Text courtesy of Ken McGoogan
While announcing the 2019 Arctic Return Expedition which will follow in the footsteps of Arctic explorer John Rae, team leader David Reid spoke of yearning to do something about the dilapidated condition of Rae’s birthplace in Orphir near Stromness, Orkney: the Hall of Clestrain. “Clestrain stands as an example of something once proud, dignified, and strong,” he said. “The passing years have not been kind to it.” He and his fellow travelers are hoping that this expedition will inspire the funding of a restoration – indeed, a transformation.
Clestrain was built in 1769 by Patrick Honeyman, whose family had been prominent in Orkney for more than a century. The architect is unknown, but Clestrain bears a notable resemblance to Gayfield House in Edinburgh, built five years earlier for the Earl of Leven by Charles and William Butter. According to architect Leslie Burgher, Clestrain was “the first Palladian Villa and the first significant building in Georgian style in the far north of Scotland.” It became one of a handful “of buildings of national quality and importance in the Northern Isles.”
Early in the 1800s, with properties in Edinburgh, Sutherland, Lanarkshire, and Lothian, Honeyman appointed a factor to oversee his holdings in Orkney. That factor, John Rae Senior, moved with his family into Clestrain. And there, John Rae was born (in 1813) and raised, eventually to become one of the greatest explorers of the 19th century. That story figures in Dead Reckoning, but I tell it most fully in Fatal Passage.
In August 1814, Sir Walter Scott visited the Standing Stones of Stennis with Rae Sr., and wrote later that “the hospitality of Mrs. Rae detained us to an early dinner at Clestrain.” Scott drew on this visit to Orkney for his novel The Pirate, and Rae’s older sisters are said to have inspired his fictional characters Brenda and Minna. John Rae grew up in and around Clestrain, hunting and fishing and sailing small boats.
Since 1990, several local bodies have tried and failed to raise enough money to restore the Hall – the Orkney Heritage Society, the Orkney Building Preservation Trust, the Orkney Islands Council, the Friends of the Orkney Boat Museum. In 2004, Clestrain showed well in a Britain-wide BBC Restoration Programme, but could not win out over buildings in more populous areas.
Late in 2007, backers of the boat-museum idea secured a Heritage Lottery Planning Grant, but their proposal went no further, rejected in 2009 as artificially appended to the site. The Landmark Trust showed interest in 2010, but bailed out late in 2012 after a downturn in the market for “large holiday lets.”
In 2013, the John Rae Society took up the challenge. It’s a Scottish Charitable Incorporated Organization bent on increasing knowledge about Rae’s achievements, and on advancing arts, heritage, culture and science while fostering friendship between “the people of Orkney, and those in Canada,” particularly in those areas associated with Rae. More urgently, with the Hall deteriorating — windows broken, chimneys decaying, water damage — the Society is striving to raise funds to salvage and restore Clestrain, and to turn it into the heart of an international John Rae Centre — a World Heritage site for exhibitions, lectures, research, and scientific study.
Society patrons include the Earl of Orkney (Winnipeg-based professor Peter St. John), writer and broadcaster Ray Mears, author-historian Ken McGoogan and, most recently, actor Michael Palin, best-known for his work in Monty Python. Last month, a Scottish woman living in Canada donated 40,000 pounds to the cause — almost $70,000 Cdn!
Still, much more is needed. And David Reid — who hails from Bishopton near Glasgow, not 300 miles south of Stromness — is hopeful that the Arctic Return Expedition will inspire donations for both the expedition and the restoration of Clestrain. “It would be wonderful if the expedition could help breathe new life into the Hall — not just for the people of Orkney, but for people from around the world.”