Arctic Explorer Gets Belated Recognition

arctic
Wikimedia Commons

When I took my family to the Orkney Islands of Scotland last year I saw this curious memorial in St. Magnus Cathedral, Kirkwall. It’s for an Arctic explorer named John Rae. While the name struck a bell, I knew virtually nothing about him.

Most people don’t, and that’s a shame. Rae grew up in the rugged Orkney Islands in the 19th century. Although he trained as a doctor, the wilderness was his true love. He got work with the Hudson’s Bay Company, which owned large swatches of land in northern Canada and made millions off of the fur trade. Rae set off to Canada to work as a surgeon for the company, spending ten years at the remote outpost of Moose Factory.

Rae soon distinguished himself by spending large amounts of time with the Cree and Inuit, learning their languages and customs and gaining their respect for his ability to endure the tough conditions of the Canadians north.

When the Franklin Expedition, a Royal Navy group that was searching for the Northwest Passage connecting the Atlantic and Pacific, went missing in 1845, Rae was the man that was called upon to find them. He spent several years trying to track them down. In the course of his search he mapped many previously uncharted regions and found the Northwest Passage, the very thing the Franklin Expedition had failed to do.

In 1854 he learned from the Inuit that several years before, the last of the Franklin Expedition had died of starvation. The remaining survivors had resorted to cannibalism before they, too, succumbed. The site of the tragedy was deep in the back country and the Inuit refused to take him there.

When Rae filed his report, he was immediately criticized for not checking on the natives’ story himself and for daring to suggest that members of the Royal Navy would eat each other. His reputation was ruined. Even though another expedition did go to the site and concluded that there was strong evidence that the Franklin Expedition had resorted to cannibalism, the damage had been done. Rae died all but forgotten in 1893. Of all the great explorers from the Victorian era, he is the only one not to have been given a knighthood.

Now the Arctic explorer has been given some belated recognition with a new statue in Stromness, not far from where the local Hudson’s Bay Company office used to be. It was unveiled on the 200th anniversary of his birth.

You can learn more about the adventures of Dr. John Rae in this excellent article.

Video: Virtual Tour Of Maeshowe, Scotland


I recently had the good fortune to visit the Orkney Islands to the north of Scotland and saw that region’s amazing prehistoric archaeology. One of the most impressive monuments was the large vaulted burial chamber of Maeshowe. It was built around 2700 B.C., making it older than the pyramids at Giza, and is a masterpiece of stonework. Maeshowe is also famous for its much later (but still old) Viking graffiti.

Now Historic Scotland has made a virtual tour of this monument. Maeshowe was meticulously 3D-laser scanned to create this animation. The video takes place on the winter solstice, when the setting sun shines down the long, low entrance passage to illuminate the central chamber.

This video makes a good memento for me because when I visited, I was surprised and disappointed to learn that photography isn’t permitted inside Maeshowe. This video shows the tomb much more clearly than I could have ever captured on film anyway. So sit back, enjoy, and consider a trip to Orkney. It’s a magical place. Not only do you get stunning prehistoric monuments, but you can also enjoy the rugged scenery, abundant wildlife and lots of traditional Scottish music.

Traditional Scottish Music At A Pub In Kirkwall, Orkney


I always feel like a trip isn’t over until I’ve stopped writing about it. My wife feels the same way. So we were a bit down when I finished my series on our visit to the Orkney Islands.

To cheer ourselves up, I decided to share a video with all of you of an excellent cafe/pub/music venue in Kirkwall called The Reel. In summers they have three or more concerts a week of traditional Scottish music. While it’s certainly not the only such place in Orkney, The Reel has become justly famous for its atmosphere and the talent it attracts.

When I trolled Youtube for a video to share, I discovered this one. The concert looked familiar, and when the camera panned to the left, lo and behold there I was in my yellow sweatshirt with a pint of Orkney beer! I don’t remember anyone filming that concert, not that I was paying much attention to the crowd.

My wife isn’t in this shot. She was nice enough to take our son back to our rental apartment and put him to bed while I stayed until the end. Yep, despite the light streaming through the windows it’s actually nighttime, at least 9 p.m. Orkney summer days are wonderfully long!

Visiting Orkney: The Practicalities

Orkney
A week in Orkney was not enough. These 70+ islands just north of Scotland have a rich history and vibrant natural life. In a week my family and I explored stone circles, spotted seals on the beach, climbed cliffs to see nesting birds, and walked on uninhabited islands. Despite a very full seven days, we saw less than a tenth of the Orkney Islands and I have a feeling less than one percent of what they have to offer. If you’re looking for something a bit different for your next vacation, try Orkney. Here are a few tips to make your trip easier.

Getting there
Regular flights service Kirkwall airport from Edinburgh, Aberdeen, Glasgow, and Inverness. There’s also a long ferry from Aberdeen if you want to bring a car along. The ferry is no cheaper than the flight and takes several hours from Aberdeen as opposed to just one, so if you aren’t bringing a car, it’s probably best to go by air.

Getting around
This can be a bit tricky. There’s a public bus service but it’s a bit limited and isn’t timed with the ferry service. The ferries are better. They serve all the inhabited islands and are reasonably priced. Most are car ferries so you can bring your vehicle along. You have to be careful with the ferry times, however, as the last ferry often leaves pretty early.
Considering renting a car to get you to the more out-of-the-way attractions, but be careful if you aren’t accustomed to driving on the left.

%Gallery-161806%Where to stay
Most people stay in Kirkwall or Stromness, the two largest towns on the Orkney Mainland. Kirkwall has more ferries to other islands, but my wife and I felt that Stromness had more atmosphere with its old stone houses and thriving art scene. Not that Kirkwall is hurting for art. We stayed just around the corner from The Reel, a great cafe/pub/music venue that hosts three or more concerts of traditional Scottish music a week.
Both towns have plenty of hotels B&Bs, and short-term apartment rentals. We got a two-bedroom apartment in central Kirkwall from Kirkwall Apartments for £550 ($856). We prefer to get an apartment because it feels more homey and relaxed than a B&B, we can cook our own meals to save money, and it comes out to about the same cost. I haven’t checked out other short-term letting agents so I have no basis for comparison, but I was satisfied with our place. It was clean, central, and Kirkwall Apartments had good customer service.
If you have a car and want to be out on your own, a little digging online will bring up many country cottages for rent. There are also B&Bs on some of the more remote islands. This is something I’m tempted to try the next time I go. Yes, there will definitely be a next time!

What to see
This series has gone over some of the highlights. There are plenty more attractions on the various islands. Check out the Visit Orkney website for more information.

Background reading
Reading up on a place before going always enriches the experience. A good place to start is with the “Orkneyinga Saga,” a Viking saga telling the history of the islands with plenty of battles, intrigue, and even a few Christian miracles. For more modern work, check out Orkney’s star author George Mackay Brown, who wrote numerous stories and poems about his beloved islands. Orkney also has numerous contemporary authors and poets, such as Pamela Beasant, who draw their inspiration from Orkney’s rich history and evocative landscape.
For some online reading, don’t miss Orkneyjar, an amazing website by the news editor of the Orcadian newspaper. The site offers a seemingly endless treasure trove of knowledge about Orkney’s nature, history and folklore.

Where to go from here?
Once you’re this far north, why not keep going? It’s a short hop on a plane to the Shetland Islands, an even more remote chain of Scottish islands. There are plenty of natural and archaeological wonders up there. You can also take a ferry, but it takes several hours over rough seas and goes by night, so you don’t get to see much. The plane sounds like a better option.
If you have a hankering for remote islands chains, there are also the Faroe Islands, about halfway between Scotland and Iceland. One marine biologist described them as, “Orkney on steroids.” Sounds good to me!

Don’t miss the rest of my series “Exploring Orkney: Scotland’s Rugged Northern Isles.”

Orkney

My First Experience Driving On The Left Side Of The Road

driving on the left
The best way to see the Orkney Islands in Scotland is by car. The buses don’t go to many of the most important attractions and don’t correspond well to the ferry schedule. On the other hand, distances are fairly short, so I decided to rent a car for a couple of days.

The only problem was, I had never driven on the left side of the road.

That fact and my Arizona driver’s license didn’t faze the guy at the rental agency in Kirkwall. The only question he asked was if I had ever had any moving violations.

“No,” I replied.

At this point my 6-year-old son chimed in, “BUT PAPA, WHAT ABOUT THAT TIME IN ARIZONA YOU WERE DRIVING TOO FAST AND THE POLICE STOPPED YOU? THEY MADE YOU PAY MONEY.”

Thanks, kid.

The guy at the rental agency smiled.

“Yeah, there was this speed trap in a small town in northern Arizona. The speed limit goes from 70 to 40 with no warning. They got me,” I admitted.

“There’s a bad one north of Aberdeen,” he told me. “The speed limit goes from 60 to 30 and then down to 20.”

“Good thing I’m not driving to Aberdeen,” I said.

“The car comes with damage insurance after the first £500. For £5 a day you can have extended insurance after the first £200. Basically with the first option we’re betting you won’t get in a crash and with the second option you’re betting you will.”

“Well, I don’t think I’m going to get in a crash but I’ll take the extended coverage anyway,” I replied.

Famous last words.I rented an automatic. The last thing I wanted to deal with while driving on the left for the first time was shifting with the wrong hand. I got in the car and accustomed myself to sitting on the right side of the car. After making sure everyone was strapped in, we headed out.

If you want to learn how to drive on the left, Orkney isn’t a bad place. There isn’t much traffic and not many roundabouts. It’s not ideal, though. Most of the roads are two narrow lanes with no shoulder. This means that on city streets and country lanes, many people park halfway on the road. At times I found myself weaving past parked cars and having to go almost entirely into the other lane before heading back into my own lane to dodge the next parked car.

This obstacle course was no problem for the first day and Orkney’s long summer twilight ensured that I didn’t have to drive in the dark.

I was feeling pretty confident as we headed out on the morning of the second day. This driving on the left thing was turning out to be pretty easy! Today would be no problem. We drove out from Kirkwall and into the rolling green countryside. We passed through a village and I moved to the right to pass a car parked on the edge of the lane when …

CRUNCH

I looked over at my side view mirror. The casing was gone.

“Oh Gadling! I just broke the Gadling mirror! I probably broke that Gadling’s Gadling mirror too! GADLING!!!”

I turned the car around.

“Let’s go back and see how much Gadling money I owe that Gadling Gadling.”

The worst part of this whole thing was that it was my fault. While he had been parked partway onto the road, there was no oncoming traffic and I could have easily got around him. I misjudged the distance because it was on my left and I was sitting on the right side of the car. I had no one to blame but myself. I hate it when that happens.

We drove back to find a burly old man standing by the side of the road holding his side view mirror and parts of mine. “Burly old man” sounds strange but that’s what he was. He was 70 if he was a day but had a chest like an ox, with massive arms that ended in spade-like hands. His weathered face had a stoic northern look to it. There was no murder in his eyes. I got out of the car.

“It looks like I owe you some money,” I said.

“Yes,” was all he said.

I examined the damage. It was a good thing I took that extended coverage because this was going to come out to well over £200. Neither of us had the number of a garage on us so he invited me back to his house to look at the phone book.

I like to visit the homes of the local people when I travel but I prefer to arrive in happier circumstances. His house was off the main road in a little cluster of homes on a windswept hill. A sign in the tidy living room said, “A fisherman lives here with the best catch of his life.” A fisherman. That explained the burliness. Hopefully, he’d continue playing the part of the stoic Scot and not gut me like a flounder.

Luckily everything went well. The fisherman remained stoic, only showing his anger by repeating the phrase “all I want is my mirror fixed” a few more times than necessary. The rental agency didn’t take back the car, so we were able to visit the Heart of Neolithic Orkney. And I learned an important lesson about driving on the left: after driving on the right for 25 years, it’s not so easy just to flip your perceptions and expect to be able to judge distances perfectly.

I just wish i hadn’t said “Gadling” in front of my son so much. It’s such a filthy word.

[Photo courtesy user webhamster via Flickr]

Don’t miss the rest of my series “Exploring Orkney: Scotland’s Rugged Northern Isles.”

Coming up next: “Visiting Orkney: the Practicalities!