Thursday, March 30, 2017

Franklin Searcher of the Month: Dr. John Rae

Image courtesy Douglas Wamsley
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 had not been listed 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.

I'm very happy to note that things have changed considerably in recent years. Ken McGoogan's book Fatal Passage (2001) led the way, followed by John Walker's extraordinary documentary adaptation Passage (2008).  In 2014, acting at the request of MP Alistair Carmichael, and based on documents submitted by supporters of Rae (including a letter of mine), the Dean and Chapter of Westminster Abbey approved a memorial to Dr. Rae, to be placed in the Abbey immediately in front of Frankin's cenotaph, and in his 201st birthday (30 September 2014) it was installed and dedicated. By honoring Rae this memorial honored many -- including the countless Scots who so often served with high distinction in the Arctic. And, at the same time, it spoke to the spirit of friendship that was so strong between Rae and the Inuit among whom he lived and worked.

There remains more to be done. The John Rae Society, which was able to obtain title to the Hall of Clestrain, Rae's birthplace and ancestral home, is seeking begin work to stabilize and eventually restore the building. This May, I'll be traveling to Stromness and Kirkwall, along with novelist (and Rae's great-great- grand-niece) Jane Hamilton, to help raise awareness (and funds) for the further restoration of the Hall at the 2017 John Rae Festival.  We'll also be launching Ms. Hamilton's novel Finding John Rae  (the title's similarity to my own was a complete (though happy) coincidence that she and I discovered only after the fact!). You can read more about these events here, and download a complete schedule here.

I hope that a great many people will be able to attend one or more of these events, and that their effect will be to motivate and mobilize those who feel the same kind of admiration for Dr. Rae and what he represents as do I. If you can't attend personally, bear in mind that membership in the Society will support their 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.

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.


  1. The more I read about Rae, the more interesting he becomes. It must have been hard to be the bearer of bad news regarding the Franklin expedition, as well as being the one to tell the world cannibalism had taken place. Amazing that he didn't become embittered by the response to his news.

  2. I really admire how Rae survived off the land and lived among the Inuit. He adapted to the Arctic environment, traveling on snowshoes, carrying a rifle.

  3. Nice to see that he is finally getting the recognition that he deserves... As a direct descendant, o' the same name, this means a lot...