Dig It! Discovering John Rae’s Story at The Hall of Clestrain

The Hall of Clestrain – the childhood home of Arctic explorer, Dr John Rae – has been partially excavated this summer by community volunteers of all ages .

Observing physical distancing rules has meant that most archaeological digs were postponed in 2020. The volunteers at the Hall of Clestrain, working under the limitations, have still managed to conduct excavations around the house and have been recording their discoveries online on the Dig It ! hub

Discoveries at the Hall of Clestrain included a ‘moat’ which ran around the house containing bird bones and sherds of rare sponge ware pottery. The moat was eventually transformed into a more modern drain which may have been built around 1851. 

Commenting on the finds Andrew Appleby, President of the John Rae Society, said:

“Whenever a dig is about to finish, always expect the unexpected! We finish any day now. We hope that we will be able to extend the community involvement next season COVID restrictions permitting of course.” 

Sara Julia Campbell, an Edinburgh-based illustrator,  captured the scene as it might have looked when John Rae was a boy.

As part of Dig It!’s Scotland Digs Digital campaign, illustrator Sara Julia Campbell has reimagined a 19th-century scene from the Hall of Clestrain based on finds made by the John Rae Society during the summer dig season. Credit ©Sara Julia Campbell 2020

John’s future career is reflected in a puddle as he plays with a toy boat in the courtyard. The image also includes his mother Margaret Glen Rae and two of his sisters,  Janet Love (aka Jessie) and Marion Sibbald, who are said to have inspired fictional characters in Sir Walter Scott’s novel ‘The Pirate’ after he visited the Hall in 1814. 

Dr Jeff Sanders, Project Manager at the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland’s Dig It! project, said:  

“Scottish archaeology is all about discovering Scotland’s stories and these are the chapters of people’s lives that we sometimes forget about, but that archaeology is uniquely placed to write.

“Scotland’s Archaeology Strategy emphasises that remains, such as the ones that have been uncovered this year, connect us to the people in the past and we believe that the work of these groups and digital artists have helped to strengthen that connection this summer.” 

Daisy and Mattie Reay kneeling next to an open archaeological trench smiling at the camera and making a thumbs up sign credit

Amy Eastwood, Head of Grants at Historic Environment Scotland, said:  

“The Scotland Digs Digital campaign was a fantastic way to engage people with Scotland’s heritage while sharing stories and updates from the archaeology community during a time when a lot of archaeological work throughout the country was put on hold. 

“We are pleased to support the invaluable work being carried out by archaeology groups throughout the country and encourage members of the public to take part in open days, events and tours to find out more about these exciting discoveries and how they help our understanding of Scotland’s past.” 

To find out more about the John Rae Society click on this link: John Rae Society

To find out more about Dig It! click on this link: Dig It! Discover Scotland’s Stories

The Orkney News has covered many articles about Dr John Rae and the Hall of Clestrain which you can find using the search button on the website.

Clestrain Hall looking towards Hoy Photo Martin Laird

3 replies »

  1. Great images of great idea. Well done to Andrew and volunteers particularly the youngsters
    Sara Julia Campbell’s painting is superb. The puddle is a wonderful idea, particularly with the boat, and it was nice to see his mum and sisters
    Great photo by Martin tool

  2. Glad to see the hall is being restored…at last…I just hope it doesnt become just another tacky tourist destination and lose both its power and history

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