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Partnership Profile: The John Rae Society

Adventure Canada and the John Rae Society have been official partners since 2018. The John Rae Society preserves and educates about the historical legacy of Arctic explorer John Rae. Here, president Andrew Appleby tells us about recent archaeological excavations at the Hall of Clestrain, the childhood home of John Rae.
Hall of Clestrain

© Dennis Minty

The mission of the John Rae Society is to educate about the life and achievements of John Rae, one of the world’s greatest Arctic explorers and the discoverer of the final navigable link of the Northwest Passage. John Rae was a well-respected Orcadian surgeon, author, and explorer, of whom his home community remains immensely proud.

One of the responsibilities of our organization is to maintain and restore the Hall of Clestrain, where John Rae was born. In partnership with Adventure Canada, and with the financial support of donors including Adventure Canada guests, we have made great advancements in preserving this important historical site.

Archaeological Investigations at the Hall of Clestrain

This year, I’ve felt that there is an urgent need to interpret the courtyard at the rear of the Hall of Clestrain. Palladian farm courtyards, by their very nature, are very rare indeed, and thus any archaeological findings would have great importance for the Orkney Isles.

Group photo archaeology team photo by John Welburn ABIPP

© John Welburn - ABIPP

From left to right: Andrew Appleby, President of the John Rae Society; Marie-Claire Rackham-Mann, Aegis Archaeology; Paul Johnson, Standing Buildings Archaeologist; Emily Addyman and Tom Addyman, Addyman Archaeology, Edinburgh. Missing is Gail Drinkall, Curator, Orkney Museums.

With this in mind, and with the blessing of our County Archaeologist, members of the John Rae Society formed a volunteer group to excavate and interpret our courtyard’s findings. You can read more about the entire process on our website, but I’ve included some highlights here.

Day 1:

We began by clearing the turf and topsoil of the courtyard to get an idea of what is below. At the north end of the Hall, this revealed stone curbing. The paving conceals a flight of steps that lead down to the ground floor of the Hall of Clestrain. For the time being, we will not be removing any of these stone slabs, but we believe that this staircase was sealed over when a piggery was installed within, and we will learn more when we do eventually uncover the stairs.

Stone curbing photo by John Welburn ABIPP

© John Welburn - ABIPP

Day 3:

We cleared an area in front of the stairs to see what the courtyard surface was like. It is largely pea gravel with some small pieces of flagstone pressed in. We were very fortunate in the discovery of a 1921 penny in very good condition. It was directly in front of the stair. We do not, however, think it was a ritual deposit—just pure loss for a farmhand!

1921 penny found at excavation photo by John Welburn ABIPP

© John Welburn - ABIPP

Day 8:

While we were clearing what we believe is a drain heading north through the courtyard, one of our volunteers, Marie-Claire, came across a glass jam jar sitting upright underneath a large stone. This is reminiscent of what is sometimes termed a “witch’s bottle,” possibly related to faith healing and remedy curing. A very special discovery!

Video courtesy of James Grieve and the John Rae Society.

Day 9:

One of the exciting discoveries we’ve made in excavating the courtyard of the Hall of Clestrain is a very well-planned and well-built drainage system. Up against the outer wall of the Hall, we’ve discovered that this drain is still holding a great deal of water.

View within the drain photo by John Welburn ABIPP

© John Welburn - ABIPP

We need to work out the details of how precisely to do so, but this does hold promise that we could dry out the Hall building by slowly emptying this drain, to help preserve the structure.

Video courtesy of James Grieve and the John Rae Society.

Learn More

To learn more about John Rae and the Hall of Clestrain, or to support our work, please visit our website. There you can read more about our recent archaeology project, go on a virtual open house tour of the Hall, keep up to date with our latest events, become a member of the John Rae Society, or make a donation to help our historical restoration projects.

We look forward to partnering with Adventure Canada for years to come, and to hosting you if you visit the Orkneys on one of their expeditions!

About the Author

Andrew Appleby

Andrew Appleby

President, John Rae Society

Andrew Appleby is president of the John Rae Society, whose mission is to educate others about the life and achievements of John Rae, one of the world’s greatest Arctic explorers and the discoverer of the final navigable link of the Northwest Passage.