John Rae given the freedom of Orkney

10 July 2017

This year’s birthday celebrations for John Rae were considerably more complex than the previous year’s free party with live music! A combination of events came together into a weekend of celebration of Dr John Rae’s 204th birthday.

  The first of these was a talk by Dr Claire Warrior who is Senior Exhibitions Curator of the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, where the current exhibition, ‘Death in the Ice: The Shocking Story of Franklin’s Final Expedition’, is on the ill-fated Franklin expedition. We invited Dr Warrior to give a talk on this exhibition developed by the Canadian Museum of History (CMH) in partnership with the NMM and Parks Canada, and in collaboration with the Government of Nunavut and the Inuit Heritage Trust, for which she was academic adviser. It was held on Friday 29th September at Stromness Town Hall, along with the launch and performance of songs from a new CD, ‘Hudson’s Bay Man’, by Geordie McIntyre and Alison McMorland. The event was very well attended, so much so that we had to put out extra chairs as people kept arriving! The evening finished with the ubiquitous raffle, one of the prizes being the now expected donation, by our President, of a pineapple!

The next day, Saturday 30th September, we all arrived by Ian Scott’s statue of John Rae in Stromness for Orkney Islands Council’s posthumous presentation of the Freedom of Orkney to Dr John Rae. The weather gods were smiling on us with blue skies and sunshine as Convener Harvey Johnston read a speech and poem he had penned about the great man. There was even a communal response to his speech and, as every one of the not inconsiderable crowd ended up calling out ‘John Rae’ several times, the hairs on the back of my neck stood on end! The award was presented to the great-great-great niece of John Rae, Ruth Matches. Link to Video. It was a very emotional ceremony, concluded by Jennifer Wrigley playing ‘Air for Dr John Rae’ on John Rae’s fiddle from Stromness Museum. I’m not sure whether the wind blowing in the eyes of the crowd was responsible for the tears, but I suspect it was more than that!

Atendees at the Graveside Ceremony

Both Highland Park Scapa were poured on the grave

After the ceremony it was a dash over to Kirkwall for the traditional graveside commemoration, while a few of us went to the Hall of Clestrain to get things ready for the open afternoon. At John Rae’s graveside a poem was read out and a dram of whisky was poured on the grave while piper, Diana Kelday, of the Kirkwall City Pipe Band, played. Afterwards the Maureen Findlay School of Dance danced the John Rae Reel outside St Magnus Cathedral.

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Saturday afternoon was busy with visitors to the Hall of Clestrain who took the opportunity to be shown around and inside the Hall by our Trustees to explain our plans for its future. We had a great turnout of over sixty people, helped by the amazing weather. Tea, coffee and cakes were on offer while people chatted and looked at plans and a rolling presentation about the project. We were very grateful for help from volunteers, Kevin and Anne.

On Saturday evening we held a film show in the Orkney Theatre in Kirkwall of John Walker’s 2008 film ‘Passage’ as we have been given the rights to show the film by Ian Ritchie to help raise money for the Hall restoration. Our annual Lottery was also drawn with a range of prizes going to winners in Orkney, the wider UK and abroad.

On Sunday afternoon we were back at the Hall again, although the weather had by now turned quite nasty with high winds, rain and low cloud. While sheltering from the worst of the weather, we watched the hills of Hoy, Graemsay and then Stromness disappear from view, and there was one point when it looked like the Hall would not be visible! Despite this, about twenty brave souls turned up to be shown around the Hall and they were all very interested in our plans and very generous in their donations.

The birthday weekend events and Freedom of Orkney ceremony featured on BBC Radio Orkney, BBC Radio 4, the Visit Orkney website, as well as in the pages of ‘The Orcadian’ and ‘The Orkney News’.  Our website and Facebook pages were also very busy. Although the weekend was lot of work for a small band of people, we feel it was very successful and would like to express our thanks to Dr Claire Warrior, Stromness Museum, Orkney Islands Council and the Cuminga Charitable Trust for their support of these events. Thank you too to everyone who came along to the events and open afternoons and who gave so generously towards the restoration of the Hall of Clestrain.

Harvey Johnston James Stockan and Mary Davey
James Stockan Talking Harvey Johnston and Ruth Matches