I’ve always known about John Rae, there is a memorial in St Magnus Cathedral which shows the explorer lying down, his gun by his side, and I knew about Clestrain and that John Rae had lived there. But it was only after my mother, who after reading Ken McGoogan’s book on John Rae, Fatal Passage , had insisted on my sister and I taking her out to see the house of Clestrain that I became more interested in John Rae’s story.
The house seemed incredibly sad with glimpses of what it used to be hidden in the stonework and architecture. I borrowed Mum’s book and I couldn’t put it down, I was hooked like her on the story of an incredible man who had achieved so many things that seemed impossible for a man in those times or even today. And what seemed to lie at the back of all that achievement was John Rae’s Orcadian roots, his knowledge of the sea, weather, nature and landscape, and also his ability to recognise that we are all equal. This was something that in Victorian times, the gentry found hard to accept. Overall it was John Rae’s ability to communicate with all people that made him stand out from the crowd and achieve what others could not, like the discovery of the Northwest Passage.
I visited the Hall of Clestrain a second time on my own to take in the atmosphere and spent some time at Stromness Museum studying and drawing John Rae’s artefacts. Even just wondering the streets of Stromness gave me a sense of him and the relationship between Orkney and Canada through the Hudson’s Bay Company which again I already knew a bit about.
I started a large painting of Clestrain in the snow and it gradually developed into a kind of history of the explorer. I used a map of Northern Canada for the roof, and hidden in the snow are John Rae’s possessions such as his sextant and sledge. Orkney has thousands of geese, many of which fly down from the Arctic. I placed geese in my painting too as a symbol of connection – and a moon. I always think that wherever you travel in the world we are all seeing the same moon! This original of this painting (1) A Tribute to Dr John Rae the arctic explorer – www.janeglue.com is now on display at Stromness museum.
Around about the same time I started a Facebook page for my business, Jane Glue Gallery. This was primarily to promote my business but it became more than that. Being an artist can be a bit of a lonely occupation, but now I found that through the internet I could connect with other artists from all over the world and share our ideas and work with each other.
One of those artists was Sheena Fraser McGoogan. Sheena had posted a painting of John Rae’s house at Clestrain on her Facebook page and I loved her painting! So I thought, wouldn’t it be lovely to have an exhibition based around John Rae and Orkney at my gallery, especially since the lady at Stromness Museum had told me that it would be the 200th anniversary of John Rae’s birth this year. To be honest, when I sent a message to ask Sheena about exhibiting, I had no idea that she was married to the writer Ken McGoogan or that she even lived in Canada! Anyhow Sheena seemed thrilled to be asked and agreed almost right away.
Recently I have read Ken McGoogan’s book Lady Franklin’s Revenge. I didn’t really want to read it as I didn’t warm to her, but I realise she was an extraordinary woman in her time, just a bit misguided by her status. I don’t know if John Rae will ever be properly recognised as the discoverer of the Northwest Passage but I do know that to the people of Orkney he is a hero and our most famous son. He has never been forgotten in Orkney and never will be!
There are a selection of prints available on this site which all have connections with the life of John Rae, visit (1) Dr John Rae the arctic explorer limited edition prints – www.janeglue.com
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