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Searching for ancestors leads to gravesite madness

Twice before, we had located it, the gravesite of John McGugan -- Ground Zero, really, for a host of McGugans, McGougans, and McGoogans. We had made our way to the Kilchatten Cemetery on the tiny Scottish island of Gigha, three miles west off the coast of Kintyre.
The first time, roughly a decade ago,  I had ignored a Keep Out sign as not pertaining to me, climbed over a makeshift fence surrounding the ruined church and, on deciphering the word "Gugan," excitedly scraped away as much mud and overgrown grass as I could.
The second time, five or six years ago, conservators had cleaned up the mess and, as a sign says, "consolidated the church as a ruin." With the help of a gardener, who knew the stone as the oldest legible marker in the cemetery, I was able to get a better look. But the day was overcast and the light was terrible and we failed to get a decent photo.
Third time out, yesterday, we had a devil of a time locating the stone. We remembered roughly where it was, both Sheena and I, but the grass -- the flourishing grass is no friend of ours. Eventually, we found it. And so began our moment of gravesite madness, ripping and tearing at the grass, clearing away chunks and small strips of turf. Finally, we got the stone uncovered.
As you can see, it is very near the wall of the ruined church, which dates back to the 13th century. Archaeologists have determined that it was still in use in 1695, but was replaced by another in the early 1700s.
Nearby, there existed an old holy well dedicated to St. Cathan -- but its position "has now been lost." My madness, you see, is not without reason. This gravestone could easily disappear forever.
Variations on the McGugan name, one of the most common on Gigha, turn up on at least four legibly printed and much more impressive markers from the 19th and 20th centuries.
But on the Ground Zero stone, and this is what I love best about it, somebody scratched out the lettering by hand. Not only that, but the line-breaks are marvellously haphazard, dictated only by space considerations: "This is the bury// ing place of John Mc// Gugan tenant at Ardminish . . . "
Ardminish is the name of the only village on Gigha. There is more. Sheena says that it might come clear if we could take a decent rubbing . . . but of course we carried no pencil.
Fortunately, a few written records do mention John McGugan. But about those, I shall leave you in suspense.

So there we were in Kilchattan Cemetery on the Isle of Gigha, pulling out
Ken McGoogan
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The Canadian Invasion of Scotland

Canadian invasion forces have swept through the Dunfermline area north of Edinburgh, claiming Broomhall House.  This impressive mansion, located on a splendiferous, well-kept estate has been in the family of Robert the Bruce for more than 300 years. The Canadian connection comes via James Bruce, the eighth Earl of Elgin, who had his home here. In the late 1840s, as governor-general of Canada, he proved pivotal in introducing responsible government, a key step in Canada's emergence into independence. The taking of Broomhall House follows hard on earlier successes.  Canadians were able to claim Dalhousie Castle thanks to George Ramsay, the ninth Earl of Dalhousie, who spent more than a dozen years in Canada and established Dalhousie University in Halifax, modelling it after Edinburgh University. East of Edinburgh, the invaders claimed Ballencrief Castle, birthplace in 1721 of James Murray. He fathered the Quebec Act of 1774, which saved Canada from joining the rebel states in the American Revolution. The rebels judged it intolerable, this business of allowing French colonists to retain their language, laws, and religion. The Canadian invasion of central Scotland began in
Edinburgh with the taking of Abden House, where in 1862, Canadian politician George Brown met and fell in love with Anne Nelson. Their marriage proved transformative and enabled Brown to become a leading father of Confederation. Canadian forces had begun their all-inclusive campaign in Orkney at the Hall of Clestrain, birthplace of Arctic explorer John Rae, who joined the Hudson's Bay Company and discovered the final link in the first navigable Northwest Passage. In central Scotland, the taking of four landmark locations -- Broomhall, Dalhousie, Ballencrieff, and Abden -- suggests that the Canadian invaders will soon turn their attention to the Highlands.
Ken McGoogan
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Braving storms in search of John Rae

What was he thinking, explorer John Rae, when he built a stone house in the High Arctic? He hired local Inuit to use their dogs to bring him big rocks. This was at Repulse Bay in 1846 with winter coming on. He got the house finished, a big room for the men and, because he did not smoke, a smaller one for him. With temperatures plummeting, he named the place Fort Hope.
What was he thinking? He was thinking of home, of growing up in Orkney, of riding out from the Hall of Clestrain with his musket to hunt for hare, and for curlews and grouse and lapwing.  He was thinking of one place in particular, a stone-built house near his favourite hunting spot in the rolling hills, where because of the distance from home, roughly fifteen miles, he would sometimes ask and receive permission to stay overnight.
This afternoon, on Orkney's Mainland, four of us visited the ruins of that stone house: me and Sheena and historian Tom Muir, our sortie led by Andrew Appleby, president of the John Rae Society. The house is located at Cottascarth in the Harray district, directly behind the Eddie Balfour Hen Harrier Hide – a bird-watching sanctuary.
Rae would have seen many such houses, of course. But this was the one where, according to local lore, he stayed more than once. And, though we have no documentary evidence, this was almost certainly the one that sprang to his mind when he needed to build a shelter. The style of construction is identical.
During our visit, after an initial half-mile slog from where we parked, the rains came on. We clambered around regardless, snapped a few photos, and even made our way through the grass to a winding stream or burn. This was it: another house in which John Rae once slept.
At Fort Hope, in the Arctic darkness, Rae learned the meaning of Real Cold. But then he visited some Inuit in a snowhouse they had built. He realized: wait a minute! it’s far warmer in here. He converted on the spot and, nostalgia be damned, never built another stone house. Oh, and one thing more. Next spring, when the Arctic Return Expedition sets out to retrace Rae's route of 1854, the team will visit Fort Hope before striking westward.

Ken McGoogan
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John Rae Festival turns up a Franklin sailor and a tribute in stained glass

Arctic aficionados should check out this excellent bit of work from the Orkney News about the John Rae Festival. Most are aware that a gorgeous reclining memorial statue to explorer John Rae is one of the highlights of any visit to St. Magnus Cathedral in Kirkwall. Here we see it with the witty and perceptive Fran Flett Hollinrake, the world’s leading authority on, and only full-time staffer at, the 12th-century cathedral. Most know, as well, that Rae is buried in the kirkyard behind the cathedral. Fewer know that the graveyard also contains a memorial to Thomas Work, an able seaman who sailed with John Franklin on the Erebus.
He is commemorated on a stone that marks the grave of his widow, Catherine Wishart. And here is another surprise, courtesy of Orcadian historian Tom Muir. Not far from St. Magnus, the Scottish Episcopal Church of St. Olaf contains a stained glass window dedicated to “the beloved memory of my husband Dr. John Rae, the Arctic explorer.” It was installed by his remarkable Canadian wife, Kate Rae.
Ken McGoogan
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Orkney delivers venue, book-buyers, and a letter about John Rae's last day

Turns out that Orkney was more than ready for me. Wonderful venue, the Orkney Theatre in Kirkwall. Good-sized audience, well-informed. Excellent introduction by my friend Tom Muir. And all those books we brought? Sold every one. I talked about John Rae, the Hall of Clestrain restoration, the Arctic Return Expedition. Had several fun conversations. That special bottle of John Rae whisky I received here a few years back, one of only thirty, is steadily increasing in value. So that's cool.
Oh, and a woman gave me a copy of a letter that Kate Rae, the explorer's Canadian wife, wrote about Rae's last day.  The letter-giver was the great-great-granddaughter of the recipient. Readers of Fatal Passage will recall that I quote the wonderfully expressive Kate Rae near the end of the book.  She and her sister came to Orkney to see the Stromness native buried. From the Kirkwall Hotel, on July 29, 1893, Kate wrote to Major James Barnett of the 1st Orkney Volunteers Artillery.  She remarked on "the great love he had for these islands and the Orkney people, and the many happy years he passed here both in this youth and in maturer years . . . . He was so pleased you had written to remind him [of his previous generosity], and said how active you had always been both in volunteers and boating matters and he said what a good shot you were and he asked me to go myself and get the postal order [for a magazine subscription] and send it to you at once. I scarcely ever left his bedside, but I went at once and got the order and wrote the note beside him and had it posted. It was his last subscription to anything and it seemed to me most suitable for amongst his simple pleasures he loved his boat dearly."
Don't you love gifts like that?
Ken McGoogan
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Louie Kamookak discovers John Rae's cairn

The late Louie Kamookak has rightly been celebrated as a searcher for John Franklin. But more significantly, in my view, Louie was the man who discovered the cairn that explorer John Rae built in 1854, marking the final link in what would prove to be the first navigable Northwest Passage. I touched on that in Dead Reckoning, but I detailed the adventure in Fatal Passage. There, I described how in 1999, from Gjoa Haven, we set out east across Rae Strait in Louie’s twenty-foot motorboat. Quoting now:
During the thump­ing, exhilarating ride across waters so cold that a swimmer would not survive ten minutes, and in which hitting a floating log would mean almost certain death, I scribbled in my notebook, “Incredible to think that I should find not one but two fellow madmen to join me in this lunatic quest.”
Once we had established our camp on the coast of Boothia Penin­sula, our first objective was to find the cairn that Rae built. Fortunately, the explorer not only described the place where he created the marker, but also noted its geographical co-ordinates. Both Cameron Treleaven and Louie Kamookak carried Global Positioning System receivers that draw on globe-girdling satellites to specify locations and distances.
John Rae, of course, had been forced to rely on less sophisticated equipment. Because he was meticulous, his latitude reading, I believed, would be quite precise. But in the mid-1800s, the portable technology to provide accurate longitude readings had yet to be perfected. Indeed, when I checked the map, Rae’s longitude put the cairn far inland, which did not match his description of having travelled north along the coast.
Even so, we headed inland that first morning, roughly northeast, with a view to reaching Rae’s designated point and then heading west along the correct latitude so that we could not possibly miss the cairn. Under a limitless blue sky, we hiked for hour after hour across treeless, rock-strewn tundra, slogging through marshes, scrambling over ridges, and occasionally spotting caribou in the distance. A couple of times, we sighted landmarks that resembled grand cairns on the horizon, but they proved always to be giant rocks.

At about three o’clock in the afternoon, when we arrived at a broad inlet we had hoped to ford, we discovered that at best this would mean wading fifty yards through freezing, fast-flowing, groin-deep water while sinking in rock-filled mud to our knees. Treleaven insisted that we could do it, and maybe he was right. Kamookak wryly observed, “It’s too much work, this Rae stuff.” He and I voted to add a couple of miles to our hike, so instead of fording, we all three walked around.
At 4:30 p.m., we again approached Rae’s latitude, only now we were hiking north along the coast, the three of us strung out eighty yards apart, scouring the landscape. As we approached the tip of the penin­sula that Rae had named Point de la Guiche, Kamookak, who was trav­elling along a ridge, found what looked like the remains of a cairn. Instead of hollering, he simply placed his GPS receiver on the capstone, sat down, and waited for Treleaven and me to join him.
The cairn itself had been dismantled but was still clearly recogniz­able as a human creation, even with its stones covered in yellow and black lichen. Nor was it the kind of cairn, Kamookak explained, that hunters would build to cache game: the builder of this cairn had placed big rocks in the centre on top of smaller ones, a practice that would crush fresh meat. It was the only man-made structure for miles. And the GPS told us that although the longitude of this spot differed from Rae’s by three minutes and thirty-six seconds, the latitude agreed within a few yards. This was indeed Rae’s cairn.
Standing in the wind with open water visible to the west, the north­west, and the northeast, I could see the scene as it had unfolded in the wintry snowscape of early May 1854. A resolute man of forty-one, Rae had led his small party across ice and rough country for over 320 miles, man-haul­ing sledges through blizzards, gale- force winds, and temperatures as low as minus 62 degrees Fahrenheit. All the men suffered from snow-blindness, and one froze two toes. Only Rae and his two hardiest men—the Inuit William Ouligbuck, Jr., and the Cree Thomas Mistegan—reached this spot on the west coast of Boothia Peninsula. . . .
[In 2019, the Arctic Return Expedition intends to retrace Rae’s route and revisit this location.]

Ken McGoogan
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Before turning mainly to books about arctic exploration and Canadian history, Ken McGoogan worked for two decades as a journalist at major dailies in Toronto, Calgary, and Montreal. He teaches creative nonfiction writing through the University of Toronto and in the MFA program at King’s College in Halifax. Ken served as chair of the Public Lending Right Commission, has written recently for Canada’s History, Canadian Geographic, and Maclean’s, and sails with Adventure Canada as a resource historian. Based in Toronto, he has given talks and presentations across Canada, from Dawson City to Dartmouth, and in places as different as Edinburgh, Melbourne, and Hobart.