Visiting an Arctic Hero's Homestead

The Hall of Clestrain in Orkneys, Scotland was the childhood home of Arctic explorer John Rae. In 2006, this historic building was in a state of great disrepair. Read more about how now, more than a decade later, the Hall has been changed for the better.
Hall of Clestrain stone walls

© Dennis Minty

John Rae was always an inspiration to me. I grew up in Canada, travelling regularly to Nunavut and studying northern history—so his name popped up over and over. I got my first in-depth history lesson when I tackled Ken McGoogan’s Fatal Passage. I devoured it. And then, I began to look more closely at the maps that I had pored over as a young person.

I first set foot on Orkney as a teenager in 1995. I fell in love with the windswept hills and was captivated by the human history of the islands. I was especially keen on understanding the connection between Orkney and Canada—exciting adventures embarked upon by the Hudson Bay Company and many a fine whaling ship.

2006 visit to Hall of Clestrain

© Matthew Swan

From left to right: Bill Swan, Alana Bradley-Swan, Cedar Swan, and Dave Zehnder, Hall of Clestrain, 2006

In 2006, I joined a few family and friends in search of the island’s best fish and chips and the childhood home of John Rae. Of course, we knew of the Hall of Clestrain, and had been forewarned of the deserted and crumbling state of the building. I remember driving down the long road to the shoreline and seeing the dilapidated building grow large on our approach. My lasting impression of that first visit was the smell: abandoned.

We poked around the basement, assessing the condition, marvelling that such an important homestead had fallen into such disrepair. We strolled the shore of Salthouse Bay and reflected on the significance of the place and the importance of the great Orcadian explorer and his early years. Indeed, this was the catalyst for what would become a meaningful, long-lasting partnership between Adventure Canada and the John Rae Society.

Cedar and Islay at Hall of Clestrain

© Dennis Minty

Cedar and Islay visit the Hall of Clestrain, 2018

Since then, I’ve had the opportunity to visit the Hall of Clestrain again. Most recently, I came with my own two young girls—Charlotte and Islay—and the group of intrepid travellers aboard Adventure Canada’s biennial Scotland Slowly expedition. As visitors, we were not alone; we had a host of fabulous Orcadians greet us to share their love of the Hall of Clestrain.

The Hall was first built in 1769 and is one of few of this type of building in Scotland. We were lucky to get to explore the Hall’s grounds and take a peek at the architectural restorations, all with the passionate and knowledgeable direction of our tour guides. We learned, too, about the fundraising efforts undertaken by the John Rae Society to help preserve this significant place.

John Rae Society President Andrew Appleby tours guests

© Dennis Minty

John Rae Society President, Andrew Appleby, and Adventure Canada guests at the Hall of Clestrain

The homestead felt a world apart from my first visit; much work still has to be done, but the love and dedication of a small but mighty group was palpable. The John Rae Society has taken such great care to preserve and safeguard this historical treasure.

It was personally rewarding to return to a place, more than a decade later, that now conjured sentiments of rejuvenation and triumph, where there once was melancholy. And it was a proud moment for me to bring our guests here—to acknowledge the great skill and ambition of John Rae by paying homage to the place where he lived, where he no doubt nurtured his desire to explore, and laid the foundation for his resourcefulness.

About the Author

Cedar Swan

Cedar Swan

CEO and Host

An adventurer and passionate outdoor enthusiast, Cedar believes in the importance of connections to nature in one’s daily life. The CEO of Adventure Canada—as well as an expedition planner, leader, and guide—Cedar’s work engages, entertains, and educates by connecting people to each other and the land through innovative travel experiences.

Cedar believes that fostering connections to people and land is critical to the longevity of conservation work, and is dedicated to cultivating meaningful relationships that strengthen our ties to nature and each other. Above all, Cedar is fiercely committed to the regions and communities to which Adventure Canada travels, and works tirelessly to promote and advocate for their needs.