As part of the 2017 Orkney Nature Festival, the John Rae Society ran a Family John Rae Explorer Trail around Stromness on Friday 19th May, led by Rachel Boak, from the John Rae Society, and Alison Nimmo, from the RSPB.
The trail was inspired by John Rae’s account of his boyhood and the skills he learnt, and about how the Orkney landscape, wildlife and weather helped him to cope with Arctic conditions. We also included other explorers from Orkney or who passed through Stromness en route to the rest of the world.
Rae kept a journal as he was travelling, recording the birds and animals he saw, and the published account of his 1846-1847 Arctic journey included lists of specimens and samples of mammals, birds, fish, plants and rocks. The children and grown-ups on the trail were encouraged to record animals, birds and plants as we walked through the streets of Stromness, and there is a surprising amount of wildlife to be seen.
We began with an introduction to John Rae at Stromness Library and then viewed his statue. We stopped off at the whale skull on Victoria Street, the rookery at the top of Church Road, explored the history behind the names of Franklin Road, Khyber Pass and Rae’s Close, and marked on a world map the places to which Orkney explorers travelled. Activities included designing a boat, based on Rae’s fond memories of Brenda, the Orkney yole he shared with his brothers. We also learned four different ways of identifying north, and tried our hands at making a compass using a needle, magnet and dish of water.
The trail ended outside Stromness Museum, where many of the stories included in our walk are told in more detail. The Museum was founded 180 years ago in 1837 and the first floor is given over to the natural history collection of animals, birds, shells and rocks from the local area. We drew parallels between 19th-century methods of classifying species and using the Museum collections to help identify the creatures we see when we are out and about.
From the Broad Noust outside the Museum, we took up binoculars and looked across the bay to see what kinds of birds were there. We were able to identify red-throated divers, black guillemots and Arctic terns, among others, and it was an exciting end to the event. The trail attendees went home with lists of all that they’d seen and the opportunity to complete other activities in their own time, such as designing a sign for a street named after them, and writing a story about being an explorer.
It was a really enjoyable afternoon and we hope to develop the John Rae explorer trail into a leaflet that can be picked up and followed by anyone visiting Orkney.