John Rae statue to be unveiled in Orkney

Explorer John Rae will have a statue erected in his honour in Orkney. Picture: Comp
Explorer John Rae will have a statue erected in his honour in Orkney. Picture: Comp
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A statue to honour Scots Arctic explorer John Rae – who condemned himself to obscurity for revealing a previous British expedition had resorted to cannabalism – is to be unveiled in his birthplace of Orkney.

The event at Stromness Harbour is to mark the 200th anniversary of his birth and celebrate Rae for solving two mysteries of 19th-century exploration.

Born in Orphir on the islands in 1813, he later signed up with the Hudson’s Bay Company – with the fur trade in Canada at its peak – and charted huge areas of unmapped territory using his surveying skills.

He uncovered the fate of an earlier expedition by Sir John Franklin, which included the discovery that the crew had turned to cannabalism in a bid to survive.

He also discovered the final link in the Northwest Passage, the navigable Arctic route from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific.

He found the route while looking for traces of the Franklin Expedition, who themselves had been searching for the Passage.

In 1854, he recorded accounts from local Inuits, who said that some of Franklin’s crew had resorted to cannibalism in a last desperate effort to stay alive.

He reported his findings to the British admiralty, but was horrified when they appeared in a newspaper article.

Victorian society, including Franklin’s widow, was left scandlaised, and Dr Rae’s reputation never recovered.

He died in 1893 in relative obscurity and his memorial lies in Orkney’s St Magnus Cathedral.

A statue to honour Dr Rae will be publicly unveiled on Saturday evening at the Pier Head in Stromness.

The donor of the statue – who has wished to remain anonymous until the ceremony - is expected to make a speech at the unveiling.

There will be an opening performance by members of the Stromness Royal British Legion Pipe Band.

The unveiling of the full size bronze statue, made by the Orcadian sculptor Ian Scott of North Ronaldsay, takes place on the first day of the John Rae 200 International Conference being held in Stromness and hosted by Stromness Museum from September 28-30.

A stone plinth of local granite donated by Orkney Islands Council is already in place ready to receive the sculpture.

Orkney Islands Council Vice-Convener Jim Foubister said: “We are pleased to be contributing in some small way during this important year to a permanent reminder of the achievements of John Rae.

“To many Orcadians, John Rae has not had the recognition he deserves for too long now.

“I hope the statue will capture the imagination of people both in Orkney and further afield and help to strengthen his place in history.”

Sculpton Ian Scott also made the well-known statue of the lifeboat man at Osmundwall Cemetery which stands as a memorial to those lost in the Longhope lifeboat disaster.


Cannibalism and cover-up: Why history spurned Orkney’s John Rae

Scottish Explorer John Rae ‘should be honoured’