The long-held aspiration to restore the Hall of Clestrain – birthplace and childhood home of Orcadian Arctic explorer Dr John Rae - moved a step closer this week, with funding secured from the Council’s Community Development Fund towards a feasibility works project.
Councillors at today’s (Wednesday, May 6) special general meeting gave their backing to the John Rae Society request 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.
The John Rae Society was established in 2013 with the main aim to promote the life and achievements of the explorer and preserve the Hall of Clestrain.
Council Convener Councillor Harvey Johnston said: “The Hall of Clestrain is an 18th Century Palladian building and was the childhood home of John Rae, who not only discovered the final part of the North West passage but also what had happened to the previous ill-fated Franklin expedition.
“Despite his numerous achievements, Dr Rae was almost written out of history after reporting the crew of the Franklin expedition had resorted to cannibalism in a desperate attempt to survive.
“We are delighted, through the Community Development Fund, to be able to support the Society’s quest in the future to renovate and develop the Hall of Clestrain.”
In 2018, the Society completed the purchase of the Hall and carried out urgent repair works. The building is currently wind and watertight, but remains in a fragile state.
A project manager has been employed by the Society to drive the restoration project forward, with funding support from LEADER and the Architectural Heritage Fund.
A commissioned feasibility study completed in August 2019 concluded that the project, with an estimated project cost of around £3,000,000, can become a financially viable visitor centre and community resource at the heart of Orkney’s tourism economy and community life.
The Society is currently carrying out community consultation work, led by the project manager, with an initial questionnaire having received 221 responses. Findings from these responses will be explored in more depth at future community consultation events.
The Society Board of Trustees said they were delighted for the Council’s support through the CDF at what they described as a “pivotal” stage in their quest to renovate and develop the Hall of Clestrain.
In a statement, the Trustees said: “CDF was identified as the perfect partner to help the Society develop their project. The release of this essential match funding by the OIC enables the Society to commission heritage consultants to analyse project viability and assess conservation management, allowing for informed decisions to be made around the final project direction and allowing further applications to large grant funders such as the National Lottery Heritage Fund and Historic Scotland Repair Fund, both highly competitive funding bodies.
“In assisting the Society, the Council has ensured that this project is developed as robustly as possible in its early stages, rendering it with the best chances of succeeding in this arena.
“Thanks to the OIC’s Infrastructure and Development Committee members and the Economic Development team, the John Rae Society can now maintain the growing project momentum, keeping it on track through these unprecedent times, and potentially attracting large scale inward investment within the next few years.”
Society President Andrew Appleby added: “The development of The Hall of Clestrain, John Rae’s birthplace and family home, has been such a long-awaited ambition.
“In Orkney everyone knowns the true tales and traditions of John Rae discovering final links of The North West Passage. He took home the grim news of his friend, Sir John Franklin’s fate and that of his expedition's tragic end. Our John had to relate this personally to Sir John's wife, Lady Jane Franklin. We all know the outcome of Dr. J. Rae's honesty - don’t we – vilification; exile from recognition and paint-brushed from the Honours Lists.
“The John Rae Society now owns outright his honourable A-Listed Home, The Hall of Clestrain. With this alone, we can paintbrush John Rae and his magnificent ethos, achievements and sheer examples of humanity back onto the palate of 19th Century, 20th Century and 21st Century history. Thus, illuminating further his splendid and historic contributions to Arctic heroism.
“A restored Hall of Clestrain will certainly be a gem in Orkney’s preciously radiant coronet. The huge world of the Arctic Nations that we belong to and are surrounded by, will duly applaud and reflect this!”