John Rae’s childhood home set to become memorial visitor centre

The John Rae Society has finally purchased the Hall of Clestrain, the childhood home of explorer John Rae. The Society, created three years ago to restore the 18th century building, acquires entry to the Hall and surrounding lands as of Sept. 30 — which would have been Rae’s 203rd birthday.

The Society put down a deposit and has five years, interest free, to raise the rest of the money. It aims to make the home a fitting monument to Rae’s feats of exploration in Canada. Andrew Appleby, society president, said that visitor facilities and interpretation will pay tribute not just to Rae, but also to the Inuit and First Nations who assisted him in his explorations. The Inuit, especially, “will be big on our priorities of interpretation.”

In 1854, when Rae discovered the location of the final link in what would prove to be the first navigable Northwest Passage, he was accompanied by his two hardiest men — the Inuk William Ouligbuck Jr. and the Ojibway Thomas Mistegan.

The Hall of Clestrain was built in 1769 by businessman Patrick Honeyman after he married. He and his wife travelled from the Orkney island of Graemsay to Edinburgh, where they admired New Town, then under construction. Clestrain is Georgian Edinburgh transplanted to Orkney. Rae was born in the Hall in 1813. The place was occupied continuously until 1952, when a storm ripped off its roof. The temporary roof built then has remained in place ever since. 

The Society is bent on reversing “the ravages of storms and too many decades on this wonderful 18th century architectural gem.” As I wrote not long ago: “Because of John Rae, Clestrain is the most important heritage building in Orkney, and one of the most significant in all of Scotland. It will make a spectacular visitor centre. Hats off to the John Rae Society for persevering in making this happen.”

Alistair Carmichael, member of Parliament for Orkney, hailed news of the purchase, noting that “the John Rae story is one that is close to the heart of many Orcadians. . . . The Hall of Clestrain is central to that story and it is right that it should be part of any lasting memorial to this great Orcadian and all that he did in his lifetime.”

The John Rae Society is raising funds to complete the transformation, and those keen to support the project can do so by clicking here to their website. As Appleby put it, “Any sum, wee or vast, will be so very much appreciated.” (Photos courtesy of Colin Bullen.)

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