Dr John Rae

On 30th September 2014 a memorial stone to Dr John Rae, explorer, was unveiled in St John the Evangelist chapel in Westminster Abbey, near the memorials to fellow explorers Sir John Franklin and Sir Leopold McClintock. Rae is buried at St Magnus cathedral, Kirkwall on the Orkney Islands, where there is a large marble memorial to him. The Abbey stone, in red Orkney sandstone, has Celtic style lettering by Charles Smith and the inscription reads:


Rae was born on 30th September 1813 at the Hall o'Clestrain in Orphir on Orkney (islands off the north coast of Scotland), a son of John, factor on Sir William Honeyman's estate, and his wife Margaret (Glen). His father was appointed Orkney agent for the Hudson's Bay Company. After qualifying in Edinburgh as a surgeon young John served on a Hudson's Bay vessel travelling to Canada. Ice forced him to over winter there and he loved the area and the wild type of life so much he remained as surgeon at the Moose Factory post on Hudson Bay. He studied the ways of the local Cree Indians, gathering knowledge and skills from them. The Inuit called him "Aglooka" as he was the best snowshoe walker of his time. In 1849 he took over the Mackenzie river district at Fort Simpson and charted unknown territories on the north Canadian coast. He succeeded in proving the existence of a North West passage (a navigable route across the Arctic from the Atlantic to the Pacific) and searched for the lost Franklin expedition, who were also searching for the passage. Information from the Inuit given to Rae showed that Franklin's men had all perished and the bodies showed signs of cannibalism. This report made Rae unpopular and his achievements were rather ignored. He retired in 1856 but continued exploration and work for telegraph companies to find routes through Greenland, Alaska and British Columbia. In 1860 he married Catherine Thompson. He died in London on 22nd July 1893 and his body was taken by steamer to Kirkwall for burial.

Further reading

Oxford Dictionary of National Biography 2004

"Dr John Rae" by R.L. Richards, 1985




30th September 1813


22nd July 1893


30th September 2014




St John the Evangelist

Memorial Type


Material Type


Dr John Rae
John Rae

[Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons

Dr John Rae
Dr John Rae memorial

This image can be purchased from Westminster Abbey Library

Image © 2022 Dean and Chapter of Westminster