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Recognise Rae: call for stamp to honour Arctic hero

A call is being made for a stamp to be issued to honour one of the greatest Arctic explorers of all time.

Orcadian John Rae, born 200 years ago, solved the two greatest mysteries of 19th-century Arctic exploration. He found the vital link for a Northwest Passage and he discovered the fate of the Franklin expedition.

John Rae led a series of searches for Franklin and his men, through territory where no European had travelled before, journeying for long distances through the harshest conditions. But his report that the Franklin expedition had ended in disaster was not well received in Victorian England and a campaign against him was launched by Lady Franklin. As a result, his achievements did not get their full recognition, and were sometimes dismissed and at other times incorrectly attributed to others.

Now a petition has been launched by Orkney International Science Festival, whose programme next month features talks and exhibitions on Rae and the Arctic. The petition asks the minister responsible for the Post Office, Jo Swinson MP, to consider a special stamp to commemorate Rae.

John Rae’s ability to cope with the harsh Arctic climate was remarkable. He would walk on snowshoes fifty miles and more in a day, travelling when needed through darkness and snowstorms. He made long journeys, going on one occasion over a thousand miles on foot, and at another time close to 1,400 miles by small boat, during which time he charted over 600 miles of unexplored coastline.

He could paddle a kayak for long distances, through river rapids and amongst broken sea ice, and once did so while soaked to the skin, with his clothes wet through and his moccasins frozen hard.

Part of John Rae’s ability to survive came from his time as a small boy in Orkney, learning to shoot before he was in his teens, and fishing and sailing a boat in all weathers. Another key factor was his readiness to learn from the natives and apply their techniques, from clothing to igloo-building, and early in his career he became the first European to winter in the High Arctic.

The Science Festival will have various talks on Arctic exploration and a concert in St Magnus Cathedral by the Mayfield Singers and Paisley Abbey organist George McPhee will features readings by Dave Grieve from John Rae’s journals, along with music by northern composers.

Historian Dr Maria Pia Casarini will speak on John Rae’s achievements in putting in the final link to the Northwest Passage. Morag MacInnes will describe life in York factory, as seen through the letters of the wife of the Hudson’s Bay Company factor there, Letitia Hargrave. Dr Richard Bates will describe his work in Greenland, where he has been recording what is happening to some of the largest and fastest-melting glaciers when they reach the sea. ‘The Changing Arctic’ will be the theme for Prof. Peter Wadhams, who has himself over the years led over 40 polar field expeditions.

The changes in the Arctic will be highlighted in a remarkable film to be shown by the West Side Cinema in Stromness. Chasing Ice is ‘the story of one man’s mission to change the tide of history by gathering undeniable evidence of our changing planet’.

The street of Stromness is full of history and stories – George Mackay Brown spoke of it unwinding like an old ballad – and in the first two weeks of September the windows of many of the houses will feature works by visual artists. The Open Windows exhibition will take its name from a phrase from John Rae himself – ‘No Ordinary Journey’ – and the route lies between the Pier Head and Stromness Museum.

The Open Windows exhibition will continue into the period of the Festival, and also during the Festival will come the exhibition at the Jane Glue Gallery in Finstown of paintings of John Rae’s favourite places, by Jane Glue and Sheena Fraser McGoogan.

Continuing through the year will be the exhibition developed by Stromness Museum in partnership with the National Museums of Scotland. This features items from John Rae’s own collection of material from northwest Canada – from Inuit, Cree and northwest coast communities – and examine his close relationship with the indigenous people.

Stromness Museum’s existing displays of material including Rae’s inflatable Halkett boat and a powder horn from the Franklin expedition which he acquired from the Inuit. Rae’s portrait can also be seen in the museum, amongst its wealth of maritime exhibits which paint a vivid picture of the days of sail and Arctic trade.

Also continuing at Festival time will be an exhibition in Orkney Library on Rae and Hudson’s Bay.

There is more about John Rae in our online magazine Frontiers.

The bicentenary year is being seen as the time for a wrong to be righted, and for the toast of the Canadian author Ken McGoogan on the shores of Rae Strait to be echoed around the world: “To the greatest Arctic explorer of all – John Rae!”