A CANADIAN historian is calling on the Scottish Government to commemorate controversial Arctic explorer John Rae by erecting a statue of him in Edinburgh’s St Giles Cathedral.
Award-winning Ken McGoogan, who will give a talk on Orkney-born Rae on Monday at the Royal Society of Edinburgh, said the memorial should celebrate Rae for solving the two great mysteries of 19th-century Arctic exploration.
The first was the fate of an earlier expedition by Sir John Franklin, in 1845, which included the shocking find that the crew had resorted to cannibalism. Rae’s second discovery, in 1854, was the final link in the Northwest Passage, the navigable Arctic route from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific.
He discovered the route while searching for the Franklin Expedition – a Royal Navy expedition which disappeared while searching for the same sea route.
Rae’s report of what Inuit people told him about the “mutilated state of many of the bodies”, indicating the expedition’s sailors being driven to cannibalism, scandalised Victorian society.
Speaking from his home in Toronto, Mr McGoogan, author of Fatal Passage: The Untold Story of John Rae, the Arctic Explorer Who Discovered the Fate of Franklin, said: “He was the victim of an orchestrated campaign led by Lady Franklin, the widow of Sir John. She enlisted the aid of Charles Dickens, probably the most influential writer of the 19th century. Together, they ensured that Rae’s extraordinary accomplishments were never officially recognised.”
Mr McGoogan said Rae, who trained as a doctor in Edinburgh, was the only major Victorian explorer never to receive a knighthood. He said campaigners had discussed “righting this wrong”, either by getting the explorer a posthumous knighthood, or a statue in Westminster Abbey.
“They don’t give posthumous knighthoods. So the authorities have an easy out there. Maybe it’s time, anyway, to forget about going cap in hand to London. Forget about Westminster Abbey. What’s wrong with St Giles Cathedral?” Mr McGoogan said.
He added that this year, the 200th anniversary of Rae’s birth, would be the right time to mark his achievements. Rae is buried in the graveyard of St Magnus Cathedral in Kirkwall. His memorial is inside the cathedral.
Liam McArthur, Lib Dem MSP for Orkney, said the significance of Rae’s achievements had been generally overlooked in his homeland. “On the bicentenary of his birth, I firmly believe that there is a perfect opportunity to rectify this sin of omission.”
A Scottish Government spokeswoman said: “It is a matter for the Church of Scotland to decide what statues are sited in St Giles Cathedral.
“While we welcome moves to remember Dr John Rae and his contribution to our understanding of the world, we currently have no plans to construct such a statue.”