Cape Breton's Giant: Angus McAskill

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Angus McAskill was not born on Cape Breton Island but on Harris in the Hebridean Islands of Scotland in 1825. His father, Norman McAskill, was a stout man 5 feet 9 inches tall, and his mother, Christina Campbell, was a good sized woman. There was a family of thirteen in all, several of whom died while young. As a baby Angus was not as large as the other children.

Angus and a friend

Norman McAskill was in his 40's, and his wife a decade younger, when he decided to follow hundreds of his fellow countrymen to Cape Breton, which still had plenty of room for immigrants. Harris, this home of the McLeods, was a mountainous land, with many sea lochs and bogs, where the patches of sandy soil needed to be heavily manured with seaweed and fish. It was the old story of the landlords wishing to replace the crofters with sheep walks, and with the loss of the market for kelp the fisheries could not support all the population of the Hebrides.

Some say that Angus was three when he sailed across the Atlantic Ocean, others that he was six, but anyway the boredom of a long voyage was lightened by a fiddler who played on deck. In Cape Breton the Norman McAskill family settled on the south side of St. Ann's Harbour, in that district which was called "Englishtown" because its inhabitants "had not the Gaelic". However, the old settlers at Englishtown had moved away and Highlanders had replaced them. Norman's neighbours were Angus McRitchie, 50 year old Murdock McLeod, who had 9 children, and 30 year old Duncan McLeod, who had four, and who had applied for a land grant from the Crown in 1825 but did not receive it until 1833.

The McAskills were fortunate that they had secured a foothold at St. Ann's, where the Bay teemed with fish. Cape Breton Here the Rev. Norman McLeod (the preacher from Assynt in Sutherlandshire) and his congregation had settled in 1821 and had built a Presbyterian church at Black Cove and a school. The "Normanites" already had experience with living in the New World. They were willing to help the newcomers from Scotland and would assist the Gaelic-speaking Highlanders to obtain land from the English officials at Halifax. Probably one of the most difficult things would be to become accustomed to the forest and to learn how to cut down the trees, how to use wood instead of stone for building, and for cooking instead of peat.

Many Gaelic folk-songs express the consternation of Highlanders struggling to make farms in the forest. Since Norman McAskill had taken over the improvements of Donald McAuley he probably took over a rough wooden shelter and a clearing where potatoes and oats could be grown among the stumps. Mrs. McAskill was anxious about little Angus becoming lost in the woods or being killed by a boar or some other wild animals.

Angus' house

The first settlers of St. Ann's had to bring supplies by boat from Pictou or Sydney. By 1825 John Munro had opened a store at Munro's Point, and had begun to buy timber from the settlers to load on ships to sell in the Old Country at Liverpool, Aberdeen and Greenock, and to bring back manufactured goods. He also built small vessels of his own for the Labrador fishery, and owned two grist mills.

The McAskill boys received their education for a couple of terms in the one room district school with 37 pupils with ages ranging from 5 to 17, where the parents had to pay a subscription for each child attending. For six months in 1834 Norman McAskill paid 2.10 for the instruction of two of his sons.

Ten-year-old Angus had a perfect attendance record of 140 days. The teacher was Alexander Munro (a brother of the merchant John Munro) whose salary was sixty pounds a year with an allowance of seven shillings weekly for boarding, lodging and washing. He was a graduate of King's College, Aberdeen, and had been a teacher in Scotland before he followed the Rev. Norman McLeod to Nova Scotia.

It is interesting that Norman McAskill did not send his boys to the school of the Rev. Norman McLeod, where the parents paid the fees by working on Norman's farm. Mr. McLeod was a fine scholar in both Gaelic and English, and taught in both languages in his school. But it was a long row or sail across the harbour to McLeods Point, Angus was growing larger and could defeat his brothers and the neighbourhood boys in fighting and wrestling, but he was good natured and did not often fight. At 14 he became known as St. Ann's Big Boy or Gille Mor, and was teased by the others for his size and his clumsiness.

According to the census of 1838 half the population of 203 at Englishtown were children of school age in a community with such Scottish names as McAulay, McDonald, McIver, MeLeod, Campbell, Ferguson, Fraser, Kerr, Matheson, Morrison and Sutherland. Twenty-three heads of household were listed as farmers while there were two merchants, two carpenters, a blacksmith, a weaver, one fisherman and one sailor, although most of the farmers combined some fishing with farm work.

When Big Angus was about fourteen he went on a fishing boat to North Sydney, and the crew took him along to a dance. The Big Boy had gone ashore without shoes and in old clothes and was sitting near the door watching because dancing was frowned upon by the strict Presbyterian elders of St. Ann's. One of the dancers was a young man from town who danced over with his pretty lassie and stepped on Angus' bare toe. The big, red-faced boy quickly pulled his feet out of the way but bystanders laughed. Angus became absorbed in the dancing and unconsciously put his feet out again. The dandy stepped on the boy's toe again. For a moment it looked as if there would be a fight for the fishermen who had brought Angus along would have joined in. Angus turned red and clenched his fists but remained seated while the bully laughed. The third time his heel came down, the Big Boy jumped up and his fist swept up to his tormentor's jaw. That gentleman landed in the middle of the floor- and was unconscious for so long they thought he was dead. When the captain returned to his schooner he found Angus on his knees praying that he had not killed the man.

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