Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Honoring Dr. John Rae

Stromness Museum
I've written many times in this blog about the remarkable career of Dr. John Rae. His achievements place him in the first rank of Arctic explorers, and yet for much of the past century, his name has not been placed among them. He had the misfortune to be the bearer of bad news -- that some of Sir John Franklin's men had resorted to cannibalism, which Rae called "the last extremity" -- and to defend his Inuit friends and contacts for their veracity against a lengthy diatribe by, of all people, Charles Dickens. Although officialy awarded the reward for ascertaining the fate of Franklin he was shunned by many of his contemporaries. Never the less, Rae never became a bitter man, and throughout the remainder of his life he never expressed anything but admiration for Sir John Franklin, and pity for the terrible fate faced by the last survivors of his expedition.

Now, at last, Dr. Rae is to be honored by a plaque in Westminster Abbey, where there has long been a memorial to Franklin, and where -- ironically enough -- Charles Dickens is interred. I should like to listen in on the lively conversation of those three ghosts! The campaign for a plaque for Rae, which has been led by Orkney and Shetland MP Alistair Carmichael, has won the agreement of the Dean and Chapter of Westminster for a plaque to be placed; the John Rae Society is presently seeking funds to pay for the plaque in time for a September 30th dedication, which would be Rae's 201st birthday. I urgently ask that anyone who is a regular reader of this blog consider a contribution, however modest, to this fund. By honoring Rae we honor many -- including the countless Scots who so often served with high distinction in the Arctic. And, at the same time, we honor the spirit of friendship that was so strong between Rae and the Inuit among whom he lived and worked.

There is more to be done, of course. The John Rae Society is seeking begin work to stabilse and eventually restore the Hall of Clestrain, Rae's birthplace and ancestral home. A membership in the Society will support this work as well, and members will also receive a regular News Letter with the most current account of its efforts to gain recognition for Rae's achievements and the preservation of his home. A membership form can be downloaded online, and the Society welcomes members from around the world.

Today, too, marks another anniversary -- that of Dr. Rae's death on 22 July, 1893. Andrew Appleby, the head of the Society, has shared with me an account of their marking of this occasion. It was simple ceremony of remembrance, with a piper and the laying of a wreath; a few words about Rae's life and career were spoken by Mr Appleby, words echoed by Rev. Fraser McNaughton, Minister of St Magnus Cathedral.

And so today let all of us, wherever we may be, pause a moment and recall the singular admixture, the rare alloy of character and skill, out of which Dr. John Rae's achievements were wrought.