NE Scotland, Orkney & Shetland

Arctic explorer John Rae awarded freedom of Orkney

Portrait of John Rae
Image caption Dr John Rae charted huge areas of unmapped territory in the Arctic

Councillors in Orkney have voted to confer the Freedom of Orkney on Dr John Rae.

The Arctic explorer was born in Orphir, but died more than 120 years ago.

One councillor argued the list of posthumous candidates should also include Orkney's patron saint, St Magnus, who was martyred 900 years ago.

In the end the Rae proposal was passed, though it is not clear who will accept the honour on his behalf.

Born in Orphir in September 1813, Rae studied medicine in Edinburgh before signing on as ship's surgeon on the Prince of Wales bound for Canada.

Survival skills

When the ship's return was blocked by ice, he accepted the post of surgeon and clerk at Moose Factory and served there for 10 years, using his spare time to learn hunting, travel and survival skills from the First Nation and Metis people.

He was asked by the Hudson Bay Company to finish the mapping of the Arctic coast, making several important discoveries during his subsequent expeditions.

He also found evidence of the fate of Sir John Franklin's lost expedition, which had intended to traverse the last unnavigated section of the Northwest Passage.

After Rae's death in 1893 his body was taken to Orkney, where it was buried in the grounds of St Magnus Cathedral in Kirkwall.

The proposal confer the freedom of the islands to him was passed at a meeting of the council in Kirkwall on Tuesday.

Image copyright HEW MORRISON
Image caption Forensic artist Hew Morrison used specialist computer software to reconstruct of St Magnus's face

North Isles councillor Stephen Clackson told the meeting: "Once we are able to nominate candidates from any time in history, deciding who are the most deserving becomes a very difficult task on account of the plethora of meritorious candidates.

"A candidate that springs to mind for me would be the late Magnus Erlendsson, Earl of Orkney who, 900 years ago, gave himself up to be martyred to secure peace for the people of Orkney, and who has been an enduring inspiration over the past nine centuries."

Councillor Clackson went on to argue that the Freedom of Orkney ought to be restricted to candidates who are living.

The council's convenor, Councillor Harvey Johnston, told members he doubted if St Magnus needed the extra recognition.

"The forerunner of this council, the government and the people of Orkney, erected a cathedral to him sometime ago. And he's also our patron saint", he said.

"So, he's got a fair bit of honour."

Image caption St Magnus and John Rae are both buried in the cathedral in Kirkwall, the capital of Orkney

Then political leader councillor James Stockan, who had originally nominated Dr Rae, summarised the arguments in his favour: "He, for many years, was almost banished to obscurity. And he was one of our citizens who did something quite remarkable.

"I know recently a statue was erected to his honour in Stromness, the place he lived for so many years.

"But in this year of Stromness 200 (commemorating the grant of Burgh of Barony status to the town) I would say it would be a very fitting thing for us to do."

Discussions will now have to take place to decide what form of ceremony is appropriate to recognise the first ever posthumous granting of the Freedom of Orkney.

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