Dr John Rae, Explorer

Orcadian, Dr. John Rae was an intrepid explorer whose important discoveries were met with indifference and even derision.

Rae was born at the Hall of Clestrain in the parish of Orphir in Orkney, to estate manager John Rae, who later became the Orkney agent of the Hudson’s Bay Company.  This company would play an important role in John Rae Junior’s life.

Dr John Rae, Orcadian Explorer

Dr John Rae, Orcadian Explorer

In 1829 John went to study medicine at Edinburgh University and graduated as a licentiate of the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh in April 1833.

John’s two older brothers had already joined the Hudson Bay Company and in Summer 1833, Dr. John Rae followed suit, signing on as ship’s surgeon aboard the ship, Prince of Wales, bound for Moose Factory in Ontario.

He stayed here for ten years and whilst treating indigenous employees he became fascinated with their lifestyle and skills. The local Cree Indians taught him how to hunt and live off the land and he followed closely the crafts and skills of the local Inuit. He designed his own snow shoes and became skilled in their use. John Rae had a great respect for these people and their knowledge but this type of involvement with natives was frowned upon by the Victorian British.

His desire to follow this wild existence and the knowledge gained, allowed him to travel great distances and unlike his Victorian counterparts, he needed little in the way of supplies and equipment and few people in his support team.

John Rae developed an interest in surveying and over 2 winter months, walked 1200 miles through forest.  This earned him the Inuit nickname Aglooka, “he who takes long strides.”

Rae went on his first expedition in 1846 and joined Sir John Richardson in 1848 to search for the Northwest Passage. In 1849 he was asked to join the search for the two missing ships of the Franklin Expedition, the results of which would seal his fate.

The local Inuit of King William Island provided Rae with much information about the fated Franklin voyage and how the expedition survivors had tried to stay alive by cannibalism.  When Rae reported this to the British Admiralty, the gruesome details were leaked to the Press, causing shockwaves of disgust throughout Victorian society.

Franklin’s widow, Lady Jane Franklin was outraged at the thought of her husband being involved in such horrors and recruited many important people, including Charles Dickens to openly condemn Rae.

Rae was shunned by the Victorian British establishment. His discovery of the last link in the Northwest Passage Rae went unrecognised.  To this day, the finding of the Northwest passage is incorrectly attributed to Franklin who lies in state at Westminster Abbey.

John Rae retired from the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1856, and married in 1860. Later the same year he visited more islands of the northern hemisphere, whilst surveying the telegraph route of a transatlantic cable laid via Scotland, the Faroe Islands, Iceland, and Greenland.

Rae rejoined the Hudson Bay Company in 1865 and undertook a final expedition as an explorer of the Red River for a proposed telegraph line from the United States to Russia. Rae then settled in Britain, dividing his time between London and Orkney.

In 1852 he received the Founder’s Gold Medal of the Royal Geographical Society for his Arctic explorations and was awarded an honorary degree by McGill College, Montreal in 1853 and another by Edinburgh University in 1856.

Rae was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of London in 1880 and became known as a forerunner in the field of Arctic survival.

Dr John Rae Memorial in St Magnus cathedral

Dr John Rae Memorial in St Magnus cathedral

John Rae died in London on 22 July 1893 from an aneurysm. His body was sent to his native Orkney a week later and was buried in the kirkyard of St Magnus’ Cathedral, Kirkwall.

His gravestone, like many others is fairly insignificant and well weathered but a skillfully crafted  life size memorial has been placed inside the cathedral near the Rognvald Chapel.

Various geographical areas have been named after him;Rae Strait (between King William Island and the Boothia Peninsula), Rae Isthmus, Rae River, Mount Rae,Fort Rae and the village of Rae-Edzo (now Behchoko), in the Northwest Territories.

In July 2004, Orkney and Shetland MP Alistair Carmichael introduced a motion to the UK Parliament, proposing recognition of Dr. John Rae’s discoveries and the acknowledgment the Rae and not Franklin was the first to discover the North West passage.

More information

Ray Mears’ Northern Wilderness
Orkneyjar.com – Dr. John Rae, unsung arctic hero