Arctic explorers retrace footsteps of controversial Orkney hero John Rae

Team leader David Reid
Team leader David Reid
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The leader of an Arctic expedition due to re-enact the journey taken by a Scottish explorer who discovered the first navigable link in the Northwest Passage says his quest will not be over until the adventurer’s dilapidated birthplace in Orkney is transformed into a world-class Arctic expedition history centre.

David Reid is heading the four-man 2019 Arctic Return Expedition which will set out in March from Naujaat (Repulse Bay) in the central Canadian Arctic on a 400-mile journey across the Boothia Peninsula, following the route taken in 1854 by Dr John Rae (1813-1893) and his indigenous companions.

Richard Smith in training for the expedition. Picture: Jon Savage

Richard Smith in training for the expedition. Picture: Jon Savage

The journey, which will take about 40 days, will see the team – Reid, originally from Bishopton, Renfrewshire, Richard Smith from Kirknewton, West Lothian, and Canadians Gary Tutte and Frank Wolf – who will be armed with rifles, ski and trek in sub-zero temperatures while hauling heavy sleds laden with survival gear.

Dangers include crossing sea-ice where they could face attacks from polar bears hunting seals.

Rae, who was born at the Hall of Clestrain, Orphir, near Stromness in Orkney, is credited with solving two of the greatest mysteries of 19th century Arctic exploration.

Firstly, in 1854 he discovered a channel, later named the Rae Strait, linking the Atlantic to the Pacific through the Arctic archipelago.

circa 1860:  Scottish arctic explorer John Rae (1813 - 1893).  Original Publication: From a painting by Stephen Pearce  (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

circa 1860: Scottish arctic explorer John Rae (1813 - 1893). Original Publication: From a painting by Stephen Pearce (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Secondly, he controversially ascertained that sailors had resorted to cannibalism on the Royal Navy’s failed Franklin expedition.

Sir John Franklin, had set out in May 1845 with his flagship HMS Erebus and HMS Terror and 129 crew on his third mission to find the Northwest Passage. But the ships’ last reported sighting was in 1848. The loss was the worst disaster in the Royal Navy’s history of polar exploration.

Rae reported his findings to the Admiralty but became a target for the establishment.

Lady Jane Franklin, Sir John’s widow, launched a fierce campaign against Rae, aided by Charles Dickens.

Franklin was posthumously credited with discovering the Northwest Passage and lauded as a hero.

Rae studied medicine at the Royal College of Surgeons in Edinburgh before becoming a ship’s surgeon with the Hudson’s Bay Company in Canada. He qualified as a chartered surveyor and learned survival skills from the indigenous Metis people.

Andrew Appleby, president of the John Rae Society on Orkney, which bought the Hall of Clestrain from a farmer through donations, said the building was “on the edge of getting terrible” with the floors decaying and asbestos in the roof. In recent years the attic was used a hen house, while pigs were kept in the basement.

“We raise all our own funds for repairs and upkeep by donations,” said Appleby.

Reid, 53, who now lives on Baffin Island in the Canadian territory of Nunavut, has led, organised or been part of more than 300 Arctic and Antarctic expeditions and said the expedition’s focus was to honour Rae and his achievements.

“We want to shine a light on this chapter of history,” said Reid. “It is about Rae. His time is due. He is a massive part of Arctic history.

“Rae showed great respect, integrity and dignity towards the local indigenous people, recognising he was in their land and had much to learn.

“One of the best things is that the community members will know we’re out there. Inuit hunters out looking for ptarmigan and caribou will turn up around 3am. The guys and dog sledge travel at night when the snow is harder. That’s when the magic happens. They’ll ask us why we’re going a certain way and perhaps say ‘oh, the river runs earlier’. That might sound simple but it’s got big ramifications.”

Smith, 47, a former Royal Marine Commando and expedition member who runs Motorhome Escapes in Kirknewton, has a training routine which includes pulling a tractor tyre along the Union Canal. “I thrive on expeditions to isolated place,” he said. “Life is stripped back to its simplistic form.

“When we reach where Rae made his discovery about the Northwest Passage we’ll stop and drink a dram of whisky to him.”

The Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors, the expedition’s main sponsor, last year awarded Rae the title of honorary charter surveyor to mark its 150th year.