Born on 30th September 1813, John Rae was destined to become one of the most accomplished Arctic explorers of the 19th century


John Rae

In August 1814, the celebrated writer Sir Walter Scott paid a visit to Orkney.  In the company of lighthouse engineer Robert Stevenson, he had sailed across the Pentland Firth on the lighthouse yacht Pharos, and it had been a rough voyage:  Scott remarked dryly that the local people ‘always crowd their boat with people in the bows, being the ready way to send her down in any awkward circumstance.’   The Pharos had to wait until the evening tide to get into Stromness harbour, and then the rain closed in, obliterating any hoped-for views of the hills and cliffs of Hoy.

But the morning brought brighter weather, and with it arrived a man called John Rae, who was the factor of local landowner, Lord Armadale.  Scott and Stevenson were invited to Rae’s home, Hall of Clestrain, which lay on the other side of the bay.  Inside this elegant mansion they enjoyed the hospitality of Rae’s wife, Margaret Glen, and afterwards Rae and his guests cantered off on some of the family’s best Galloway horses in order to admire the Stones of Stenness. 


Hall of Clestrain, with Stromness on the far shore

Scott had a lively, enquiring mind and he was on the lookout for stories and people that he could weave into his books.   In his novel, The Pirate (1822), he modelled two characters on Rae’s eldest daughters, Janet and Marion.  But one story that he couldn’t have known - because it hadn’t yet happened - was that of John Rae’s fourth son, also called John, who was less than a year old at the time of Scott’s visit.  The younger John Rae grew up to become one of the most accomplished Arctic explorers, travelling thousands of miles on foot and by boat through uncharted regions of lakes, forests and tundra on the North American continent.

The Raes engaged governesses and tutors for their children, but it was in his free time that John learned his most enduring lessons.  Looking back on his childhood, he wrote: My chief and almost sole amusements during vacation or play hours were boating, shooting, fishing, and riding (chiefly the three first) all of which my brothers and I had ample opportunities of practising.  Two excellent boats were provided for us by our kind father;  the one small, light and handy for fishing and as a sort of tender to the other, which was about 18 feet long and admirably fitted for a crew of boys…’


Stromness harbour

So skilled were the Rae brothers in their seamanship that they would often race against the pilot boats that went out to guide vessels into Stromness harbour.  John Rae recalled that they had no chance against the longer, faster boats in fine weather, ‘but whenever it blew hard and the sea was especially rough, we never lost an opportunity of racing;  and generally went ahead, much to the chagrin of our big opponents and to the gratification of the boys.’

Rae was also a gifted marksman:  while still a lad, he practised shooting with his father’s old flintlock, making gun-rests by drilling holes in the stone walls that encircled the house.  By his teens, he was taking a musket out onto the moorland and foreshore to bag grouse and wildfowl which made a welcome addition to his family’s larder.  It was a healthy, vigorous life and he thought nothing of spending all day in the snow or driving rain. 

For decades, Stromness had been a stopping-place for Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) supply vessels on their way to Rupert’s Land, a vast region in North America where fur-trapping was a lucrative and fast-expanding trade.  The HBC was developing trading posts or ‘factories’ at strategic points along rivers and coasts, and needed men to maintain them.  The pay was good, representing twice the wage that an agricultural labourer could earn in Orkney, and the islanders were well used to working in atrocious weather.  It was hardly surprising, then, that three-quarters of the HBC’s employees were Orcadians.  


A quayside building in Stromness that once served as a recruiting office for the Hudson’s Bay Company


Stromness harbour, with a cannon that was traditionally fired to welcome HBC ships

John Rae and his brothers must have marvelled at the arrival of the tall ships as they came to stock up on fresh food and to draw water from Login’s Well in the high street.  In 1819, when John was six, his father was appointed Orkneys agent for the HBC, a role which required him to recruit men for work in Rupert’s Land.  It was almost inevitable that the Rae boys should respond to that call:  two of John’s older brothers, William and Richard, crossed the Atlantic in 1827 and 1830 respectively. 


Login’s Well, where HBC vessels took on water, as did the ships of Captain James Cook and Sir John Franklin.  It was sealed up in 1931.

Although he was impatient to follow his brothers, John needed a profession.  He devoted four years to studying medicine at the Royal College of Surgeons in Edinburgh, graduating at the age of 19.  In June 1833, he stood on the deck of a three-masted HBC ship as it nosed its way out of Hoy Sound, and watched the stone-built houses and piers of Stromness receding into the distance.  His father had secured him an appointment as ship’s surgeon on the Prince of Wales;  among her passengers were 31 men from Orkney, the largest number to leave their northern homeland in a decade. 

John had been appointed for a season, with the expectation that he would return with the ship before the winter;  but pack ice in Hudson Strait delayed the Prince of Wales for two precious weeks before she could reach her destination of Moose Factory at the southern end of James Bay.  Then, having offloaded her stores, another ice barrier blocked her homeward route and the only option was to turn around and find somewhere to over-winter. 


Moose Factory in 1854


It wasn’t the most enticing prospect, but as he sailed south again, noting that the decks were encased in ice two or three feet deep, Rae was aware of a certain excitement.  Going ashore on Charlton Island, where there was an abandoned settlement, he lent a hand at restoring the ramshackle buildings for shelter, and tried wearing snowshoes for the first time.  Just as he had done at home, he took a gun and went in pursuit of geese and ducks.  He was in his element.  ’Personally,’ he wrote, ‘I enjoyed the situation immensely.’  

The winter of 1833 was a gruelling experience.  For some of the stranded passengers and crew, a combination of disease, dwindling food supplies and extreme cold brought a battle between life and death.  But Rae turned a potential disaster into an opportunity, making spruce beer and gathering cranberries from deep beneath the snow in an attempt to save the lives of men suffering from scurvy.  His abilities impressed the chief factor at Moose Factory, and by the end of the winter he was cautiously agreeing to extend his stay a little longer. 

In August 1834, Rae watched the Prince of Wales depart, carrying letters home to his family;  it was the beginning of a lifetime of adventure that would test his Orkney-honed survival skills in the very bleakest of environments, and eventually bring him into conflict with some of the most influential figures of 19th century Britain.  When he discovered controversial evidence about the fate of Sir John Franklin’s lost ships, he provoked undeserved outrage;  but his surveying expeditions, some lasting several years, still command the highest respect.   In the words of his biographer, Ken McGoogan, he was ’arguably the greatest Arctic explorer of the century.’


Hall of Clestrain, looking across to Graemsay and Hoy


Statue of John Rae by Ian Scott of North Ronaldsay, overlooking Stromness harbour



Reference and quotes:

Ken McGoogan, Fatal Passage (2001)

National Museums of Scotland, No Ordinary Journey (1993)

Sir Walter Scott, Northern Lights or a Voyage in the Lighthouse Yacht to Nova Zembla and the Lord Knows Where in the Summer of 1814, pub. in Memoirs of the Life of Sir Walter Scott, J G Lockhart, 1837

The John Rae Society



Hall of Clestrain has been unoccupied since 1952, when a storm destroyed the roof.  The John Rae Society has an ongoing campaign to restore the building.

Photos of Hall of Clestrain and Stromness taken in September 2023

You can read more about John Rae in these blog posts: