By Mike Merritt

OVERLOOKING the sea, with views of neighbouring islands, it is enough to inspire a spirit of adventure in any youngster.

Now the childhood Orkney home which helped to inspire the man described as the greatest Arctic explorer of his age is set to undergo a multimillion pound restoration as a visitor centre in his honour.

Dr John Rae discovered the final stretch of the North West Passage and the fate of the Franklin Expedition.

However, his achievements were airbrushed out of history.

Supporters the 19th century surgeon – including explorers Michael Palin and Ray Mears – acquired the Hall of Clestrain on Orkney’s south coast in 2016, after a 20-year campaign to negotiate its purchase.

They plan to restore the house “to its former glory” and open it to the public, as well as making the area around it a visitor attraction. Orkney Islands councillors have now approved funding towards a feasibility works project.

Councillors at a special general meeting gave their backing to a request from the John Rae Society for grant assistance of 50 per cent of the total eligible costs, up to a maximum sum of £14,730, meaning the full funding package of £29,460 has now been secured.

The society is contributing £10,830 of its own resources towards the project and has been awarded £3,900 of grant funding support from the Architectural Heritage Fund. The feasibility work will focus on developing a business plan, options appraisal and a conservation report.

A commissioned feasibility study completed in August 2019 concluded that the project, with an estimated project cost of around £3million can become a financially viable visitor centre and community resource. John Rae Society president Andrew Appleby said: “The development of The Hall of Clestrain, John Rae’s birthplace and family home, has been such a longawaited ambition. It’s been a long road this far.

“We have saved the building by making it wind and water tight. Now we want to turn it into a world class tourist attraction and tell the story of this remarkable man and the Arctic in general.”

A service in honour Dr Rae took place in Westminster Abbey in 2015 - helping to right a historical wrong stretching back more than 200 years.

Dr Rae, who was born in Orphir in 1813, discovered the last link of the North West Passage and the fate of the Franklin Expedition. However, his achievements were airbrushed from history after he reported that the Franklin Expedition survivors been forced to resort to cannibalism.

But through the efforts of the John Rae Society, Northern Isles MP Alistair Carmichael saw a plaque honouring him unveiled at Westminster Abbey in 2014. Dr Rae’s achievements are said to rank above all 19th-century Arctic explorations.

No explorer could match Dr Rae’s record of 1,765 miles of previously uncharted territory surveyed, 6,555 miles travelled on snowshoe, and 6,700 miles travelled in small boats. His trekking earned him the Inuit nickname Aglooka, “he who takes long strides.”

But Dr Rae`s downfall was to credit native accounts that Franklin and his crew were driven to cannibalism in their failed attempt to survive.

A bitter smear campaign initiated by Lady Jane Franklin, backed by supporters such Charles Dickens, denied Dr Rae a knighthood and discredited him for decades.

But in 1981, a team of scientists led by Owen Beattie, a professor of anthropology at the University of Alberta, began a series of scientific studies of the graves, bodies, and other physical evidence left by Franklin crew members on Beechey Island and King William Island – and confirmed cannibalism.

Ken McGoogan author of the book ‘Fatal Passage’ featuring John Rae has said: “Because of John Rae, Clestrain is the most important heritage building in Orkney, and one of the most significant in all of Scotland.

It will make a spectacular visitor centre.” Dr Rae died in 1893, aged 80, in London and his body was taken home to Orkney. He is buried in St Magnus Cathedral kirkyard in Kirkwall.