THE notorious Franklin expedition is the focus of BBC drama The Terror, but the story of the Scot who discovered its grisly end is still relatively unknown.

While John Franklin was lauded and falsely credited with the discovery of the legendary Northwest Passage, Orcadian John Rae was actually the man who first mapped out a navigable shipping route through the Arctic.

However, his reputation was trashed because he was brave enough to reveal that some of Franklin’s men had been driven to cannibalism in a doomed attempt to survive.

As a result, Rae, the greatest Arctic explorer of the era, was denied the status and glory he deserved, with author Charles Dickens a chief instigator of his vilification.

Victorian racism also played a part in the campaign against him as Rae’s success as an explorer was partly because he adopted the survival techniques of the native Inuit people and believed their accounts of what had happened to Franklin’s crew.

London society refused to accept information that had come from “unreliable savages” and frowned on the man who spoke their language, slept in igloos and adopted their way of dressing to protect himself from the merciless Arctic weather.

With the aid of Dickens, Franklin’s furious wife Lady Jane systematically campaigned to destroy Rae’s reputation and was so successful that until fairly recently Franklin was credited with the discovery of the sea passage linking the Atlantic to the Pacific across the Arctic.

This was despite the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen proving Rae correct 50 years after his discovery by becoming the first to navigate the passage through the Rae Strait in 1903.

Rae’s story is one of bravery, fortitude, ingenuity and then calumny, which is arguably more interesting – although not as macabre – as the Franklin expedition featured in The Terror which introduces a supernatural element

Franklin’s refusal to adopt the Inuit’s survival techniques contributed to his death and those of the 128 officers and men who sailed from England in 1845 on the Erebus and Terror which became stuck in the Arctic pack ice.

Among them were a number of Scots including Thomas Work from Kirkwall; Aberdonians Daniel Arthur, James Reid and Josephus Gaeter; David Leys from Montrose; Dundonians William Bell and William Shanks; John Kenley from St Monans, and Robert Ferrier from Perth.

FROM the 15th century onwards, many explorers had tried and failed to find the Northwest Passage and by the late 19th century its discovery had remained one of seafaring’s greatest challenges, offering rich rewards to anyone who could find a route that would open up trading further.

Over time, explorers had pieced together an idea of such a route’s location and it was this that the 1845 expedition set out to find, headed by Franklin, an inept officer whose first trip to the Arctic in 1821 was a disaster in which he lost half his crew to starvation and would have lost his own life had he not been rescued by a group of the indigenous Yellowknife people and his own midshipman George Back.

Meanwhile Rae, who had graduated in Edinburgh as a surgeon at the age of 19, had proved himself as a doctor and explorer with the Hudson Bay Company. In four remarkable expeditions where his resilience, fitness and endurance earned him the respect of the Inuit and an almost legendary reputation, Rae mapped out key parts of the north coast, proving in the process of the first journey that an island known as Boothia Felix is in fact a peninsula, meaning there was no Northwest Passage in that vicinity.

This first expedition was extraordinary as it was made after Rae and his men had spent the winter of 1846-47 in Repulse Bay, living in igloos and a stone house while hunting for their food instead of trying to survive solely on provisions they had lugged with them. He was the first European to succeed in such an Arctic challenge.

UNBEKNOWN to Rae, Franklin and his crew were stuck in ice hundreds of miles to the north-west. At first when the expedition did not return to England there was no great concern as it was known they had adequate provisions to survive for three years.

As a result, official searches did not begin until 1848. Rae was part of them and discovered two pieces of wood in 1851 which he believed were from one of Franklin’s ships. The searches continued and rewards were offered.

In 1854, having spent another winter living off the land, Rae set off back to Boothia Peninsula to continue mapping the north coast. He discovered that what was thought to be land – King William Land – was actually an island and the strait splitting it from the mainland, which became known as the Rae Strait, was the last piece of the puzzle of the Northwest Passage.

Inuits also told him there were dead white men west of the Back River and sold him artefacts such as silver cutlery, a gold hat band and buttons which he identified as part of the Franklin expedition.

The Inuit also told him there was evidence the dead men had resorted to cannibalism in an attempt to stay alive. Over a century later, in the early 1990s, this was proved true when skeletons of 11 dead crew were found with saw marks.

At the time Rae wrote: “From the mutilated state of many of the bodies and the contents of the kettles, it is evident that our wretched countrymen had been driven to the last dread alternative – cannibalism – as a means of prolonging existence.”

After he sailed back to London and handed his report to the Admiralty, it was leaked to the press, causing a scandal and the start of the slurs against him.

He collected his £10,000 reward for information provided about the Franklin expedition but was denied the knighthood given to all other leading explorers of the age.

No explorer can match his record of 1765 miles of previously uncharted territory surveyed, 6555 miles on snowshoes and 6700 miles in small boats, but Lady Jane’s campaign against him saw his discoveries attributed to Royal Navy expeditions, an injustice he continued to fight.

HE also continued to work as an Arctic explorer, at one point negotiating a long stretch of the Fraser River in a dugout canoe without a guide and providing valuable survey information of the west of Canada.

In 1857, Lady Franklin sent out another expedition led by Francis Leopold McClintock on a boat built at Hall’s shipyard in Aberdeen. He found written proof of Franklin’s death and the locations of the ships which had been abandoned by the crew. McClintock was lauded as the discoverer of Franklin’s fate, rewarded with a knighthood and a large sum of money.

The ships were finally found by a Canadian expedition in 2014 and 2016.

In recent years, Rae has been given some of the credit he deserves with his achievements recounted in full in the fascinating book Fatal Passage, by Ken McGoogan, who, in 1999, travelled to Rae Strait and laid a plaque at the same spot Rae built a cairn in 1854.

In 2017, more than 120 years after his death in 1893, Rae was the first person to be posthumously given the Freedom of Orkney and there are now plans to restore his childhood home and open it to the public.