John Rae (portrait by Stephen Pearce)


The most interesting stories often come to light when you are searching for something completely different. I was reading an article about an ancient hawthorn tree which I’d found in The Gentleman’s Magazine of 8th November 1856. On the same page was the following item, which I’m reproducing in full:

Dr Rae, the Arctic Traveller

“At the Lochaber Agricultural Society’s dinner (says the ‘Edinburgh Courant’), an incident occurred which formed a very interesting finale to the day’s proceedings.  A gentleman, apparently a tourist, arrived at the hotel just as the party were to sit down to dinner;  he asked, and was immediately granted, to join.  Through the evening he made himself particularly agreeable, and his health was proposed as ‘the stranger’, and very cordially drunk. 

On rising to return thanks, he said,—‘In the course of my life I have seen some rough days and many pleasant ones.  I have lived ten months in a snow-house, without warming myself at a fire;  I have had my mocassins [sic] cut off my legs with a hatchet;  I have had to kill my own food with my own gun, and I have been reduced to the necessity of living on bones;  but all these are easily forgotten, when I meet such a pleasant party as is now around me.  As I am an entire stranger to you all, and as I have received so much kindness from you, it is but fair that you should know who I am:  my name is Rae, and you may have heard it associated with the Franklin Expedition.’ 

At this announcement the astonished party started to their feet, and gave Dr Rae a most enthusiastic reception. The cheering lasted several minutes, after which Dr Rae shewed some of the articles which had indicated the probable fate of Sir John Franklin and his party.  They consisted of a piece of gold and two silver watches, a small anchor and several coins, a spoon, with a crest engraved upon it, &c.—Dr Rae had been on a visit to Mr Edward Ellice, MP, at Glenquoich, and was on his way to Castle Menzies.”

 Franklin relics purchased by Rae from Inuit people

What a wonderful story!  I can’t find out where the hotel was;  I’m guessing that it might have been in Spean Bridge or Fort William.  Rae famously walked overland in all weathers, so he wasn’t necessarily keeping to the road, but it must have been a big enough establishment to host a sizeable dinner.

In 1856, Rae had every reason to be hesitant about his revealing his identity.  Two years previously, he had returned to Britain with news about the fate of Sir John Franklin’s expedition.  Franklin’s two ships, Erebus and Terror, had disappeared while attempting to discover the Northwest Passage. Search parties had been despatched, mostly by sea, but Rae, who was a surveyor for the Hudson’s Bay Company and knew how to survive in the Arctic, was tasked with travelling overland in search of evidence. 

Rae’s findings had sent shock waves throughout the civilised world. Not only were Franklin and his men dead, but in the last stages of their ordeal some of them had resorted to cannibalism. Lady Franklin, Sir John’s widow, was unable to accept Rae’s report and initiated a furious campaign to discredit him. Enlisting the support of influential figures, among them Charles Dickens, she circulated claims that contradicted Rae’s evidence.

A financial reward had been offered to any person who ascertained the fate of Franklin’s expedition;  in April 1856 Lady Franklin wrote a letter to the Admiralty, arguing that he did not deserve such a reward.

Rae still had some good friends.  Sir George Simpson, Governor of the Hudson’s Bay Company, believed that Rae had earned a knighthood, and he wrote to the MP Edward Ellice suggesting that Ellice ask his father, the senior politician Edward ‘Bear’ Ellice, to put in a good word for him.  According to the news item, Rae had been staying with the younger Edward Ellice at his home in Glenquoich just prior to the dinner.

Rae never received a knighthood, but he did - belatedly - receive the Admiralty award.  However, subsequent explorers were given the credit of discovery, both of Franklin’s fate and the navigable route of the Northwest Passage.  In 1856, when this dinner took place, several search ships had yet to set sail, among them the Fox with Sir Leopold McClintock;  the crucial written message in the cairn had yet to be found;  and it was still not known that Franklin had died before the ships were abandoned. 


Out of interest, Glenquoich Lodge, Ellice’s house on the shore of Loch Quoich, was demolished and submerged in 1955 when the water level was raised 100 feet by a hydro-electric dam.  It is shown on old 6” OS maps of the area.

 Loch Quoich (N Bramhall via Flickr)

John Rae was a member of RSGS between 1885 and 1891.   There is a more detailed post about him on the RSGS blog:

and a post about Sir Richard Collinson, who sailed in search of Franklin:

Further reading:


Ken McGoogan, ‘Fatal Passage’ (2001)

Ken McGoogan, ‘Lady Franklin’s Revenge’ (2005)

R L Richards, ‘Dr John Rae’ (1985)