Celebrating Dr John Rae’s Birthday

By Bernie Bell

Hall of ClestrainOver the weekend of 29th, 30th September and 1st October, The John Rae Society held some birthday celebrations for the man himself.

I’m getting over a cold, so we didn’t go to most of the events. We planned to just go to the Hall of Clestrain Open Day , on the Saturday. This was meant as a gesture of support, as I didn’t think I could stay long , with the sneezles and wheezles,  and, also, we thought there hadn’t been much change since last time, so we didn’t think we would need to stay long, and didn’t even intend to go inside the Hall again. Shows how wrong a person can be, and that it’s never a good idea to make assumptions about…anything! As my Mum used to say “You know what thought did? Followed a black cat, and thought it was a funeral.”

I suppose no-where is just the same, each time you go.

Saturday dawned beautifully sunny, and not even very windy – a perfect Orkney September day. In the car on the way, I said to Mike that Roo (Andrew Appleby) must be thanking all his Gods for the weather! We arrived in good time at the Hall, or, I should say, at the garage of Jean and Ivan Craigie who very kindly allowed the society to use their garage as a place to have an information display, items for sale and……tea/coffee and yummy cakes!  It was when I asked  Rachel  about who had made the cakes, that I heard about the events which had been held earlier in the day.   There had been a gathering at the John Rae statue in Stromness, with music, and also a speech by Harvey Johnstone,  Convener of Orkney Islands Council.

Then the company re-assembled in Kirkwall for a  ceremony at the grave of John Rae.  Again, the Weather Gods wer smiling – this would have been a different matter if it had all happened on the Sunday, which was …………..dreich.  This is Orkney, where John Rae was born and lived, so he would be well aware of the vagaries of the weather,  and may even have been thanking his own Gods, that the weather was fine for those who came to honour him and recognize his achievements. This tells it better than I can – as I wasn’t even there! Report on John Rae’s Birthday Weekend 2017

The OIC had hosted a gathering  and then kindly let the society have the yummy cakes which were left over, for the Open Day at the Hall of Clestrain. And, whoever did make them, well done – they were truly scrumptious. You can’t beat a drop-scone, with a bit of butter – keep it simple.

So, having heard of the earlier doings, and looking at the sunshine, Mike and I were tempted to go to the Hall after all.  There was a steady stream of folk, arriving, wandering on to the Hall with a guide, so we wandered along, too. I will mention, that, before  heading to the Hall, I took advantage of the loo!   Paddy Casey of Casey Construction had kindly let the society have one of his site toilets for the Open Day. It was pristine! and a boon to the middle–aged bladder.

We went inside the Hall, and Roo was telling us, and a lady with a Labrador, called – Lady, about how the space we were standing in, might have looked when it was a kitchen.  I looked up , and saw, a cobweb in a hole in the floor of the room above, and, later, I wrote this.


spiral stairway (B Bell)

Time and Patience

Standing in the kitchen,

Hall of Clestrain,

Looking up.

Hole in floor of room above.

Cobweb, gilded by the sun,

Fills hole.

Robert The Bruce.

Time and Patience.

The Hall will be restored.

(Bernie Bell  Sept. 2017)

I was sorry I hadn’t taken a photo, usually I take photos like mad, but, I was occupied, stroking Lady – the dog ,that is, not….the lady!

Plans move apace for the inside of the Hall. The pig pens are being removed, which will give a much better idea of what the ‘below stairs’ space used to be like.  Who knows what might be found under the concrete?  I hope that the concrete was simply poured onto the floor surface, and that, maybe, just maybe, there might still be a flagged stone floor underneath?  Fingers crossed.

Roo also mentioned the possibility of finding the rubbish heap for the Hall. This hadn’t occurred to me.  Of course, if they can locate where the rubbish heap was, there could be a lot of ‘finds’ of great interest. In those days there wasn’t a bin collection, so, much was burnt, but also, much was thrown away, nearby.  Not too near to the house, but not too far away either.

Years ago, I lived in a little old cottage in Wales, which was in a row of what had been mud houses – seriously  – mud houses. When I moved in, the garden was a jungle, so I set about clearing it a bit. I started at the bottom of the garden, where, not surprisingly, I found what must have been the rubbish heap, including lots of interesting bottles. I gave most of them away, but still have a couple. I’m hoping for similar ‘finds’ at the Hall of Clestrain.  A more direct link with John Rae and his family – what we throw away, is very personal, and can tell a lot about us!  Mike suggested that someone might dowse for it – and for the well , too. There will have been a well, somewhere, maybe even in the house.

The next thing we did, showed me the error of thinking there wouldn’t be anything new, or different  to see. Last time, there were sheep in what had been the walled garden.  This time, we were able to go there, with someone as a guide.  It’s huge – far too big to have just been the fruit & veg patch for the house.  There is a wall running most of the way up, about a third of the way along.  How I see it is –  The nearer part, was for supplying produce to the house. The large section on the right – hand side, was a formal garden, for the ladies of the house to promenade and take exercise, and also a pleasant place to take visitors for a stroll. John Rae and his family will have had many ‘important’ visitors, and there was a fashion, at that time, for wealthy people to have that type of garden.  I envisioned paths, arbours, a fountain the middle.

Mike had gone wandering down to look at the trees ( there is a hawthorn tree there – unusual for Orkney), and, when he came back to the gate, told me that there is what looks like the  remains of the stone rim of a pool, in the far side.  I honestly think that is what the space was used for, and a lovely place it would be, too.

I hope the society can afford to get some surveys done, as it is possible to find the lay-out of gardens of the past, even if they have been over-grown for a long time.  I thought of Time Team – but I don’t think Time Team exists any longer – shame – that would have been perfect – get it done for free!

And so , we wandered back down the track to the garage, and a chat with Jean and Ivan and a tickle with their lovely collie pup, Bob.    And then home. I was tired out – but it was worth it. Much interest, good company.  Yummy cakes!

When’s the next one?

I notice that I use the word ‘wandered’ quite a bit in this piece of writing – I suppose that’s fitting, as John Rae was a wanderer.

The slide show has some images taken earlier this year of the ongoing renovations to the Hall of Clestrain

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Bernie Bell is a regular contributor to The Orkney News. If you would like to send us articles, letters or photos e:mail fiona@theorkneynews.scot, or use the contact page

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