Byline: GRAHAM KEAL
ORKNEY'S forgotten Arctic hero, John Rae, deserved the kind of honours and accolades reserved for explorers of the frozen wastes such as Shackleton, Franklin and Scott. Now, after more than 150 years of obscurity, a new BBC Scotland co-production finally gives him the recognition he richly deserves.
History's neglect of Rae is down to a bizarre mix of cannibalism, Royal Navy snobbery, English treachery, the unfortunate involvement of Charles Dickens, insulted Inuits, and the driven energy of Lady Jane Franklin, widow of the doomed Arctic explorer Sir John Franklin.
Canadian author Ken McGoogan first brought Rae's achievements to the fore a decade ago in his book Fatal Passage: The Untold Story of John Rae, but for many, the two-part film based on McGoogan's book, written and directed by fellow Canadian John Walker, will be the first they've heard of Rae's adventures.
Orkney historian Tom Muir, who appears in Walker's film, Passage: The John Rae Story, sees it as a belated, but wonderfully welcome end to Rae's years of obscurity.
"Rae has been airbrushed from the history of Arctic exploration," said Muir, Exhibitions Officer for the Orkney Islands Council.
"In primary schools here they teach children about our two local explorers - Rae in the Arctic and William Balfour Baikie in Africa. But in Scotland nobody has heard of Rae. In England nobody has heard of Orkney," he says drily.
Rae was born in Orphir, Orkney, in 1813, the son of the factor of Sir William Honeyman's estate. While most Orcadians lived frugal lives, the Rae family was prosperous and their home, the Hall o'Clestrain, was a virtual mansion by the standards of the times.
But the young John Rae loved the rigours of the outdoor life - hunting, fishing, sailing, climbing, trekking - all skills which would later prove vital.
Aged just 19 and newly-qualified as a ship's surgeon, Rae signed on with Hudson's Bay Company ship The Prince of Wales and sailed to Moose Factory, northern Canada, where he stayed for 10 years.
While rising up the company ranks, Rae developed a great respect for the Inuit people and native Cree Indians, learning their survival skills which had been honed over centuries.
Tom Muir said: "He adopted their clothing, dressing in skins, and the type of sled they used, preparing the runners with ice to make them glide more smoothly.
"When he first arrived he built a stone house but it was freezing. It was said that if you put a glass of water above the fireplace, it would freeze.
"The fire gave out no heat - it disappeared up the chimney."
So Rae learned to build an igloo and survive like the locals.
"He was an incredibly fit man, with great stamina," said Muir. " He also had a great ability as a hunter, so he could feed himself off the land rather than carry huge amounts of provisions. This came from his Orkney childhood.
"He went to Toronto to do a mapmaking course and walked - a round trip of about 150 miles - over wild terrain, not roads. There's one story of him putting on weight on one of his long walks because he was so successful at hunting."
Rae became skilled at mapping uncharted areas for the company, and Tom tells of the rivalry between the Hudson Bay men and the Royal Navy to finish mapping the frozen wastes of northern Canada and, at the same time, uncover the fabled Northwest Passage, a navigable route that would link the Atlantic to the Pacific.
History books still credit Sir John Franklin's doomed 1845 expedition with this feat, but it was Rae who not only discovered the route, but also discovered how Franklin and his 128 men had perished.
Rae's Inuit friends told him of white men seen four years earlier. Their starved bodies were subsequently found amid evidence of cannibalism, having eaten dead comrades in a final desperate struggle to survive. …