Scots Arctic explorer John Rae set for memorial

Scottish Arctic explorer John Rae will be honoured with a monument in Westminster Abbey. Picture: Getty/Hulton Archive
Scottish Arctic explorer John Rae will be honoured with a monument in Westminster Abbey. Picture: Getty/Hulton Archive
Share this article
Have your say

A MEMORIAL 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 Westminster Abbey.

Orkney-born Dr Rae signed up with the Hudson’s Bay Company in the 19th century – when the fur trade in Canada was 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.

Dr Rae 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 and author Charles Dickens, was left scandalised, and Dr Rae’s reputation never recovered.

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

Orkney and Shetland MP Alistair Carmichael had campaigned for Westminster Abbey to place a plaque marking Dr Rae`s achievements - including discovering the last link of the Northwest Passage - alongside those of Franklin, the man who was credited with them.

Mr Carmichael presented the case to the Dean of Westminster Abbey, the Very Reverend Dr John Hall, to “right the historical inaccuracies” on the memorial to Franklin, which is within the Abbey.

He said: “John Rae was denied his proper recognition in his lifetime, it is to be hoped that these errors can at last be rectified.

“I don`t want to get rid of the Franklin memorial - it is part of John Rae`s story - but just an official acceptance of his discovery of the Northwest Passage. It was not just what he did - but also the extraordinary way he did it.”

A spokesman for Westminster Abbery said:”We do indeed plan a memorial to Dr John Rae the explorer. The current timetable is for it to be dedicated in the autumn though that is by no means certain.”

A statue to honour Dr Rae was publicly unveiled in Orkney last year.


Why history spurned Orkney’s John Rae

Scottish Explorer John Rae ‘should be honoured’