Monday, September 30, 2013

Limited edition whisky says Happy Bicentenary!

What you see here, from as close as you are likely to get, is a gorgeous bottle of Highland Park single malt scotch whisky. It comes from a limited edition of 30 bottles created to mark the bicentenary of the birth of John Rae. The Scottish Orcadian explorer was born 200 years ago today. After he died in London in 1893, his Canadian wife, Katherine Rae, brought him home to be buried in Kirkwall, Orkney. This afternoon, I said a few words at his grave behind St. Magnus Cathedral. Actually, I read the last page of Fatal Passage, and a member of the John Rae Society presented me with this. That's how we roll, here in Orkney. And Sheena caught the joyful occasion on camera.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

The Hall of Clestrain will rise again!

Here in Stromness, we filled in some blanks while visiting the Hall of Clestrain, John Rae's boyhood home. The wealthy Honeyman family, descended from an early bishop of Orkney, built the place in the 1760s. They had just returned from a trip to Italy, where symmetry and balance were all the rage, and applied those principles here. 
In 1814, Rae's father was running the estate and entertained Walter Scott, who drew on his knowledge of two of the explorer's older sisters for his novel The Pirate. Two of the Canadian visitors who trekked around the grounds, Jane Hamilton and Mary Davey (pictured with Our Hero), are descended from one of those sisters.

Out front of the Hall, Andrew Appleby assured me that the old place is destined to rise again. He is chair of the newly formed John Rae Society. That Society and a leading Orcadian architect have been working with the Vivat Trust, a building preservation trust dedicated to rescuing historic buildings and sensitively restoring them into self-catering holiday homes.
The sortie to Clestrain, which is located across a bay from Stromness, followed a visit to the extraordinary Stromness Museum. The place is chock-a-block with well-researched artifacts pertaining not only to Rae, but to whaling and Orcadian history. And that's before you reach the natural history exhibits. This place is a gem.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

British MP is taking John Rae into Westminster Abbey

STROMNESS, ORKNEY – A John Rae plaque is going into Westminster Abbey.
Alistair Carmichael, MP for Orkney in the British House of Commons, announced this evening that in 2014, a plaque will be mounted in the Abbey recognizing the Orcadian explorer as “the discoverer of the final link in the Northwest Passage.”
Carmichael made the announcement at a reception following the unveiling of a new statue of Rae (1813-1893) overlooking Stromness harbour.
Carmichael has twice brought motions to the British House of Commons seeking support for what many regard as overdue recognition of Rae. This time, he went straight to the Dean of Westminster Abbey, who quickly agreed.
In a brief chat following his 
 announcement, Carmichael said final confirmation awaits some “byzantine paperwork, but the Dean is onside, and that is what matters."
In my book Fatal Passage, which is the reason I am here as writer-in-residence, I celebrated the Scottish-Orcadian Rae for charting 1,800 miles of Arctic coastline, and for solving the two great mysteries of 19th century Arctic exploration. He discovered the final link in the Northwest Passage, and also the fate of the 1845 expedition led by Sir John Franklin, whose last survivors were driven to cannibalism.
The plaque will be made of Orkney stone, Carmichael said. “We have identified a spot on the wall near the Franklin bust.” The inscriptions beneath that bust and the larger-than-life statute of Franklin in nearby Waterloo Place have drawn criticism from the growing numbers of people who believe that the credit given to Franklin rightly belongs to Rae.
Several hundred people turned out for the ceremonial unveiling of the bronze statue, which was donated to the people of Orkney by Stromness native Alan Twatt. The inscription celebrates Rae  as “the discoverer of the final link in the first navigable Northwest Passage.” 
[Photos by Sheena Fraser McGoogan]

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Still searching for Franklin? These metal scraps will make you wonder . . .

Searchers for the two lost ships of the Franklin expedition, which disappeared into the Arctic in 1845, have been struggling for decades to keep hope alive. Experts have suggested that even if both ships got crushed by ice, the metal engines, boilers, and pipes will have survived intact at the bottom of the sea. Magnetic imaging will discover them, and those relics will reveal crucial secrets. I thought, well, maybe. . . . And then I went for a ramble along the northwest coast of the Orcadian mainland.

The pieces of junk you see in these photos (courtesy of Sheena) constitute all that remains of a sturdy ship, the Monomoy, that sailed out of New York and went aground in Marwick Bay on January 6th, 1896.  The waves, the wind, and the ice have obliterated the rest. And these scattered pieces, half a century younger than anything from the Frankln ships, lie 30 metres apart. Maybe there is another chunk of rusty metal 40 metres down the coast, held fast by rocks. Such scraps, if located, could tell us what, I wonder?

Portrait of the colourist in Orkney . . . with dog

Sheena Fraser McGoogan "is a colourist, but a colourist on steroids," the art critic writes. "Her work reminds me in a way of L.S Lowry, but on acid. Her paintings leap off the wall at you. They demand to be noticed. They are bold to the point of fearlessness, using bright colours to make a statement about the artist herself, and the places represented." The article occupies most of a page in today's Orcadian newspaper. It reviews, glowingly, a joint exhibition at the Shorelines Gallery in Finstown, roughly halfway between Stromness and Kirkwall, Orkney's two main towns. The host artist, Jane Glue, is one of Orkney's leading painters. She initiated the joint exhibition after spotting and "liking" one of Sheena's works that showed up on Facebook. It treated the Hall of Clestrain, boyhood home of explorer John Rae. He is the subject of a three-day conference organized by the Stromness Museum, which has installed Our Hero as writer-in-residence.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Cliffside scramble dates back beyond the Vikings

We almost didn't tackle the climb. But the idea of seeing a ruined medieval chapel dating back to before the Vikings -- we're talking the mid-900s, more than 1,000 years ago -- well, who could resist? We climbed the narrow, rocky path that leads to the top of the Brough (pronounced Brock) of Deerness. This site, roughly 12 miles east of Kirkwall, is little visited by tourists, according to Tom Muir, our expert guide.
Usually, visitors to Orkney head west to such better-known sites as Skara Brae, the Stones of Stennis, and the Ring of Brodgar. But here we have a spectacular Viking site, with numerous 10th-century buildings just waiting to be dug out from beneath the mossy grasses. And the ruins of the stone-built chapel, built on the site of a wooden temple, pre-Norse, are alone worth a visit -- and that "interesting" climb up and along the cliffside.

The real magic happens at the Ring of Brodgar

People get excited about visiting Stonehenge, that remarkable series of standing stones just off a major thoroughfare in the south of England. But the real magic happens here in Orkney at the Ring of Brodgar. These standing stones are between 500 and 1000 years older than Stonehenge. And as you can see from Sheena's photo, highways are hard to find in this part of the world. These stones were once giants, according to story-teller Tom Muir. One night, with a mad fiddler sawing away, they fell to dancing in a circle. They got so caught up in the music that they failed to notice the time, and the sun rose unexpectedly, and turned them all to stone. They are 36 in number, though Time has reduced some of them to stumps. Researchers estimate that once, there were 60. The fiddler himself remains in his place, standing alone, just down the hill.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Exploring Orkney with a celebrated story-teller

Here's Our  Hero at the Broch of Borwick in Orkney, shortly after a visit to the Brough of Bigging. Both initial B-words are pronounced the same, but the Broch is an iron-age round tower, while the Brough is a fortified headland difficult of access. I say these things on the authority of our expert guide,
Tom Muir, the celebrated Orcadian historian and story-teller, who doubles as a host par excellence and supplier of 18-year-old Highland Park. He has a fondness for field mushrooms, and Sheena Fraser McGoogan was wielding the camera.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Does anybody recognize this man?

The one in buckskin, standing with Our Hero? He's proving elusive. As you can see, I managed to lay an arm on him the other night at McMaster University. Fabulous event, by the way, organized by HAALSA (Hamilton Association for the Advancement of Literature, Science and Art). Superb dinner beforehand at a restaurant called Il Fiasco. Anyway, this chap has been turning up everywhere. On August 30, at the University of Calgary, I spotted him at a splendid entertainment organized by the Clan MacRae and the U of C library and archives. Not long before that, he was in Scotland, flaunting himself at the Royal Society of Edinburgh. And in Hamilton, before he fled into the night, having threatened to shave his beard, he warned me that I can expect to see him in Orkney, where I give a talk near the end of this month. If you have any information that might lead to his arrest . . . .

Friday, September 13, 2013

Keriann McGoogan wins Pearson Canada Award

Keriann McGoogan has won a Pearson Canada Award in the Ryerson Publishing Program. The merit award, which carries a $1,000 honorarium, recognizes "academic excellence in completed course work and demonstration of promise in educational publishing." McGoogan, who holds a PhD in physical anthropology from the University of Toronto, will receive the award at a ceremony on October 10.  Not long ago, she began working as an Acquisitions Editor at Canadian Scholars' Press.
So that's the straight goods, as reported by an ex-journalist. As Keriann's father, I will confine myself to adding a single word: HOOORAAAAY!!!.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Arctic explorer celebrates in Hamilton with Supercrawl

Arctic explorer John Rae is going up against Supercrawl this Saturday night.
At first, I felt dismayed. But as a metaphor, a David-and-Goliath, I think the juxtaposition works almost perfectly.
Supercrawl is a wildly successful Hamilton street festival that celebrates arts and culture. Last year, it attracted 80,0000 people. What's not to love?
John Rae, who once lived in Hamilton, is the focus of an alternative event -- an illustrated presentation, razzle-dazzle of course, at McMaster University.
As a centre of attention, Rae has always been up against the massive, never-ending search for the missing ships of Sir John Franklin, who disappeared into the Arctic in 1845. Some question the wisdom of continuing that search.
But that is where the metaphor breaks down. Supercrawl looks fantastic. Best of all, it kicks off around noon on Saturday and runs through the afternoon into the evening. Come to think of it, Return to Rae Strait might best be viewed as an extension of Supercrawl.  The Climactic Event of the festival? OK, OK, that's a bridge too far. Even so, Sheena and I propose to arrive early, poke around on James Street, and then head for McMaster. See you there?

Monday, September 9, 2013

Remembering James Joyce on a lesser anniversary

On this date 109 years ago -- September 9, 1904 -- James Joyce moved into the Martello Tower in Sandycove, a suburb of Dublin. The place is now a museum -- a shrine to some of us -- and I snapped the above photo a couple of months ago. Joyce arrived here uninvited, having recently fallen out with the legitimate occupant, Oliver St. John Gogarty. Alas, Joyce had no place else to go. Gogarty waited until the young writer had fallen asleep, and then began shouting as if delirious while blasting away in the dark with a gun. Joyce perceived that he was unwelcome and beat a hasty retreat. You get a glimpse of this in the opening to Ulysses, arguably the greatest novel ever written. Don't take my word for it. When, while interviewing Salman Rushdie a few years back,
 I said of Satanic Verses: "I seem to see a lot of Joyce in here." Rushdie said, "Ah, Joyce. The Master." Rushdie, too, has poked around inside this tower. Thanks to Tom Keyser for bringing all this back with a Facebook posting. And here we have a Sheena photo: Our Hero with His Hero on O'Connell Street.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Rocky Mountain High: Yo, Alberta!

Nothing beats a hike from Lake Louise to the Plain of Six Glaciers. See the above photo, shot today by Sheena Fraser McGoogan. But the whole six-day visit was splendiferous. Led by the Clan MacRae, a couple of hundred people turned out to see Our Hero give a slideshow presentation called Return to Rae Strait. All about John Rae and Fatal Passage and voyaging in the High Arctic. The Special Collections folk at the University of Calgary Library mounted a splendid event in a great space and featuring edibles both before and after. And Pages on Kensington did yeoman service. We had forgotten how sparkling new Calgary is. The recent flood notwithstanding, this city thrives and feels prosperous. Swimming facilities, for example? We checked out the Eau Claire YMCA and the Winter Club and they were glorious. Not only that, but Calgary has Nenshi and we have . . . no, let's not go there. Yo, Alberta!