Eyewitness report from Westminster Abbey: John Rae lives!


LONDON, England
– The ledger stone is brilliantly placed. It reads: “John Rae / 1813 – 1893 /
Arctic Explorer.” Newly installed in Westminster Abbey in the heart of London, it
is situated directly beneath the elaborate bust of Sir John Franklin.

The effect is
one of completion. Given the privilege of offering “a reflection” today at the
commemoration ceremony, I spoke of how Rae had completed the work begun by
Franklin. In 1846, after sailing south down Peel Sound from Parry Channel, the
good Sir John got trapped in the pack ice at the northwest corner of King
William Island.

Eight years
later, John Rae discovered not just the most salient features of the tragic fate of the
Franklin expedition, but a channel to the east of King William Island – Rae
Strait — that would prove to be the final link in the first navigable North
West Passage.

After becoming
the first explorer to sail the Passage from beginning to end (1903-06), Roald
Amundsen explicitly credited Rae with having shown him how to sail beyond King
William Island. Nobody would pass through Victoria Strait, where Franklin’s
ships got trapped, until 1967, when a Canadian icebreaker pounded through.

All this and
more I outlined to a standing-room-only audience – many of whom had come south
from Rae’s native Orkney — in the Chapel of St. John the Evangelist. Somehow,
I confined myself to five minutes! Orcadian musician Jennifer Wrigley then
brought tears to many an eye by playing Air for Dr. John Rae, and two Canadian
cousins who share an ancestor with Rae – Mary Davey and Jane Hamilton – laid a
wreath and flowers by the new ledger stone. A CBC-TV crew captured all this for
posterity — oh, and for tonight’s news.

After the
ceremony came Evensong in the splendiferous Abbey, and a reception at the
Scottish Office in nearby Dover House. This is home base for Alistair
Carmichael, the politician who, backed by countless Orcadians and the John Rae
Society, spear-headed the drive to get John Rae recognized in the Abbey. As one
woman put it, looking around at the reception, “This is an occasion we will
never forget.”

 (Photo by Sheena Fraser McGoogan)


  1. ddd on February 1, 2022 at 5:17 pm

    Thank you for this post. This event in part pays a debt long unpaid.

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