WHATS THE STORY?

A RENOWNED Arctic explorer has been awarded the Freedom of Orkney, more than 120 years after his death.

Orphir-born John Rae had the award bestowed upon him by local councillors, who commended his “quite remarkable” achievements at a meeting of Orkney Islands Council in Kirkwall.

Loading article content

One of nine children, Rae was born on September 30, 1813. He studied medicine at the University of Edinburgh.

After graduating from the Royal College of Surgeons, Rae accepted a surgeon’s position aboard the Prince of Wales vessel bound for Canada.

He resolved to make the most of a bad situation after finding his route home blocked by ice. He was offered a role as clerk and surgeon in a community called Moose Factory in Ontario.

Rae retained the role for a decade, launching his career as an Arctic explorer from his Ontario base.

Most notably, the explorer helped put together the final pieces of the navigable Northwest Passage from the Atlantic to the Pacific and discovered remnants of John Franklin’s doomed 1845 Arctic expedition.

Upon Rae’s death in 1893, his body was returned to Orkney and buried on the grounds of St Magnus Cathedral in Kirkwall.

Referring to the award at the meeting, council leader James Stockan said: “I know recently a statue was erected to his honour in Stromness, the place he lived for so many years.

“But in this year of Stromness 200 [commemorating the grant of Burgh of Barony status to the town] I would say it would be a very fitting thing for us to do.”

Discussions will soon be under way to determine the details of the ceremony for the first-ever posthumous granting of the Freedom of Orkney.

Other than that, the only matter yet to be decided is who will accept the award on behalf of Rae.

WHY RAE?

A KEEN fisherman and hunter in his childhood, the surgeon’s talents were recognised by the Hudson’s Bay Company governor-in-chief, George Simpson, who tasked Rae with adding the finishing touches to the Arctic coast mapping mission. After a brutal induction in the form of a 1200-mile walk on snowshoes, he set out on three separate expeditions.

The National:

Travelling over land and sea, Rae became an expert survivalist with the help of local Inuits, who taught the Scot how to construct lifesaving snow shelters.

Large supply trains were not typically required, as Rae and his expedition partners proved impressively adept at living off of the desolate land.

A CONTROVERSIAL CAREER?

DESPITE his invaluable assistance to Artic geographers, the explorer’s exploits were not always met with widespread commendation.

Returning from his last mapping expedition in 1854, Rae landed in London having learned the fate of the Franklin expedition. Inuit contacts had revealed that around 40 white men had died on King William Island in the Canadian Arctic.

The last survivors, he was informed, had resorted to cannibalism.

Rae’s graphic report was delivered to The Times by the Admiralty. Lady Franklin, outraged at the tale of her husband’s fate, convinced none other than Charles Dickens to vilify the Inuit in his magazine – portraying them as barbaric and untrustworthy. The slander succeeded in tarnishing Rae’s reputation. Lady Franklin even erected a bust in Westminster Abbey in honour of her husband’s discovery of the Northwest Passage.

Eventually, the Orkney native’s role was recognised. He received the full £10,000 reward for providing information on the Franklin expedition’s disappearance – a sum he shared with his expedition crew. Stockan, the first Orkney councillor to nominate the explorer, acknowledged the shameful treatment of Rae and made a convincing case for his recognition.

“He, for many years, was almost banished to obscurity,” Stockan said. “And he was one of our citizens who did something quite remarkable”.

A ONE-HORSE RACE?

NOT exactly. Rae faced stiff competition for the Freedom of Orkney from Saint Magnus Erlendssen, Earl of Orkney in the early part of the 12th century.

Magnus made a name for himself after allegedly accepting execution by his cousin and rival in good grace – all to maintain relative peace on Orkney.

North Isles councillor Stephen Clackson explained to his fellow councillors: “Once we are able to nominate candidates from any time in history, deciding who are the most deserving becomes a very difficult task on account of the plethora of meritorious candidates.

“A candidate that springs to mind for me would be the late Magnus Erlendsson, Earl of Orkney, who, 900 years ago, gave himself up to be martyred to secure peace for the people of Orkney, and who has been an enduring inspiration over the past nine centuries.”

Rae’s rival was knocked out of the running when it was agreed he already had “a fair bit of honour”.

“The forerunner of this council, the government and the people of Orkney, erected a cathedral to him some time ago. And he’s also our patron saint,” remarked council convener Harvey Johnston.