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)