An Open Letter to Explorer John Rae

Dear Dr. Rae:

You have been gone from us since July 22, 1893 – precisely one hundred and twenty-nine years. I write from the future to mark the day of your passing. What to report from 2022? Six years ago, I relayed the news that searchers have found the two long-lost ships of Sir John Franklin, Erebus and Terror. Underwater archaeologists from Parks Canada retrieved numerous relics from both ships, but then faced a two-year delay thanks to a global pandemic known as COVID-19.

This year, they are renewing their investigations. Hopes are high that they will retrieve written documents, most likely from the well-preserved cabin of Captain Frances Crozier on the Terror (papers possibly sealed into waterproof canisters). Such a discovery might well resolve the mystery of what went wrong. Why did so many men abandon the two ships in such apparent panic? For starters.

Scientists have demolished the earliest prevailing theory, that lead poisoning made them do it. Several writers have put forward other options, and I am just finishing a book – my sixth about Arctic exploration – which advances an original and, I believe, most convincing explanation.

Meanwhile, my book Fatal Passage, which tells the story of your extraordinary life and times, has now sold more than 60,000 copies, mostly in Canada, the U.K., and Australia, though also in the U.S. Here in Canada, at the Fergus Scottish Festival in mid-August, I will devote one of four half-hour-long talks to that book.

Finally, great news out of Orkney, where the John Rae Society is making fantastic progress in restoring your home, the Hall of Clestrain. The Society will raise funds with an auction and lottery draw on September 30th, and I recently sent them signed copies of Fatal Passage and Lady Franklin’s Revenge, along with gorgeous cards by Sheena Fraser McGoogan.  In short, we keep our shoulders to the wheel.  John Rae lives!


  1. Karen Lahey on July 24, 2022 at 1:08 am

    I have just read Fatal Passage and tonight finished Ancient Mariner, having just discovered that these two books existed. Here’s to John Rae, and I intend to write you a letter, I guess through your literary agent, about what these books, particularly Ancient Mariner mean to me. In the meantime, thank you thank you for writing them.

    • Ken McGoogan on July 24, 2022 at 10:21 pm

      Karen, many thanks. You can always drop me a line at ken dot mcgoogan at gmail dot com.

  2. Andrew Appleby on July 24, 2022 at 5:20 am

    Ken’s books and Sheena’s cards arrive in Orkney the other day. The lottery draw and auction will take place at Skaill House, courtesy of major Malcolm McRae, on 30th September, John Rae’s 209th birthday.

    Archaeology at The Hall of Clestrain, Rae’s family home, has found the surfaces and threshold he will have known. They are over three feet below the current surface, showing the splendid sandstone rainwater drain he will have been familiar with. It is thrilling to touch these physical remains.

    Restoration gets ever closer. Do go to to have a catch up. You can even join us. We wish some day to show the respect and friendship the Rae and the Franklin families had for each other. This is but one of my personal desires.

    Andrew Appleby

  3. Christian Rae on July 26, 2022 at 8:24 pm

    Well written Ken. I can hardly wait to visit my families restored home. His family and the people of the Orkney Islands haven’t forgotten Dr. John Rae.

  4. Ken McGoogan on July 27, 2022 at 9:23 am

    Christian, right you are. Orcadians appreciate Rae. Are you heading to Orkney one day soon? I’d be interested in hearing your plans. ken dot mcgoogan at gmail dot com.

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