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.
I love this story! When this pandemic is over my first travels will be to pay respects to my ancestors at the Gunn / Pensioner Cemetery. Big Donald’s grand parents are my ancestors, I’ve heard the famous story many times as well. Does anyone know who Esther’s husband Donald’s parents were? There seems to be some false assumptions made in some peoples family trees, particularly that his father was the MacDonald who settled in Georgetown PEI. Would love to get together with some relatives to chat when I am in the Colchester/Earltown area in the future.