The email coincided with me watching a film called Kodachrome where the main character, a world renowned photographer wanted to get his last rolls of Kodachrome slide film developed before the process and it turns out his Dad ended forever. He enlisted his son to drive him there. If you have not watched the film I heartily recommend it.
In a flurry of conflicting emotions I agreed. The reasons for this are wide and varied but include:
Dad taught me how to take photographs and coincidently encouraged me to take them with Kodachrome slide film. As a kid I would spend hours watching slide shows either in our lounge or at kayaking clubs up and down the UK. The soporific sound and feeling of the whirring slide projector and each slide clunking in and out whilst sitting in the dark will be with me forever.
Through lockdown Dad’s sense of his own mortality has become more prevalent and a need to tick off a bucket list has become more pressing.
You don’t get many opportunities to spend quality time with your Dad and when parents have gone all you have left are memories and regrets for things you didn’t get a chance to do and say.
So to prepare the van for a 1800 mile round trip began. With ferries to book and decisions to make about accommodation. Lyndsey was at pains to remind me that this is the creation of a lasting memory and should not be skimped. She also mentioned that as Dad’s hips were shot his days of camping were over. So hotels to book too.
So we decided to make a week of it.
My van, a Volkswagen Transporter T6/T30 Kombi had the bed and kitchen pod removed to make room for the 14 boxes of books. The necessary to make tea en-route was put in the back together with a bag of clothes and time to leave Somerset and head to Lancashire to load up books and pick up Dad.
Once everything was loaded an overnight at Mum and Dads then a leisurely start on the Monday morning.
First overnight stop was Perth at Dad’s brothers house on the banks of the Tay Estuary. On the way we had lunch at the Falkirk Wheel then a brief stop to say hello to the Kelpies then onwards to Newburgh.
Tuesday morning we head to Dornoch along the A9 which has some jaw dropping views along the way, not least the bridges across the Inverness and Moray Firths.
On checking in to the Dornoch Hotel overlooking a golf course then over a stretch of dunes to the sea beyond.
We found the Highland Spice Indian restaurant as a treat for Dad to celebrate fathers day. Mum dislikes the aroma of aromatic spices created when a good curry is being cooked or as she describes it the “smell of curry” so Dad only has the chance of a good curry when he is released from Mum’s culinary clutches and has a meal out on his own.
After an excellent meal we popped across the road to the Dornoch Castle Whisky bar and sat in their grounds enjoying the warm evening weather. We had coffee and for desert a wee dram of Elements of Islay Peat whisky, a blend of single malts from around the island. A big, punchy full throttle dram with notes of roasted fruit, smoke and roasted spice. Bracing aromas of salty seaweed, lemon, lime and grapefruit all entwined with peat smoke and bonfire embers. Dad said that it was the best whisky he had ever tasted and at £5 a dram not bad value too.
Wednesday morning back on the A9 towards our ferry at Scrabster but as we had time via Wick and John O Groats. The A9 is the major road running from the Falkirk council area in central Scotland to Scrabster Harbour, Thurso in the far north, via Stirling, Bridge of Allan, Perth and Inverness. At 273 miles, it is the longest road in Scotland and the fifth-longest ‘A’ road in the United Kingdom.
We took advantage of the good weather and found a seat for the 90 minute crossing on the ship’s sun deck. During the crossing we spied a couple of dolphins cavorting in the water and got a great view of the Old Man of Hoy. Turning in to the bay at Stromness we got our first view of the Hall of Celstrain before docking and being met by Andrew and Sigrid. They were waiting beside their largely green Renault Kangoo that had a number of During the crossing we spied a couple of dolphins cavorting in the water and got a great view of the Old Man of Hoy. Turning in to the bay at Stromness we got our first view of the Hall of Celstrain before docking and being met by Andrew and Sigrid. They were waiting beside their largely green Renault Kangoo that had a number of dents on every panel including a fresh one added that very afternoon when the Kangoo more than gently kissed a Stromness lamp post.
Born 1948 in Kent, Andrew Appleby became an independent wanderer from a very early age. The youngest of three brothers, he constantly lagged behind and still does, even now, on a walk finding clay in banks and around ponds, or searching the ground for ancient artifacts. His natural tendency towards incendiary pursuits helped fire his meagre works from the age of seven, and at eleven he was smitten with the archaeology bug. This led to discovering a Neolithic site with quantities of prehistoric pottery... his yearning to make these pots was born. He spent most of his secondary school years in the pottery department. His father had related his tales of Orkney in the army intelligence service during World War Two, so Andrew and his brother hitch-hiked there from Kent. The archaeology, scenery, atmosphere and colours had a lasting effect and a decade later moved to the Isles permanently, setting up his pottery in an old chicken house at Fursbreck Farm in Harray. From his first weeks in residence, folk said, You must go and see the Harray Potter! He’s just magic! , hence its name. Past Chair of the Orkney Archaeology Society. He is currently President of the John Rae Society, honouring the Orcadian Arctic explorer.
Dad mentioned to Sigrid that he was nearly 80 and feeling his age. Sigrid exclaimed that this was nothing as she is 86 and still going strong.
During the crossing we received a message asking if Dad would be interviewed by BBC Radio Orkney. Dad was dead against this as he didn’t want any fuss. Instead he asked me to speak on his behalf instead. I reluctantly agreed.
John Rae was born at the Hall of Clestrain in Orphir on September 30, 1813 and grew up in comfort in affluent surroundings. But forsaking the pleasures of hearth and home, the young John Rae thrived on the outdoor life. Making the most of the rural location, Rae spent most of his boyhood sailing, climbing, trekking, hunting and fishing – activities that served him well for his future exploits.
Then, in 1819, John Rae Senior was made the Orkney agent of the Hudsons Bay Company
As a boy, Rae would accompany his father on the short sea crossing between Clestrain and Stromness where the HBC had their offices. Here, the young Rae would watch the company's many supply ships visit the town – their final port of call before crossing the Atlantic.
In 1833, shortly after qualifying as a surgeon in Edinburgh, John Rae signed on as a surgeon aboard the HBC ship Prince of Wales. The ship’s destination was Moose Factory in James Bay – an area at the southern end of Hudson Bay in Canada.
Intending only to serve a single season, the early “arrival” of ice meant Rae was forced to spend the winter on the desolate and windswept Charlton Island.
Despite the conditions, Rae found himself captivated by "the wild sort of life to be found in the Hudson's Bay Company service". So much so that he accepted the post of surgeon at Moose Factory and remained there for ten years.
During his time at Moose Factory, Rae learned much about the area and, in particular, the Canadian natives. He regarded himself as a student of the native Cree Indians, learning skills from them such as making and maintaining snowshoes and how to hunt caribou and store the meat.
From the Inuit he learned how to ice the runners of a sled, how to combat snow-blindness and how to construct a shelter – all vital survival skills.
It was this association with "natives" that contributed to Rae’s eventual downfall. Many considered his “habit” of dressing like a native a disgrace and frowned upon his methods.
Despite this, Rae's time with the Native Americans saw him acquire a great deal of their knowledge, as well as a great respect for their culture, traditions and skills. Eventually, Rae became regarded as the foremost authority of Native American methods of Arctic survival and travel.
For example, Rae was said to be the best snowshoe walker of his time. Over two months in 1844/45, he covered 1,200 miles on foot, a feat that earned him the nickname “Aglooka” - "he who takes long strides" - from the Inuit.
His resilience and survival skills led to him being commissioned to go north to the west coast of Melville Peninsula from Fury and Hecla Strait southwards, and westwards to Dease, filling in the "blanks" that existed on the maps of northern Canada’s coastline.
By the winter of 1849, Rae had taken over the charge of the Mackenzie River district at Fort Simpson.
Before long, Rae was drawn into the search for a lost Royal Navy expedition.
The expedition, led by Sir John Franklin, had disappeared after leaving England in 1845 to search for the Northwest Passage - a navigable Arctic route from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific.
Franklin's expedition was made up of two ships, HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, and 134 men. Its failure to return resulted in one of the largest, most expensive, searches ever mounted.
In charge of the search was Sir John Richardson, who wanted Rae as his second-in-command. Rae ended up leading two missions in an attempt to locate the missing sailors.
Throughout this period, Rae continued charting the unknown territories of the north Canadian coast. Because of this, he succeeded where Franklin had failed and proved the existence of the North West passage.
Rae abandoned the search for Franklin in 1854 after learning that the expedition had ended in disaster and that the last survivors having been forced to resort to cannibalism.
In April 1854, Rae had heard from an Inuit that a group of 40 white men had been seen four years previously. Watched by a group of native seal hunters, the white men had been dragging a boat and sledges south along the west coast of King William Island.
Going on the native accounts, Rae concluded the men had perished in the winter of 1850, after ice had crushed their ships.
Some time later, Rae learned that the Inuit had discovered around 30 bodies and a number of graves. Some of these were on the mainland, with five on an island which Rae wrote was: "about a long day's journey to the north west of a large stream, which can be no other than Great Fish River".
The men had died of starvation.
Rae wrote: "Some of the bodies had been buried (probably those of the first victims of famine); some were in a tent or tents; others under the boat, which had been turned over to form a shelter, and several lay scattered about in different directions."
He added: "From the mutilated state of many of the bodies and the contents of the kettles, it is evident that our wretched Countrymen had been driven to the last dread alternative - cannibalism - as a means of prolonging existence."
John Rae later acquired some of the dead men’s possessions from the Inuit. Items such as cutlery, watches and a medal that had once belonged to Franklin proved the expedition had perished.
Going solely on the accounts of the Inuit, Rae did not actually visit the site, saying that the Inuit were reluctant to make the 10 or 12 day trek to the site of the lost expedition.
This "failure" to visit the site led to considerable criticism after Rae’s report was published. The document damned the doctor in the eyes of Victorian England.
Rae’s conclusions as to the fate of the Franklin Expedition was condemned by the establishment and his integrity was called into question.
“How dare this man, who dressed and mingled with Canadian natives, suggest that men of the Royal Navy indulged in cannibalism? And more to the point imagine accepting the word of the natives without verifying it!”
Particularly vitriolic in her attacks was Franklin's wife. Lady Jane Franklin sought to glorify the memory of her husband as the man who found the Northwest Passage, so unsurprisingly Rae's discoveries did not go down well.
Aiding Lady Franklin was the writer Charles Dickens.
Dickens published articles rejecting Rae’s conclusions and the manner in which he had reached them. According to Dickens, it was unthinkable that the English Navy "would or could in any extremity of hunger, alleviate that pains of starvation by this horrible means".
But Rae refused to back down. He stood by the content of his report and the circumstances surrounding the fate of the Franklin Expedition.
The full story was only revealed when an expedition sent by Lady Franklin found a small cairn at Point Victory, on the north west coast of King William Island.
Here, one Lieutenant Crozier, second in command, had left a message confirming that Sir John Franklin had died on June 11, 1847. Franklin had been the 25th man to perish on the expedition.
The cairn was found in May 1859, 11 years after Crozier had written that the survivors were starting out for Great Fish River. Skeletons of some of the last survivors appeared to confirm that the men had resorted to cannibalism.
Dr John Rae retired from the Hudson's Bay Company in 1856 at the age of 43. But his exploring days were far from over.
When the Atlantic telegraph cable failed, a route was suggested through the Faroe Islands, Iceland and Greenland to North America. Rae was called upon to explore the landward side of this route.
Then, in 1884, he accepted a task that brought him back, for the time being, into the service of the Hudson's Bay Company. The HBC, in partnership with the Western Telegraph Union Company, was exploring the possibility of a telegraph route through Siberia, the Bering Strait, Alaska and British Columbia. Rae was asked to survey a section of the proposed route from Red River to Victoria.
In the course of this survey he negotiated a considerable stretch of the Fraser River in a dugout canoe, without a guide. His survey notes proved of value in the later development of the Canadian west.
But following the Franklin controversy, John Rae, and his exploits, began to slip from the pages of the history books. His achievements were ignored or, at best, grudgingly acknowledged.
Although they had failed to find the North West passage, Franklin and his officers were posthumously knighted. Aside from his other achievements, Rae had found the Passage but received no recognition or award. He was the only major explorer of the era not to receive a knighthood.
Dr John Rae died in London on July 22, 1893, aged 79.
On Saturday, July 29, 1893, his body arrived in Kirkwall on board the paddle steamer St Magnus. A solemn crowd gathered to pay their respects as John Rae returned home for the last time.
His coffin was carried to St Magnus Cathedral where he was buried with great ceremony. His remains lie in the Cathedral kirkyard, marked by a humble gravestone.
Inside the cathedral nave is a memorial to the man - a recumbent figure carved in stone. Wearing his Arctic travelling clothes, Rae sleeps with his gun by his side, and a blanket, or sleeping bag, thrown over his body.
A growing number people are becoming aware of John Rae and his achievements.
Orkney has loads of places to see and do but people kept saying that I had to see the Italian Chapel built by prisoners of war out of whatever they could find.
A total of 1679 miles covered. The T6 didn't miss a beat and propelled us in total comfort. The trip has encouraged me to head back up to Scotland to look at the north West part of the country in more depth.
On the way home we popped to Ecclefechan to sample their tarts. Dad was dropped off in Lancashire and I headed down to sunny Somerset to put the van back together.
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