In the Philosophical Transactions for 1698, Dr. William Musgrave issued the following report on the Irish giant Edmund Malone:
"The measure of some of the parts of this Irish-man, nineteen years of age, shown at Oxford, were communicated to me by Dr. Plot. He was seven feet six inches high, his finger six inches and three quarters long, the length of his span fourteen inches, of his cubit (the distance from the elbow to the finger-tips) two feet two inches, of his arm three feet two inches and a quarter, from the shoulder to the crown of his head eleven inches and three-quarters."
Earlier, in 1684, the giant appeared before the Court of Charles II. The amazed king walked under his outstretched arm, an event that Malone mentioned thereafter in his handbills, as in the following: "The Gyant; or the Miracle of Nature. Being that so much admired young man, aged nineteen years last June, 1684. Born in Ireland, of such a prodigious height and bigness, and every way proportionable, the like hath not been seen since the memory of man: he hath been several times shown at court, and his majesty was pleased to walk under his arm, and he is grown very much since, he now reaches ten foot and a half, fathoms near eight foot, spans fifteen inches; and is believed to be as big as one of the giants in Guildhall. He is to be seen at the sign of the Catherine Wheell in Southwark fair. Vivat Rex."
McAskill, Angus "Big Boy"
More than a century after his death, Nova Scotians still tell stories about the mighty Scottish giant Angus McAskill. After so many tellings, some of the stories no doubt have become somewhat stretched. But others, even some that seem at first outlandish, have been verified by credible witnesses.
Cape Breton historian Albert Almon, for instance, writes that John McAskill himself confirmed that some taunting French sailors once bet his older brother he could not lift an anchor weighing well over a ton. Gripping the anchor, Angus McAskill not only raised it to his shoulder but walked a piece down the wharf with it.64 Also, The Canadian Encyclopedia reports that the giant "is known to have possessed prodigious strength and reputedly could lift 635 litre barrels and beams as long as 18 meters."65 And in her Two Remarkable Giants, biographer Phyllis R. Blakeley recounts that he once "jogged down the street with a 300 pound barrel of pork under each arm to the admiring whistles of bystanders."66
With such feats as these acknowledged, the story that McAskill could set a shoulder to his half-ton fishing boat and then tip it on its beam to spill out the bilge water seems not at all that farfetched. Nor the claim that he could singlehandedly "set a forty foot mast into a schooner as easily as a farmer sets a fence post in a hole."67
In 1825, about three years after his birth in the outer Hebrides of Scotland, Angus moved with his family to St. Ann's, Nova Scotia -a hilly land reminiscent of the Scottish Highlands, with picturesque fishing villages inhabited mainly by people of Highland Scottish and French ancestry.68
In his earliest years, the child seemed in every way normal, but then he started outgrowing all others his age. Family and acquaintances started calling him "Big Boy," (or "Gille Mor"), and that nickname stuck with him all his life. "As the boy kept growing and growing," writes Blakeley, "his father raised the roof and lifted the ceilings of the kitchen and living room, but as he did not raise the door Angus had to stoop to enter."69
Angus McAskill eventually reached a height of seven feet nine inches, with shoulders that measured forty-four inches broad and hands a foot long with palms eight inches wide. He weighed over four hundred pounds. By all accounts, the deep-blue-eyed giant with black, curly hair was likable, and had a "pleasant manner," but he could get riled up. For example, as a teenager, he once accompanied the crew of a fishing schooner to a dance in North Sydney barefoot. As he sat watching, a show-off danced by with his girlfriend and stepped-deliberately, it seems-on Big Boy's unprotected toes. This occurred a second time, to the laughter of bystanders. But when it happened yet a third time, young Angus sprang out of his chair with a swift uppercut that propelled his tormentor through the air and landed him some distance out on the dance floor. The fellow remained there so still for so long that many feared he would die. The most concerned, it appears, was Angus himself. For, upon returning to the schooner, the captain of the crew reported he found the lad on his knees, fervently praying that the one rendered unconscious by the blow of his big fist might recover.70
ANGUS McASKILL, Cape Breton's famous giant, became a legend in his own time for his great feats of strength. (Courtesy Public Archives of Nova Scotia)
Though McAskill continued to do some farm work, fishing was his favorite way of life. So, for those who lived on St. Ann's Bay, the giant on his sailboat71 became a familiar sight. He was on such a fishing trip in 1849, when the captain of a Yankee schooner spotted the towering young man at Neil's Harbour and sought to become his agent. After several meetings, the captain persuaded Angus and his family that fame and fortune awaited him in the outside world. For the next four years, he toured Lower Canada, the United States, the West Indies, Cuba, Newfoundland, and apparently England.
James D. Gillis says in his book, The Cape Breton Giant, that Britain's Queen Victoria summoned McAskill to Windsor Castle to see for herself if stories of his astonishing height and amazing strength were true. Almon later disputed this audience before the queen because he could find no record of it. But Duncan McAskill, another of Angus' brothers, told Gillis that he indeed appeared before the queen and afterward received from her the gift of a highland costume.
When his tour ended in 1853, McAskill returned to Cape Breton and bought a large grist mill at Munro's Point and opened a shop at Englishtown. He did well, but ten years later he suddenly took ill and soon after died from what his doctor called "brain fever." On his gravestone appears this inscription:
the memory of
The Nova Scotia Giant
Who died August 8, 1863
Aged 38 years
A dutiful son, a kind brother,
just in all his dealings,
Universally respected by all his
acquaintance, "Mark the perfect man,
and behold the upright,
for the end of that man is peace".
But after years of neglect this stone fell and in time grass and earth covered it. Many years later the provincial government authorities decided to replace the lost stone of their famous son with what could be remembered of his original epitaph. Later, however, some graveyard workers uncovered the original stone. It can be seen today at the Giant McAskill and Highland Pioneers' Museum located on the grounds of the Gaelic College of Celtic Arts and Crafts overlooking St. Ann's Harbor. Among other exhibits at the museum are Angus' eight-foot bed, his great chair, and some of his clothing. And there also, from a large mural on the wall, Cape Breton's mighty giant, dressed in his highland costume, solemnly gazes down upon the museum's visitors. (For an account of Nova Scotia's other famous giant, see Swan, Anna Haining)
M'Donald, Big Sam
Samuel M'Donald, of Lairg, in Sutherlandshire, who some claimed grew nearly eight feet high, served as a private in the Sutherland Fencibles in the latter years of the American Revolution. Later, after he became a fugleman with the Royals, he so impressed the Prince of Wales (afterward King George IV) that he was made lodge-porter at Carlton House. Big Sam, as he was commonly called, apparently did not take to this kind of life. So, after two years, he resigned and reenlisted with the Sutherland Fencibles with the rank of sergeant.
In his Edinburgh Portraits, Kay writes that while Big Sam was in London some tried to persuade him to show himself for money. He declined to do so under his own name, but he agreed to dress up as a female and advertise himself as a "remarkably tall woman." He drew remarkably large crowds and soon became flush with money. Suspicious of his new spending power, Sam's colonel called him in for questioning and learned of the giant's profitable moonlighting.
Besides his great height, nature also endowed Big Sam with great strength, as these two stories show. Once challenged by two soldiers who bragged the both of them could whip him, Big Sam at first demurred, but he finally agreed, provided they shook hands first-to show that no hard feelings existed between them. When the first stuck out his hand Big Sam seized it. But instead of a hand-shake, the giant-who also was sometimes referred to as the Scottish Hercules-raised the soldier off his feet, swung him around, and then threw him a great distance through the air. Seeing this, the astonished second soldier decided not to hang around. Another time, when a soldier in the barracks wanted him to retrieve an item from a shelf beyond his own reach, Big Sam caught him by the neck, raised him upwards, and told him to take it down himself.72
James Paris reports once seeing in London an Irishman from Medmenham, in the county of Bucks, who stood in his bare feet to a height of seven feet and eleven inches and wore shoes that measured fifteen inches.73
Born in 1578 in the chapelry of Hale just southwest of Manchester, John Middleton grew almost tall enough to look Goliath straight in the eye. He was also endowed with extraordinary strength -a trademark of the true giant.
In 1620, Sir Gilbert Ireland, the sheriff of Lancashire, got the giant all dressed up and took him to London to meet King James I. On his return home, the fancy-dressed Middleton had his portrait painted. It is preserved in the library of Brasenose College at Oxord.
The British naturalist Dr. Robert Plot, who later made measurements of the portrait, gave this report in his Staffordshire: "John Middleton, commonly called 'The Childe of Hale', whose hand from the carpus to the end of the middle finger was seventeen inches long, his palm eight inches and a half broad, and his whole height nine foot three inches, wanting but six inches of the height of Goliath, if that in Brasenose College Library (drawn at length, as 'tis said, in his just proportions) be a true piece of him."74
Middleton, who died at the age of 45, was buried in the Hale churchyard. On the twelve-foot-long stone covering his grave appears this epitaph:
THE BODIE OF JOHN MIDDLETON THE CHILDE.
NINE FEET THREE. BORNE 1578. DYEDE 1623.75
Murphy, the Irish Giant
Working on the Liverpool Docks apparently did not appeal much to Murphy, the Irish giant. So he quit to wait on tables at the hotel. But because he was a man of extraordinary height, Murphy drew large crowds to the hotel. One day he decided he might as well get paid for being a curiosity and began exhibiting himself. In May of 1857, the Emperor and Empress of Austria invited the touring County Down native to appear before them. Before he died of smallpox at Marseilles, at the age of twenty-six, Murphy had amassed a small fortune. He measured almost nine feet and weighed three hundred and thirty-six pounds.76
On December 6, 1856, the Mayo Constitution carried this obituary: "One of the last of the mythical line of Irish giants, in the person of Shawn Nabontree, died at Connemara, Ireland, on Friday last. He owed his sobriquet to his unusual stature, being a man of extraordinary athletic symmetry-namely, seven feet in height, and weighing over twenty stone [280 pounds]. His family, the Joyces, has been for many years one of the wonders of Connemara. He died at the age of seventy, and has left four stalwart sons."