Rae was born near Stromness, on Orkney Mainland. He studied medicine at
Edinburgh and in 1833 became a surgeon for the Hudson's Bay Company. This was
the start of Rae's association with the Arctic. It quickly became apparent to
his employers that Rae's skills as an outdoorsman and his undoubted ability with
bots made him more valuable as a surveyor and explorer than a simple medical
doctor.In 1846 he made the first of his journeys to the Canadian Arctic, and two
years later he was a member of the futile search led by Sir John Richardson to
look for the lost Franklin expedition. In 1850 he led a similar expedition, and
found two pieces of wood presumed to belong to Franklin's ships. In a subsequent
published account of his trip, Rae claims that the flooded landscape made
further search at that time impossible.
He returned to the Canadian north in 1853 to survery the geography of Repulse
Bay. There he found the first hard evidence of Franklin's expedition. and
purchased from local Inuit articles belonging to Franklin. For this discovery he
received a prize of £10,000 from the British government. Rae also reported tales
told to him by the Inuit that explained the demise of Franklin and his men.
These tales suggested that the lost party had been driven mad by malnutrition
and resorted to cannibalism to stave off starvation. Rae's stories were derided
iin the public press - perhaps under the considerable influence of Franklin's
widow - and Rae was ridiculed and called a liar. Despite the fact that later
discoveries back up Rae's tales of Franklin, the Orcadian's reputation never
Rae made further journeys through the Canadian north and west, and in 1864 he
surveyed the route for a telegraph line through the Rockies from Winnipeg. Over
the course of his travels this vigorous man is estimated to have walked over
25,000 miles through the Canadian wilderness. In 1852 he received the
prestigious founder's gold ,medal from the Royal Geographical Society.
In the climate of his day - and given the Victorian passion for creating
heroes of their explorers - it may be surprising that Rae's travels did not earn
him the fame and public adulation enjoyed by his contemporaries. We mentioned
the bad press he received for reporting negative tales of Franklin, who was at
that time a great hero in the Victorian world view. One other thing worked
against him in this respect; he adapted the clothing and lifestyle of the Eskimo
and Inuit of the far north. This was a sensible decision, as the natives of the
Canadian Arctic had evolved a lifestyle which enabled them to survive their
harsh environment far better than European explorers. But the Victorian mind did
not think highly of those who 'went native', and Rae lost considerable respect
in the eyes of his contemporary Britons. He would have been much more highly
thought of had he stayed staunchly Western European to the last and died doing
So despite the honours he received, and the tremendous role he played in
opening up the previously unknown (to European minds) the Canadian north, Rae
remained larhgely unknown to the Victorian public. Unknown, that is, except in
his native Orkney. His tomb is one of the finest in St Magnus cathedral, and
there is a fascinating display on his life and travels in the Orkney Museum
opposite the Cathedral.
Another case of a man who didn't have the right kind of publicity and suffered because of it. Samuel Colt knew the value of publicity and used it to his advantage.
He also had respect for other people and benefitted by learning their knowledge.