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.

Sandy “Salt” MacDonald, North Earltown

Among the arrivals in the great migration of 1831/32 was an Alexander MacDonald,  his wife Annie MacLeod and their young family.

Alexander, or Sandy,  was born in 1791 at Altindown in the Parish of Clyne and was the son of John MacDonald and Janet Fraser.   Altindown no longer exists but seems to have been a pre- clearance settlement on the coastal plains near the Clyne church.   Annie was the daughter of Hugh MacLeod and Janet Sutherland of Urachyle,  a settlement in mid Strathbrora from whence came several families to Earltown.

Subsequent to their marriage,  the couple settled in the village of Brora.   According to the Old Parish Register,  he was a saltmaker.  Saltmakers of that era trapped tidal water in the mud flats and allowed the water to naturally evaporate for a short period before finishing the process by boiling it down.   The finished product would be shipped off to the cities in the south.

Annie’s siblings, who may have been crofting at the time,  chose to emigrate to Nova Scotia in 1831.  Like many before, they decided to go to Pictou rather than the preferred destination of Oxford County, Ontario.   Her brother John settled at Braeshore near Pictou while the rest ventured to Earltown to join former friends and acquaintances.   Annie’s sister Ellen,  (George MacKenzie),  settled on the ridge beside the MacKenzie Cemetery, and Mary, (Hector Sutherland),  bought a farm at Balfron.

Annie and Alexander cleared a farm on the Church Road near its junction with the Matheson Brook Road.  It had been a popular winter campground of the Mi’kmaw for generations and the tradition continued well after European settlement.   Alex did not last long in the new world.  He died in the spring of 1837 at the age of 46.   Of their seven known children,   Margaret married John MacLeod of Urachyle and The Falls,  Janet married John MacKay “Black” at Balfron,  Hugh married Christena Sutherland “Square” and settled at Balmoral,  Alex died in the Klondike,  John married first to Eliza Campbell and secondly to Christena MacKay “Marroch” at Balfron,  Betsy married a Grant at Scotch Hill and George remained on the home farm.  He married Betsy Murray “Bonesetter” from The Falls.

The Sir John A. MacDonald Connection

A number of families in the Earltown area claimed relationship to Canada’s first Prime Minister.

Sir John’s grandparents were John MacDonald and Jean MacDonald,  crofters near Dalmore in Rogart Parish, Sutherlandshire.   John left his Rogart roots and took a position in the shire town of Dornoch.   John was the father of Hugh MacDonald who settled for a time in Glasgow, married Helen Shaw, and begat a child who would become the founder of our nation.   A memorial stands at Dalmore proudly proclaiming Sir John’s ties to Rogart.

As the MacDonalds were not as numerous in Rogart as in other parts of Scotland, it would be plausible to think that other MacDonalds hailing from that parish would be Sir John’s cousins.   The Taylor – Gunn families, the Douglas family and some of the MacKays at Balfron had a particularly strong tradition of a connection.   Such traditions are often true but difficult to prove.   Over the past couple of years Tillie Tucker Armstrong, a descendent of the MacDonalds of Earltown Lake and mother of local MP Scott Armstrong,  has been searching for proof of the tradition.  Tillie and I were both independently corresponding with a Bill Machin in Britain on the puzzle.  Bill is a confirmed relative of Sir John A. whose MacDonald ancestors lived for a few generations in Ontario.

The Earltown connection is through a group of MacDonald families that settled on Taylor Lake Road.    Robert MacDonald,  (1778-1840),  arrived in Earltown from Rogart around 1818/19 and was given a location ticket for land on Taylor Lake.  Immediately to the west and surrounding Earltown Lake was a grant to a George MacDonald.    On the hill to the north of the lakes was the grant of  Robert Douglas and his mother,  Margaret MacDonald Douglas.   And to the east towards the Berrichon lived a family of MacDonalds from Rogart known as the “Soldiers”.

Robert seems to lived at the lake as a bachelor for many years.   Around 1833 he married a much younger Catherine MacKay, “Deacon”, who parents arrived in Earltown around 1819 and lived in the village.   Robert and Catherine had two daughters,  Janet or Jessie who married “Black” Robert MacKay at Balfron and Marion who married John Taylor of West Branch.   Marion and John took over the MacDonald farm.

Prior to 1818,  a Robert MacDonald,  first cousin to Sir John’s father, is documented as son and heir to Robert MacDonald and Janet Grant.  He disappeared from Scottish records thereafter and coincidentally at the time that Robert MacDonald “Lake” arrived in Earltown.   The naming of Robert Lake’s daughter  Janet gives some indication that his mother was a Janet.

Robert MacDonald and Janet Grant of Rogart also had a daughter Mary who married Martin MacLeod of Golspie.   They migrated to Pictou Landing.  Descendents have contemporary correspondence and documentation of their near relationship with Sir John.   The MacLeods also had proven ties to a MacDonald family in Pictou.

We now return to the matter of George MacDonald,  grantee of Earltown Lake.   This George is described in deeds as a resident of Pictou and appears to have never taken up residence in Earltown.   His death certificate clearly indicates that he was a son of Robert MacDonald and Janet Grant,  the presumed parents of Robert “Lake”.    George’s descendants continued to own the Earltown property up until the 1940’s before letting it go for taxes.  It was purchased by Helen Douglas Sutherland and her husband Lawrence,  also considered to be of the same clan.

At the end of the exercise,  the three of us have concluded that there is a high probability that Robert Lake is indeed the cousin of Sir John’s father.   The coincidence of emigration with the disapperance of Robert in Scotland,  the naming of Janet,  the verification of the parents of George MacDonald, his next door grantee and a profund surviving narrative gives a fair degree of credibility to the claim.

As for the Douglas family,  pioneer Margaret MacDonald Douglas arrived in Earltown at the same time as Robert and settled on an adjoining farm.  The late Willie MacKay “Coul” of  Rogart told me in 1983 that she was most certainly the daughter of a Norman MacDonald,  an old soldier who lived on the slopes of Knockarthur.   A subsequent book on the history of Rogart claims that all the MacDonalds in Rogart had a common ancestor, probably in the late 17th century.   A Norman MacDonald of that era can be traced as being a near relative of Sir John’s family.

The family of MacDonalds in the Berrichan known as the “Soldiers” is not as clear.   We know of a Hugh and John MacDonald coming out to Earltown from Rogart around 1820.   They supposedly had a sister Isabella who married Robert MacKay  “Black”, an early settler at West Earltown and ancestor of Tillie Armstrong.   There is much to be done on this family.