‘lady’ at that time, that must have been unimaginably hard to  take on board.  I have been known to say that whether I would be prepared to eat someone if I had to , would depend a lot on whether they were someone I like or not. I can be flippant about it now, but, back then?  I‘m not excusing what she did, not at all. But Andrew’s words made me think again about the whole situation.

I’m reluctant to go into the story in too much detail, , as , to be honest, I don’t know enough about the whole story – as was evidenced by my not even knowing that the two families were friends – but I do think that this opens up a whole different aspect of the tale.  I also think that Andrew would be better writing of that, than me!

He has the knowledge.  It did make me re-think though. I now saw  Mrs. Franklin as a strong-willed woman – but mistaken.  I don’t know did she ever realise just how mistaken she was, but, if she did, it was probably too late, as the snowball will have started rolling, and they don’t stop, they just get bigger and bigger.  Maybe what The John Rae Society are doing, will help to melt the snowball.

And – imagine how it would feel for John Franklin to realise he’d led his people into  a dead-end – and a grim dead-end at that.

John Rae returned from his expedition – but, we all know what happened then.  It’s a lot harder to take bad treatment from someone you were close to, than it is to take bad treatment from someone you don’t care tuppence about.

There was a lot of hurt there, all round, and to make the Hall of Clestrain a place for healing that hurt and easing the pain produced by that situation, is a worthwhile cause. It’s not just seeing justice done for John Rae, it’s seeing people resolving their differences and getting together again.

Anger and fear and panic ( I think Mrs Franklin panicked) led a person along a path which could have been easily avoided.

She was a strong-willed woman, and felt she had to do something….

And so, I’m ending this piece on a note of hope.  I haven’t given a great deal of information about the whole story – that’s available in other places, including a book by a descendant of the Rae family.

I mainly wanted to get across the idea of adopting a whole different approach to how to look at what happened, maybe with a bit more understanding of how people are, how people can be.

I started off very much agin’ Mrs. Franklin and Co. and now, because of an over-heard  piece of conversation, I had a big re-think.  Learning lessons, always learning lessons, or  – I hope I do!

The reader may be wondering why I say ‘Mr. Franklin’ and ‘Mrs Franklin’ ? Well, I said at the beginning, I’m a Socialist – and I don’t go in for all that Lord and Lady business.  Just…people.  And what a muddled old lot we are.  Get confused, get fearful , panic a bit and do regrettable things.

I hope that the Franklins and the Raes can make peace. If all aspects of the story ( I’m purposely not using the word ‘sides’) are presented, and the whole story is able  to be told through the visitor centre for the Hall, then a better idea of the characters concerned, may be reached.

I think it’s a wonderful benediction on the house, to see it’s future as being a place of healing and reconciliation for the whole story of John Rae’s achievements – and of Mr. Franklin’s too.

Maybe, with a shift in perspective and a bit of understanding, the ‘history’ of the Franklin expedition and the Rae expedition can be brought more into balance and some greater clarity can be reached – it can become The Tale of The Two John’s

spiral in stone

Photo Bernie Bell

And, because I can’t resist spirals, just a pleasing motif carved into the base of the banister flanking the steps up to the front door of the Hall……..what goes round – comes round.

Related Stories:

The Hall of Clestrain 

Dr John Rae: Arctic Explorer

Finding Franklin

Bernie Bell is a regular contributor to The Orkney News. We welcome contributions from our readers e:mail or use our contact page.

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6 replies »

  1. Great article Bernie. Love this old building and likewise hope to see it back to its former glory.

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