The John Rae Spirit vote

Image copyright of Stromness museum
John Rae – Image courtesy of Stromness Museum

Help us define the John Rae Spirit. Using the link below we want you to choose up to 5 words from a shortlist of 10 selected by the JRS board, that best capture the qualities of the Orcadian who befriended the Arctic and went on to become one of our greatest explorers. The 5 most selected words will be used to create a #JohnRaeSpirit fundraising campaign

Click the link to the vote below. We will close the vote on February 28th 2022. If you want to find out more about John Rae and his achievements before voting, read his life story below.

Go to the #JohnRaeSpiritVote

Who was John Rae?

Who was John Rae and why is the John Rae Society creating a legacy to his life and work in the form of a visitor centre and Arctic Research Centre at his childhood home in Orphir? Read below to discover more about the man who befriended the Arctic and went on to become a renowned explorer, discovering the final navigable link of the North West Passage.  Then take part in our project to define the #JohnRaeSpirit and help us raise funds to complete our mission to create The John Rae Centre.


John Rae was born at the Hall of Clestrain, Orphir, on 30th September 1813; one of nine children. His father (also called John) was the estate factor for Lord Armadale, the Lord Advocate of Scotland, who lived in Edinburgh. The young John loved to go shooting wild fowl on the hills and by the shore, or to go fishing and sail the family’s small boat. This education would serve him well in his future career as an explorer.

Rae studied medicine at Edinburgh University and the Royal College of Surgeons, qualifying in 1833, aged just 20. His father was also the agent for the Hudson’s Bay Company in Stromness, which recruited Orcadian men, renowned for their hardiness, to work in the testing Arctic environment. So on his return to Orkney, Dr Rae signed on as ship’s surgeon on the Prince of Wales bound for Canada. However, when the ship’s return route was blocked by ice, Rae was forced to endure a hard winter in Canada in Rupert’s Land. But something must have appealed to the young man looking for adventure as he accepted the post of surgeon and clerk at Moose Factory and served there for ten years. He spent his free time hunting and learning travel and survival skills from the First Nation and Metis people; including how to use sleds and snow-shoes.

Camaraderie and Christmas

There grew among the camp, a mix of Orcadians, Canadians and native people, a camaraderie and mutual respect. There is a warming description of a Christmas at Moose Factory in the book Fatal Passage by Ken McGoogan, where officers, clerks, traders, trappers, and the ‘homeguard indians’ and their families who lived in the vicinity came together at the fort to celebrate the week-long holiday with gusto.

We hear how 21-year-old Dr Rae rose early on Christmas day and with a few of his closest friends, including a Swampy Cree man named George Rivers, trekked into the forest to hunt wild duck, rabbit, and ptarmigan (Arctic grouse) providing ‘a grace note to a festive table’. The day unfolded with feasting, drinking – in small measure by an abstemious Dr Rae – and finally dancing to familiar Scottish reels that rang out under the freezing, starry skies, played by Orcadian fiddlers, accompanied by ‘spoon-clacking’ Canadian voyageurs and drum-beating Cree men– a musical tribute to the diverse community that had grown out of the hardships of survival in a sub Arctic outpost.

Rae’s spirit, fortitude and leadership qualities clearly impressed those around him, and it was the Hudson’s Bay Company Governor-in-Chief, Sir George Simpson, who identified Rae as the man to finish the mapping of the Arctic coast. Receiving training as a surveyor meant a 1,200 mile walk on snow-shoes before finally reaching his tutor.

John Rae in indigenous clothing

In his first Arctic expedition of 1846-7, Rae left with a small group of people and carried only a small amount of food, choosing instead to live off the land by means of hunting. They built a stone house, called Fort Hope, but found it unsuitable as it was so cold. He later learnt from the Inuit how to make snow houses, which proved to be warm and reusable. Rae explored the Gulf of Boothia using small boats and on foot, discovering that Boothia was a peninsula and not an island as had been thought.

After a trip to London he returned to the Arctic in 1848 as second in command in Sir John Richardson’s search party looking for the lost Franklin Expedition. In 1849 Richardson returned to England while Rae continued to explore the coastline to Wollaston Land by boat with six men.

A third Arctic expedition in 1851 saw the first trace of Franklin’s missing ships when Rae found a piece of wood and a part of a flagstaff containing the remnants of cloth. He was awarded the Founder’s Gold Medal of the Royal Geographical Society in 1852 for his discoveries of 1846–47 and 1851.

Discovery and disgrace

His expedition of 1853-4 saw him make the important discovery that King William Land was not a peninsula but an island. His discovery of Rae Strait was the last link in a navigable Northwest Passage from the Atlantic to the Pacific Oceans, which was successfully used by the Norwegian Roald Amundsen in 1903-06. Rae also met Inuit who told him that a party of around 40 white men had died of starvation on King William Island, resorting to cannibalism in a final attempt to stay alive.

Photo Copyright James Grieve

He returned to London with the sad news of the fate of Sir John Franklin and the crews of his two ships, only to enter a storm of controversy. His unedited report, containing the reports of cannibalism, was issued to The Times by the Admiralty. Lady Franklin rallied support from Charles Dickens who vilified the Inuit as savages and liars in his magazine, Household Words. Lady Franklin destroyed Rae’s reputation, while erecting a bust in Westminster Abbey proclaiming Franklin as the discoverer of the Northwest Passage. Rae was finally awarded the £10,000 reward for news of the fate of the Franklin expedition, which he shared with his party.

He married Catherine (Kate) Thompson in 1860 and worked on surveying the route for a telegraph link from Britain to Canada, via Iceland and Greenland. In 1865 he surveyed the Red River to Victoria for another telegraph link from America to Russia.

He retired to Orkney, renting Berstane House to the east of Kirkwall before moving to London. Rae was a highly-respected explorer who mapped around 1,750 miles of Arctic coast either on foot or in small boats. His respect of the indigenous peoples of Canada made him many friends there and he is still respected by them to this day.

John Rae’s monument in St Magnus Cathedral in Kirkwall, Orkney
John Rae’s grave at St Magnus Cathedral

Lady Franklin’s relentless campaign to have him removed from the history of Arctic exploration saw his discoveries attributed to Royal Navy expeditions; an injustice that he robustly fought.

He died at his house at 4 Addison Gardens, London, on 22nd July 1893; his body was taken north for burial in the grounds of St Magnus Cathedral. A memorial, paid by public subscription, was erected to him inside the cathedral the following year.

If you wish to read more about John Rae and the Arctic then here is a Book list compiled by one of our members.

The record for John Rae at the National Records of Scotland is here

Now you know more about John Rae, now is the time to vote.

The John Rae Spirit Vote

We want you to help us define the John Rae Spirit. Using the link below we want you to choose up to 5 words that capture the qualities of the Orcadian who befriended the Arctic and went on to become one of our greatest explorers, from a shortlist of words, as selected by the JRS board. We will close the vote on December 31 2021. The 5 most selected words will be used to create a #johnraerspirit fundraising campaign.

Go to the #JohnRaeSpirit Vote