Birthday Celebrations for Dr John Rae

John Rae’s Birthday Weekend


John Rae by Stephen Pearce (1819 – 1904)

John Rae’s 204th birthday is on the 30th September. The John Rae Society commemorates this event every year, but, this year,  the celebrations will cover a whole weekend, with events centred on the Hall of Clestrain.

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.

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.

Programme of Birthday Events

Friday 29th September:

  • Dr Claire Warrior, Senior Exhibitions Curator from the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, will give a lecture at 7.30pm at Stromness Town Hall on the exhibition Death in the Ice: The Shocking Story of Franklin’s Final Expedition.
  • Folk singers Alison McMorland and Geordie McIntyre will be launching their CD Hudson Bay Man  Proceeds from sales of the CD will go to the John Rae Society.
  • Books for sale and opportunities to buy John Rae Society raffle and lottery tickets.
  • The event is supported by The Cuminga Charitable Trust.

Saturday 30th September:

  • Traditional graveside commemorations for John Rae’s birthday at St Magnus Cathedral around midday
  • A performance of the John Rae Reel by dancers from the Maureen Findlay School of Dance around 12.30pm.

Saturday afternoon:

  • Hall of Clestrain open afternoon from 1 until 4pm, with refreshments, books, John Rae Society merchandise, raffle and lottery tickets.
  • Hear about plans for the Hall and see the building.

Saturday evening:

  • John Walker’s 2008 film Passage at 7.30pm at Orkney Theatre at Kirkwall Grammar School.
  • Alison McMorland and Geordie McIntyre singing songs from their CD Hudson Bay Man.
  • The John Rae Birthday Lottery will be drawn during this event.

Sunday 1st October:

  • Open afternoon at the Hall of Clestrain from 1 to 4pm, with refreshments, books, John Rae Society merchandise, raffle and lottery tickets.
  • Hear about the plans for the Hall and to see the building.

All events are free to attend, but donations towards the restoration of the Hall of Clestrain are welcome

John Rae statue

John Rae statue (2013) © Copyright Jo Turner

Related stories:

The Two Johns: A Personal Perspective

John Rae Society Open Day at Clestrain House

“Finding Franklin” at the John Rae Society Festival

Reporter: Fiona Grahame

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