The Burial of Big Donald

Big Donald MacDonald was born at East Earltown in 1859 on the farm which was settled by his grandparents in 1818.  His grandparents were Donald MacDonald and Esther Sinclair, natives of Caithness.  There is a strong tradition that Esther was the daughter of Sir James Sinclair, Earl of Caithness,  who disapproved of Esther’s marriage to someone beneath her station.   That is a story for another post.

Donald’s parents were Donald MacDonald and Betsy Matheson who also lived on the farm which straddled the county line on the road to West Branch.  The rest of the family married and moved away leaving Donald to take over the homestead.   By all accounts he was a big man which earned him another title – The Bear.   Later in his relatively short life, he married Eliza MacKay of West Earltown.  They had no family although Eliza had a child to a previous relationship.

Donald died in the heat of the summer in 1903.  It was suspected that he died of a virus which caused some concern among the neighbours.  The men of the area decided to bury him in the family plot at Gunn’s Cemetery in the dark of night.   It was hoped the cool night air might prevent the spread of germs,  not to mention the convenience of not having to interrupt their busy harvest season.   Apparently the men smoked their pipes as an added precaution.

Finley Ross,  the local blacksmith and a renowned wit,  was present at the burial and penned the following poem, a parody of a well known poem  “The Burial of Sir John Moore”.    True to the Gaelic tradition,  references were made to various nicknames, family feuds, and partisan politics.   Offense was taken by some of the families mentioned so the poem went “underground” for many years. While interviewing some elderly people in the 1970’s,  this writer was told on several occasions that we mustn’t talk of such things!!

Despite the morbid circumstances,  the verses are a delightful reflection of the comical culture of the time.


The Burial of Big Donald

Not a note of solemn music was heard,

As his corpse to Clydesdale we hurried.

Not a Ross discharged a farewell shot

O’er the grave where our hero was buried.


We buried him darkly in the dead of night,

The sods with our hay forks turning.

By the struggling moonbeam’s misty light,

And Hughie Clinkie’s lantern dimly burning.


No beautiful coffin enclosed his breast.

In sheet and in shroud we wound him.

He lay like a warrior taking his rest

With Big Christy’s Cloak wrapped around him.


Few and short were the prayers Big Jim said.

The MacLeans spoke not a word of sorrow.

But we steadily gazed on the road ahead

And thought how we would sleep tomorrow.


We thought as we hollowed his narrow bed,

And smoothed down his lonely pillow,

That the foe and the stranger would walk on his bed

And the Spar far away on the billow.


The Grits will talk lightly of the spirit that’s gone

And o’er their black rum they’ll upbraid him.

But little they’ll reck if they let him sleep on

In the grave where the Bishop had laid him.


But half of our heavy task was done,

When Geoff Gunn gave the word for retiring.

We heard the distant and random lie

That Supp was solemnly telling.


Slowly and sadly we laid him down

Far from his fields of willow and carroway.

We carved not a line and we raised not a stone,

But left Big Donald alone in his glory.

Attributed to Finley G. Ross, (1872-1954)


1.   Big Christy :   Christy MacKay,  daughter of Big Jim and wife of Peter Gratto

2.   The Spar :    John Bain,  West Branch

3.    The Bishop:   Peter Gratto,  native of River John and later resident of East Earltown

4.    Geoff Gunn:   Dan Gunn who lived next to the cemetery

5.    Supp :   Big Jim Graham,  another local story teller

6.    The MacLeans:   An extended family that lived on neighbouring farms across the line in Pictou County.

A Spiddle Hill Tragedy

The onset of active winter weather in 2013 brings to mind the harsh winter of 1900-1901.   The first few years of the 20th century were remembered as having particularly harsh winters.   The most notable year was 1905 better known as “The Winter of the Deep Snow”.  The winter of 1901 was also noted for its heavy snowfall.

The John Murray and Christy Sutherland family lived on the northeast slope of Spiddle Hill.   Both were born in Sutherland, likely in Clyne.   John emigrated in 1815 to Pictou County.   A few years later John and Christy settled on their remote homestead.  They had at least six children of which only one daughter married.   Three daughters and a son continued to operate the small farm after the parents died.

By 1901 only two elderly daughters were left,  Eliza and Kate.  One of them was completely blind and confined to the house while the other managed what was left of their farm.   During a particularly bad blizzard,  the able sister was stricken with either a stroke or heart attack and died.

The farm was off the nearest road which was not regularly travelled in the best of times.  It was several days before people were able to shovel themselves out.  A neighbour,  realizing that nobody had been past the Murray home since the blizzard,  ventured back through the woods and discovered both sisters were dead.   One story claims the blind sister was found frozen outside the house while another version claims she was found by the stove.  Her fingers had been burned trying to manage the fires.

The sisters are buried in the MacKenzie Cemetery.