Dr John Rae

An occasional series on eminent Scots unjustly ignored or forgotten


Dr John Rae – explorer and cartographer, now credited with discovering the Northwest Passage, and Franklin’s fated crew

Dr John Rae was an outstanding explorer. And it’s him I want to concentrate on to demonstrate how the power of the British Establishment, embodied in a handful of public figures, can alter historical fact, dent achievement, and destroy careers and reputations.

Holding essays down to between one and two thousand words does not allow much space for complicated plotting, consequently this rendering of Rae’s stature and the concerted attacks on his character by Lady Jane Franklin is necessarily abbreviated commensurate with telling the tale.

However, I add a short bibliography at the end for readers stimulated to find out more about an extraordinary Scotsman.


The ‘Hall of Clestrain’, Orkney, where Rae was born

John Rae, the man

John Rae was born in Orkney in 1813. He trained as a surgeon at the Royal College of Surgeons in Edinburgh, was greatly respected as both medical man and explorer, yet died almost penniless in London in 1893. There is a reason he died in a garret almost forgotten. His achievements and judgement was trashed by the British Establishment.

In between times he helped alter the world map as far as northern Canada and the islands are concerned, and contribute immensely to our understanding of the Esquimaux  tribes. That was too much for those who presumed celebrity belonged to them, and by God’s law, was always English.

Manly men who liked to do manly things born in Orkney at that time were certain to attract the attention of the Hudson’s Bay company, Orkney a chief recruiting post for men of strong disposition used to the rugged life.

Orkney lies further north than Fort Churchill, outpost of the then fur trade on the shores of Canada’s Hudson Bay. Stromness Harbour was the place to stock up with provisions and water, await a fair wind, and make for Hudson’s Bay.

It was only natural a man of Rae’s self-sufficient temperament and thirst for adventure would become an eager employee.

Rae proved to be an exceptional explorer often taking on mapping duties exploring miles of snow-covered coastline on his own. And he learned the Esquimaux ways, their language and customs, how to make snowshoes, how to build an igloo, how to catch fish and game and cook it. His skills were second-to-none. He dressed as Inuit, and strong as an ox could walk a 100 miles in a few days.

Discovering the Northwest Passage

But his biggest achievement was discovering the Northwest Passage, that is, the last route through the myriad of islands that litter the ocean in that inhospitable part of the world.

The search for the Northwest Passage to avoid the arduous journey around the Horn of Africa was almost a continuous search for many centuries, but in the last decade before its discovery most hope and faith to find the route was placed in the rotund figure of English Royal Navy Officer, Captain Sir John Franklin. Sorrowfully, Franklin’s expedition was doomed to failure. He and his entire crew disappeared.

Rae made it his personal task to find them. Indeed, he was commissioned by the Admiralty to find Franklin. He tried three times, doing what others failed to do, asking local Esquimaux to bring him any knowledge they had of Anglo travellers lost.

On the third try he found evidence they had all perished in the freezing wilds, some of the group splitting and going a separate way from others. Worse, among the mummified bodies of the last of the group Rae found irrefutable evidence some had resorted to cannibalism to eke out survival a few fearful days more. Rae put all this in his journal, transcribed in a full report to the Royal Society of London.

Behind every successful man there is a woman, goes the saying. In Franklin’s case behind every unsuccessful man there is an over-ambitious, pushy wife. Lady Jane Franklin was well-known for interfering in her husband’s administration work, censoring his incoming letters, and giving him lessons in statecraft.

They lived in Tasmania, then called Van Diemen’s Land, a penal colony over which Sir John was lieutenant-governor. In 1843, Sir John, derided as a victim of petticoat domination, was censored for incompetence, and ordered to return to England.


HMS Erebus – both it and Franklin’s other vessel, HMS Terror, have been discovered on the sea bed – but not in the Northwest Passage

A wife’s ambition

On returning Lady Jane learned that the Lords of the Admiralty were looking for someone who, she thought, would be lauded as a great hero in the most glorious expedition of England’s seafaring history, the Arctic, destined to discover the Northwest Passage. Her husband was almost sixty years old and grossly overweight. She ignored reality and his fast expanding  corpulence. Her husband would become a national hero, and she the consort remembered forever.

Sir John was at the bottom of the list of candidates, but Lady Jane got him to the top, mostly by rubbishing the achievements of the other candidates. In 1845, he set sail in two ships for a place in the history books, but not as Lady Jane hoped.

Two years later, when it was plain he was not going to reappear trailing tales of glory, and a map of the Northwest route, Lady Jane added £3,000 to the reward money offered by the Admiralty for anybody who could locate and bring home her husband and crew.

The best laid schemes of mice and women. John Rae was commissioned to look for Franklin. Nine years later all hell broke loose when Rae arrived with his shocking report. Lady Jane had assumed the role of professional widow, her husband’s death confirmed on seeing ‘the melancholy proofs of my husband’s demise, a broken chronometer, a small silver plate, his name engraved upon it, and several spoons that bore his crest.”

But as for cannibalism, how dare that nasty upstart of an Orkneyman, a mere fur trader, suggest cannibalism and taint the good name of her husband.

Lady Franklin was intent on revenge!


Sir John Franklin – the wrong wife can be lethal to a man’s career

A wife’s revenge

Recovering from her trauma, Lady Jane set about destroying Rae’s character, his (generally) accepted discovery of the Northwest Passage and the Rae Straits that led to it. Her campaign was going to leave no prisoners.

She denigrated and defiled Rae to her elite friends, earls, landed gentry, knights, lords and leading politicians. She encountered some disbelief, after all, Rae was not without his admirers, and a long illustrious history of scientific exploration.

The Dickens of a job

So, she enlisted the help of the day’s most elevated literary celebrity, a great writer, immensely popular and influential – Charles Dickens.

Born a year before Rae, Dickens already had some of his best work published: Oliver Twist, A Christmas Carol, David Copperfield. The poor loved him, not only for his stories and characters based on people he had met, but because he was an ardent social reformer. Lady Jane knew people from all classes would listen to Dickens. And they did.

Like many of his imperialist times, Dickens was prone to racism. Of a dark-skinned London-born citizen he said, “He is not a foreign-grown savage, he is the ordinary home-made article. Dirty, ugly, disagreeable to all the senses, in body a common creature of the common streets.”

To some degree his intolerance helped give Dickens confidence to denigrate ‘lesser mortals’, prejudices handy when blasting the reliability of the Esquimaux who brought evidence to Rae. Scotland was a not a place that much interested Dickens, in fact, it is difficult to find a Scots character in any of his novels. Nevertheless, he was given the freedom of Edinburgh and wrote admiringly of the city.

Once under the spell of Lady Jane, Dickens succumbed to her intimidating charm. She was furious cannibalism was ever mentioned. Dickens agreed.

Spinning the narrative

Dickens was not so stupid as to embark on a wholesale condemnation of Rae. He knew to praise the man. He acknowledged Rae had a duty to report what he had learned and seen. Instead, in a lengthy leading article in the Household Words, he chooses to slam the Admiralty for publishing unedited extracts from Rae’s report to the Royal Society. Dickens dismisses the allegations without denigrating Rae but condemns his conclusions.

“There is no reason to believe that any of  its members [the Franklin expedition] prolonged their existence by the dreadful expedient of eating the bodies of their dead companions. Quite apart from the very loose and unreliable nature of the Esquimaux representations, we shall how …that it is in the highest degree improbable that such men and the officers and crew of the two lost ships, would, or could, in the extremity of hunger, alleviate the pains of starvation by these horrible means.”

Dickens goes on to exonerate Rae as if he was guilty of some accusation or other. “We can release Dr Rae from this inquiry, proud of him as an Englishman, and happy in his safe return home for a well-earned rest.” [My emphasis.]

Dickens the racist

Dickens challenges almost all the evidence laid out by Rae in his report, stating Rae’s evidence useless because of its “third-hand nature, given through an interpreter.” No mention of Rae ability to speak the local language is mentioned. Esquimaux are depicted as heathen, ready to say anything for a the trade of a fur pelt, trinkets, or some whisky. “We believe every savage to be in their heart covetous, treacherous, and cruel, and have yet to learn of any tenderness in their nature”.

Dickens goes on to suggest the Inuit murdered Franklin and his crew and concocted a story of cannibalism to hide their guilt. He did so despite the Hudson Bay company backing Rae’s findings to the hilt.

In the British tradition of heroic English failures Franklin’s journey was commemorated by several geographic names, including two islands in Antarctica and Greenland, Franklin Sound north of Tasmania and Franklin Strait in Arctic Canada. His wife has given name to Lady Franklinfjord in Svalbard.

Rae never stopped fighting to correct his reputation.

He is buried in his homeland, Orkney.


The recently discovered bronze bell from Franklin’s HMS Terror

Signs of cannibalism

In 1986, corpses of Franklins men were found in permafrost, mutilated, showing all the signs of cannibalism. Dickens was wrong. Forensic science proved it.

And so Franklin, not Rae, was given the honour of being the man who discovered the Northwest Passage, Rae demoted to a naïve traveller, awarded only £8,000 of a £20,000 reward, and left to anonymity in his last years. He died almost impoverished and forgotten. In time of course, everything Rae had detailed proved to be absolutely correct.

Rae’s findings were vindicated.

It was not until a few years ago that some brave people took this miscarriage of history to Westminster demanding Rae be given his rightful place in history, that he be given proper recognition as the true ‘Discoverer of the Northwest Passage,’ and that that title be removed from Franklin’s tomb.

A man at one with the Inuit people

Here is an example of how the British establishment takes care of its own, how in doing so it contrives to find scapegoats, deals in sophistry, illuminates its racism, it prejudices, and its delusional self-image as civilisers of the rest of us.

As testament to the kind of man John Rae was, I leave the last word to him.

“I have had some opportunities of studying the Esquimaux character; and from what I have seen, I consider them superior to all the tribes of the red men in America. In their domestic relationship they show a bright example to the most civilised of people. They are dutiful sons and daughters, kind brothers and sisters, and most affectionate parents.”


Reading:                                                                                                                                                   “No Ordinary Journey” National Museum of Scotland                                                          “Fatal Passage” Ken McGoogan Bantam Books                                                                        “The Arctic Journals of John Rae” Touchwood Editions                                                    “Passage” film by John Walker, DVD – Film Board of Canada                                                “The Northwest Passage” paintings and prints by Royal Academician Dr Barbara Rae

NOTE: Documentary broadcast August 2015 

In a recent documentary shown on Channel Four Television, the narrator discussed the discovery of Franklin’s sunken flagship, Erebus, but did not mention Rae once, yet quoted from his journals several times. Without offering a shred of evidence, it even implied Franklin actually managed to discover the Northwest Passage. How could he – without a ship, and one found sunk in the opposite direction from his destination?  


In September 2014, the Prime Minister of Canada, Stephen Harper, announced that the wreck of HMS Erebus, one of the two ships from Franklin’s voyage, had been found. HMS Terror was discover in September 2016, and again no report mentioned Rae.

By coincidence news of the discovery of some bodies of Franklin’s crew appeared in UK newspapers a day after this essay was published every newspaper omitted the name of Dr John Rae.

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    The portrait of John Rae in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery

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29 Responses to Dr John Rae

  1. donald says:

    Thanks again GB for an excellent essay. Its the story of my families experience including my own, over and over and over again. The mediocrity of the aristocracy knows no bounds. There are no fresh lows of moral and ethical depravity they will not explore to conquer the decent, honest and courageous. They are parasites who steal everything from everybody. Love, money, due credit and life itself.

    Not content with stealing all of that, they cement it by thieving the moral high ground and calling it History.

    I have never Liked Dickens . He was little more than a cut out hero to pacify the downtrodden and give them a feint voice. A limp ,suction cup tipped arrow of no real benefit . Like communism , he promised much and delivered far less. Methinks he did protest to much .

    Damning with faint praise was Dickens smear tactic.

    It’s like that tiresome formulaic intonation that ALL BBC news reporters use to infuse their chatter with an air of Gravitas. Eeuurrgh. You know, that Churchilian waffling, pompous blather. Truly my barf bucket runneth over every time I have to listen to that smug self righteous crap they call objective reporting.

    The establishment will use the same comb over tricks on SNP and Scottish hopes. You can be sure of it. Keep up the good work.

  2. Calgacus says:

    Thanks Grouse Beater, those Victorians establishment types really were rather nasty.
    I think Cameron et al would be quite happy to see us all back in the workhouse.
    Boris would probably like to see us sent to the Colosseum.

  3. Grouse Beater says:

    “Those Victorians establishment types really were rather nasty.” ‘Fraid so.

  4. jimnarlene says:

    Interesting read and thank you for the links too.

  5. Grouse Beater says:

    You’re welcome. 🙂

  6. Thanks again, GB. Stuff like this is utterly illuminating.

    These days I routinely question everything I have ever been duped into believing in the official narrative of ‘British’ history. Witness for exams the recent hype about the Magna Carta as a ‘national’ event despite its relevance only to England and occupied Wales.

  7. Grouse Beater says:

    It’s the same with the first dictionary created over a decade (late) by Samuel Johnson. It’s used a lot in social media argument and academic debate as ridicule against Edinburgh’s Chamber’s dictionary.
    Few if any historians point out most of Johnson’s researchers were Scots!

  8. Connor McEwen says:

    Subtlety, subtlety and the southern voters did not want to see what was and is, going on. Maybe we should have more debates in” east end” schools on media tactics. Eton apparently thrives on them.

  9. Grouse Beater says:

    Good point. 🙂

  10. donald says:

    There is evidence to suggest that the Vikings may have beaten Rae in discovering the north west passage but their numbers insufficient to sustain and fully exploit it. This does not detract anything from Rae’s accomplishment however. How much Norse blood runs in Scottish veins? A fair big chunk I reckon.

    But if ever a land demanded resourcefulness its the Orkney’s.

    One thing is for sure though. Ill gotten wealth will Lie indefinitely to hold on to it. The corruption of truth by historians is the price conquered nations pay on top of the plunder of their wealth. All to often though the loss of wealth of nations is the result of traitors within their own borders. Cameron, Brown.

    Magna Carta like so many documents and political manifesto’s, promises much but delivers little.
    So whats new? Nothing really.

    Boys who fail to become men marry their mothers. Mothers who don’t want their boys to grow up seduce them. That’s the ugly secret of the establishment. Alas poor Hamlet, his mother knew him well. Not so much infinite jest, more like infinite incest. The royal prerogative. And doesn’t that picture of lady Jane looking at her son say it all?

  11. Grouse Beater says:

    No surprise if Vikings did get through first, extraordinary seamen as they were, but Rae mapped and documented it for the rest of us. 🙂

  12. donald says:

    Absolutely GB . Like so many competent explorers he was smart enough to listen to the natives who already knew their land better than anybody.
    Being a fair chunk Norse myself I have come to realize through my own research that over the centuries those resourceful seafarers planted seeds in many places and left a trail of clues for others to follow. Where did Columbus get his maps and leads on the Americas ? People forget that the Norse conquered and controlled most of Northern France Before invading England in1066. Their trade routes extended all the way to and beyond Damascus .

    The genius of the vikings was crafting light fast boats that could navigate up river as well as vast oceans quickly . That spirit of ingenuity and humility was obviously in John Rae’s Veins too.
    Even today , a light shallow draft Spruce Hull with a modern sailing rig and oars would best any other design without engine. Trust the Brits to lumber around in an overweight cannon shod clunker that lacked maneuverability. What boat did John Rae use ? I bet it was something light and fast. No need to compensate when you can innovate.
    The Eskimo can cover huge distances in their Kayaks.

    I will never forget the day I confronted someone on the morality of marrying his first cousin for money .His reply was ‘if its good enough for royalty its good enough for me’. I have not spoken to him since. When all the how, when, where and if is put aside and you ask Why are the establishment so corrupted ? there is your answer .
    Common sense is for Commoners . Arrogant statements are for ‘royalty’.

  13. Grouse Beater says:

    “His reply was ‘if its good enough for royalty its good enough for me’.

    I enjoyed that remark!

  14. MolliBlum says:

    Re-posted at http://www.facebook.com/grownupwomen?ref=hl
    Great slant on the story. He’s a true local hero in Orkney.
    Another little-known figure of the era, also from Orkney, and also an explorer, is William Balfour Baikie.

  15. Grouse Beater says:

    Thank you, Molli. And welcome! 🙂

  16. donald says:

    I checked out that interview with Jon Stewart. Nicola Sturgeon kicked ass ! and forced him to back peddle. To be fair, he was fairly gracious in defeat, but that did not stop Nicola driving home the point with a stinging remark about America’s tendency to take people’s oil without their permission. That’s ballsy.
    I am beginning to like the look of this Lady. A lot. No wonder she has the establishment worried.

  17. Grouse Beater says:

    She presents a down-to-earth, dynamic image which is very refreshing in a world of corrupt, lazy and dissembling politicians. Simply put – honest! The big challenges are ahead, and for that she will need to employ a more eloquent language register than currently. The many who wavered and with regret voted No in the Referendum want intelligent argument to be convinced to change their mind next plebiscite.

  18. donald says:

    Yes , That was the only thing that did worry me about the interview . There are people within the establishment that are decent but they will need to hear a more carefully presented argument . Less combative . Honesty does come across as combative though when you are debating in a house built on lies. Tough .
    I wanted to believe in Obama’s ‘change we can believe in’ but he was obviously a cynical marketed product rather than a sincere candidate. Broke every promise he made and went in the opposite direction , like the good corporate poodle that he is .

    I really don’t know much about Nicola Sturgeon or the SNP but I do hope they come through for Scotland. To see the Scottish people engaged and on fire is very reassuring in a world of complacency . So far Oz has not felt the full fury of the global recession but its coming . Hot money is keeping the economy humming while the rich cash in their ill gotten gains . The cracks are beginning to show though.

    I was horrified by Cameron’s post election declaration of fascist intent . Very disturbing. Abbott is very much the same kind of dissembler. A hatchet man who cuts with a cold grin on his face.

    I have always liked and admired strong women as long as they are honest . Thatcher presented as the former but acted only in the best interests of the City .
    I am heartened to see more corporate behemoths bottom lines getting gutted as people reject MacDonald’s and Monsanto. Its war now. That’s how the Establishment will see their customer ‘disloyalty’. I vote by boycotting their products and ridiculing their branding . Nothing dis empowers these Monkeys rackets better than open ridicule.
    The lies are coming home to roost with usurious rates of interest.

  19. Microcrofter says:

    Thank you for a great article. I was brought up looking over to Clestrain from Logan’s Well, and know the story well. Unfortunately, not many do.

    Compare Rae to Carmichael and you see how far we’ve come! More in common with Dicken’s and Lady J…


  20. Grouse Beater says:

    You’re welcome. And welcome to my weekly essays. Please feel free to comment on any, and on others who contribute. Receiving thanks always makes me feel I am doing something worthwhile for our community.

  21. hektorsmum says:

    Watched the programme last night GB, all the way through my Husband kept saying I wonder if they will air brush the Scot out of it, and so they did. Now I am wondering if the programme when originally made did mention Dr Rae and this was subsequently removed. I suppose we will never know, We Scots keep getting told we are whining, or we see conspiracy everywhere, as I said on Another Angry Voice, the word would not exist if there was no such thing as conspiracy.

    The Inuit were left carrying the can last night only to be exonerated at the end.

  22. Grouse Beater says:

    Worse – they implied Franklin actually discovered the North West Passage. How did he manage that without a ship!

    The Erebus was discover miles in the opposite direction.

    A useless documentary, there to give Canadian discovery some kudos.

  23. hektorsmum says:

    May I add GB that in that Channel 4 had the job of showing this programme therefore as another lot of Establishment toadies what can we expect, not a lot.

  24. Silver19 says:

    William Speirs Bruce was another Scottish explorer with little recognition https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Speirs_Bruce

    I recorded that CH4 programme last night to watch later glad I read this I don’t think I will bother watch it now.

  25. Grouse Beater says:

    Worth seeing for the remnants of the Erebus, but beyond that a coffee table effort.

  26. donald says:

    You will see the tips of many icebergs in the frozen North and im sure Mr Rae was very well informed about much older expeditions that remain mysterious . In the course of my family research I discovered the existence of a Trust complete with their original huge wax royal seals .
    My ancestors were the original Pictish Settlers of Scotland , from which the tough uncompromising MacGregors Spring . Indeed there is a very simple blood test that can infallibly prove Clan membership . ‘Revenge for Blood and treachery’ has far more meaning than most understand .
    The Vikings rightly saw Christianity as a dissembling of the natural order in their world and that was their real reason for plundering the monasteries and sacking them. Having no use themselves for the Gold , they decided to hide it in their newly found land far from the encroaching tide of Roman Catholicism and its Genocide. The gold made perfect Ballast for the long voyage and empty inflated water skins ensured that longboats were very hard to sink in the perilous Atlantic voyage . Tying them to the ends of locked oars ,they acted as stabilizing out riggers. Our Blond Cousins were no fools . The Norse gods laughed at the absurdity of ‘Jehovah’s’ claims .
    Sir Walter Scott , one of my ancestors , knew of all this . He also understood that for the Scots to reclaim their rights they had to declare and affirm their Culture as a civilized people.

    Abbotsford was a redoubt were this canny Lawyer did his research and enciphered all his written works . Only those with the Keys to the cipher would be able to use the works to put the map together . There is far more to this story yet . A story of Greed, treachery , betrayal ,love lost and found . True hearts never waver . They Revere the truth above all . The truth IS written in Blood .
    DNA does not lie .

  27. donald says:

    Hello HM . The reason the establishment works over time to smoke us out of the picture is because we and only we have the keys to our inheritance . An inheritance they have been trying to steal for a long time. The legend of Robin Hood is the legend of Rob Roy and the small band of brothers who century after century have labored against the odds for the people they love . We take back from the rich what they stole from us and eschewing personal wealth put it in Trust until the time is right .

  28. hektorsmum says:

    Meant to say Ray Mears did a programme on John Rae back in 2009, we remembered watching it. I believe you still can get a hold of it on You Tube. He was fair.

  29. Grouse Beater says:

    Many thanks.

    I see a number of newspaper articles on Rae’s deletion from the recent TV documentary, and that some of my points lifted and placed in those articles. I wrote my piece weeks before any of this broke or anybody cared a damn, but I wish hacks would do the honest thing and attribute their sources!!!

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