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  Dr John Rae - the unsung Arctic Hero

John Rae is undoubtedly one of Orkney’s greatest unsung heroes.

Although his memorial is prominent in St Magnus Cathedral, the truth is that, until recently, few Orcadians knew of the man, or his deeds.

John Rae was born at the Hall of Clestrain in Orphir on September 30, 1813. He was the fourth son of John Rae senior.

Rae Senior was the factor of Sir William Honeyman's Orkney estate, so while most Orcadian families faced a harsh life of near-poverty, the Rae family lived in comfort in affluent surroundings.

But forsaking the pleasures of hearth and home, the young John Rae thrived on the outdoor life. Making the most of the rural location, Rae spent most of his boyhood sailing, climbing, trekking, hunting and fishing – activities that served him well for his future exploits.

Then, in 1819, John Rae Senior was made the Orkney agent of the Hudson's Bay Company.

As a boy, Rae would accompany his father on the short sea crossing between Clestrain and Stromness, where the HBC had their offices. Here, the young Rae would watch the company's many supply ships visit the town – their final port of call before crossing the Atlantic.

A 'wild sort of life'

In 1833, shortly after qualifying as a surgeon in Edinburgh, John Rae signed on as a surgeon aboard the HBC ship Prince of Wales. The ship’s destination was Moose Factory in James Bay – an area at the southern end of Hudson Bay in Canada.

Intending only to serve a single season, the early “arrival” of ice meant Rae was forced to spend the winter on the desolate and windswept Charlton Island.

There he faced a rough introduction to the “Nor' Wast”.

Despite the conditions, Rae found himself captivated by "the wild sort of life to be found in the Hudson's Bay Company service". So much so that he accepted the post of surgeon at Moose Factory and remained there for ten years.

During his time at Moose Factory, Rae learned much about the area and, in particular, the Canadian natives. He regarded himself as a student of the native Cree Indians, learning skills from them such as making and maintaining snowshoes and how to hunt caribou and store the meat.

From the Inuit he learned how to ice the runners of a sled, how to combat snow-blindness and how to construct a shelter – all vital survival skills.

It was this association with "natives" that contributed to Rae’s eventual downfall. Many considered his “habit” of dressing like a native a disgrace and frowned upon his methods.

Despite this, Rae's time with the Native Americans saw him acquire a great deal of their knowledge, as well as a great respect for their culture, traditions and skills. Eventually, Rae became regarded as the foremost authority of Native American methods of Arctic survival and travel.

For example, Rae was said to be the best snowshoe walker of his time. Over two months in 1844/45, he covered 1,200 miles on foot, a feat that earned him the nickname “Aglooka” - "he who takes long strides" - from the Inuit.

His resilience and survival skills led to him being commissioned to go north to the west coast of Melville Peninsula from Fury and Hecla Strait southwards, and westwards to Dease, filling in the "blanks" that existed on the maps of northern Canada’s coastline.

By the winter of 1849, Rae had taken over the charge of the Mackenzie River district at Fort Simpson.

The Franklin expedition

Before long, Rae was drawn into the search for a lost Royal Navy expedition.

The expedition, led by Sir John Franklin, had disappeared after leaving England in 1845 to search for the Northwest Passage - a navigable Arctic route from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific.

Franklin's expedition was made up of two ships, HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, and 134 men. Its failure to return resulted in one of the largest, most expensive, searches ever mounted.

In charge of the search was Sir John Richardson, who wanted Rae as his second-in-command. Rae ended up leading two missions in an attempt to locate the missing sailors.

Throughout this period, Rae continued charting the unknown territories of the north Canadian coast. Because of this, he succeeded where Franklin had failed and proved the existence of the North West passage.

Rae abandoned the search for Franklin in 1854 after learning that the expedition had ended in disaster and that the last survivors having been forced to resort to cannibalism.

In April 1854, Rae had heard from an Inuit that a group of 40 white men had been seen four years previously. Watched by a group of native seal hunters, the white men had been dragging a boat and sledges south along the west coast of King William Island.

Going on the native accounts, Rae concluded the men had perished in the winter of 1850, after ice had crushed their ships.

Some time later, Rae learned that the Inuit had discovered around 30 bodies and a number of graves. Some of these were on the mainland, with five on an island which Rae wrote was: "about a long day's journey to the north west of a large stream, which can be no other than Great Fish River".

The men had died of starvation.

Rae wrote: "Some of the bodies had been buried (probably those of the first victims of famine); some were in a tent or tents; others under the boat, which had been turned over to form a shelter, and several lay scattered about in different directions."

He added: "From the mutilated state of many of the bodies and the contents of the kettles, it is evident that our wretched Countrymen had been driven to the last dread alternative - cannibalism - as a means of prolonging existence."

John Rae later acquired some of the dead men’s possessions from the Inuit. Items such as cutlery, watches and a medal that had once belonged to Franklin proved the expedition had perished.

Going solely on the accounts of the Inuit, Rae did not actually visit the site, saying that the Inuit were reluctant to make the 10 or 12 day trek to the site of the lost expedition.

This "failure" to visit the site led to considerable criticism after Rae’s report was published. The document damned the doctor in the eyes of Victorian England.


Rae’s conclusions as to the fate of the Franklin Expedition stirred up a hornet’s nest.

The establishment condemned the document’s contents and Rae's integrity was immediately called into question.

How dare this man, who dressed and mingled with Canadian natives, suggest that men of the Royal Navy indulged in cannibalism? And more to the point imagine accepting the word of the natives without verifying it!

Particularly vitriolic in her attacks was Franklin's wife. Lady Jane Franklin sought to glorify the memory of her husband as the man who found the Northwest Passage, so unsurprisingly Rae's discoveries did not go down well.

Aiding Lady Franklin was the writer Charles Dickens.

Dickens published articles rejecting Rae’s conclusions and the manner in which he had reached them. According to Dickens, it was unthinkable that the English Navy "would or could in any extremity of hunger, alleviate that pains of starvation by this horrible means".

But Rae refused to back down. He stood by the content of his report and the circumstances surrounding the fate of the Franklin Expedition.

The full story was only revealed when an expedition sent by Lady Franklin found a small cairn at Point Victory, on the north west coast of King William Island.

Here, one Lieutenant Crozier, second in command, had left a message confirming that Sir John Franklin had died on June 11, 1847. Franklin had been the 25th man to perish on the expedition.

The cairn was found in May 1859, 11 years after Crozier had written that the survivors were starting out for Great Fish River. Skeletons of some of the last survivors appeared to confirm that the men had resorted to cannibalism.

Dr John Rae retired from the Hudson's Bay Company in 1856 at the age of 43. But his exploring days were far from over.

When the Atlantic telegraph cable failed, a route was suggested through the Faroe Islands, Iceland and Greenland to North America. Rae was called upon to explore the landward side of this route.

Then, in 1884, he accepted a task that brought him back, for the time being, into the service of the Hudson's Bay Company. The HBC, in partnership with the Western Telegraph Union Company, was exploring the possibility of a telegraph route through Siberia, the Bering Strait, Alaska and British Columbia. Rae was asked to survey a section of the proposed route from Red River to Victoria.

In the course of this survey he negotiated a considerable stretch of the Fraser River in a dugout canoe, without a guide. His survey notes proved of value in the later development of the Canadian west.

But following the Franklin controversy, John Rae, and his exploits, began to slip from the pages of the history books. His achievements were ignored or, at best, grudgingly acknowledged.

Although they had failed to find the North West passage, Franklin and his officers were posthumously knighted. Aside from his other achievements, Rae had found the Passage but received no recognition or award. He was the only major explorer of the era not to receive a knighthood.

Dr John Rae died in London on July 22, 1893, aged 79.

On Saturday, July 29, 1893, his body arrived in Kirkwall on board the paddle steamer St Magnus. A solemn crowd gathered to pay their respects as John Rae returned home for the last time.

His coffin was carried to St Magnus Cathedral where he was buried with great ceremony. His remains lie in the Cathedral kirkyard, marked by a humble gravestone.

Inside the cathedral nave is a memorial to the man - a recumbent figure carved in stone. Wearing his Arctic travelling clothes, Rae sleeps with his gun by his side, and a blanket, or sleeping bag, thrown over his body.

As a boy I remember asking my parents why the "sleeping man" was there. The response sums it up - they didn't know. And neither do many.

There is one consolation, however. A growing number people are becoming aware of John Rae and his achievements.

So perhaps there is still a chance that his rightful place in history will be restored.