As far as I can remember, I always knew I was related to a giant. Older relatives in my family used to talk somewhat proudly of Angus MacAskill, who, standing at 7ft 9ins, weighing 33 stones and bearing a chest measurement of 80 inches, was the tallest Scotsman who ever lived, indeed the tallest natural giant as entered in the Guinness Book of Records.
Born on the island of Berneray, Angus spent most of his life in Cape Breton, where his family had emigrated while he was a child, and was remembered for his feats of strength, his kindness and his 'mild and gentle manner which endeared him to all who had the pleasure of his acquaintance,' as reported in the Halifax Arcadian Recorder after Angus's death.
Exactly how I'm related to this man I must admit I'm unsure of. My mother's family, also MacAskills, had originally come from Berneray, and in such small communities ties either through blood or marriage are not uncommon, though I have a feeling such ancestral disclosures are imparted to each and every young MacAskill with even the faintest of island connections. And so, a week's camping holiday touring the Western Isles provided a more than agreeable opportunity to find out more about the Giant MacAskill and uncover the truths, half truths and blatant fibs surrounding him.
It was during that uncharacteristically hot spell at the end of April that my boyfriend and I set out from Inverness on our way to the Isle of Skye. Apparently the weather was beautiful everywhere, the north-west no exception. The landscape became impressively rougher and higher the further west we drove. We were heading towards the village of Dunvegan where I had heard there was a museum dedicated to Angus MacAskill.
Crossing the most expensive toll bridge in Europe and winding through the spectacular and topical Cuillins, we reached Duvegan, locating the paradoxically small museum, set up by a more entrepreneurial distant relative of the giant’s, Peter MacAskill.
The museum accommodates a life-size model of Angus with stories of his life displayed on the walls. Peter MacAskill struck me as a very likeable character and certainly told his stories well, though I couldn't help feeling he made a great deal of them up on the spot after gauging what his audience wanted to hear!
From Skye we boarded the ferry to Lochmaddy on North Uist and made our way to Berneray, the two islands joined by a causeway. A breathtaking place with beautiful beaches, here Angus MacAskill was born into a family of 13 in 1825. Neither of his parents was particularly tall. Fisherman Norman was a stout 5ft 9ins and his mother Christina was described very tactfully as 'a good sized woman.' The family moved to the larger island of Harris while Angus was still a baby, his Heroch neighbours remarking that there was nothing special about him as a youngster except the size of his thumbs. However, the MacAskills did not remain long in Harris either. With the Highland Clearances in full flow and the fishing trade unable to sustain the population of the islands, the entire family left for Canada in 1831 following many of their neighbours.
Quite what they made of leaving their beautiful part of the world, or how they fared on the long, hazardous journey is not documented, but they eventually settled in Englishtown in St Anns Harbour, Cape Breton.
In the small pioneer town, Angus's increasing size was useful. It was a time of much hard physical labour with trees to be felled, timber to be sawn and housed, farms to be constructed. After receiving a basic education, Angus became a successful fisherman learning the trade from his father.
Hardship struck again in 1847, however, when the crops failed and Englishtown suffered near famine. It was around this time that Angus was approached by an American fish trader who suggested he should tour Canada exhibiting himself as the 'Cape Breton Giant.' Contrary to many accounts of his pairing up with a dwarf and joining a circus, the Cape Breton Giant Exhibition seems to have been a rather straightforward affair in which Angus stood still while people came and stared at him, as they would do many years later at his life-size model on Skye.
By 1852, Angus had travelled all over Canada and America and in 1853 was touring the West Indies. Comparable with the sailors who travel the world but 'see' little of it, Angus had to lie low during his tours: if he were spotted strolling down the street no one would pay to see him.
I believe that, rather than subjecting himself to exploitation, Angus accepted his extraordinary height, the fact he was different, and patiently resigned himself to the tours, using his size to his own advantage. Certainly, in such hard times, he returned home from the West Indies with a small fortune and spent it discerningly, opening a shop and purchasing a mill. He also utilised his strength for the benefit of others: there is no shortage of stories describing his helpfulness towards neighbours and fellow fishermen. The sheer mass of such tales suggests some authenticity in their content.
In fact it was one such display of strength that contributed to Angus's untimely demise. Lifting a 2,700 pound anchor was nothing out of the ordinary, but on one particular occasion one of the flukes caught into his shoulder – a wound from which he was never fully to recover. In 1863 Angus suddenly became seriously ill and died of a brain fever aged 38.
Throughout his life he was described as gentle, mild-mannered, and rather shy. A moderate drinker, he seldom went to dances and parties, influenced by his community's exceptionally strict ministers denouncing such frivolities. Also, I imagine he had insight enough to realise all 7ft and 9ins of him doing a Gay Gordons would be unwise, if not potentially dangerous!
The Giant MacAskill is fondly remembered throughout the Western Isles, a cairn on Berneray commemorating him, while a small island off the coast of Harris is known as MacAskill’s Rock – his father Norman having been stranded there as the result of a boating accident.
We were nearing the end of our week and were heading for Stornoway. Having become accustomed to the scattered crofts on Uist and the small villages on Harris and Lewis, Stornaway seemed big and bustling and noisy. We soon discovered we had completely run out of money and hadn’t a bean between us.
Deciding that it could be worse and that we at least had enough petrol to get back to Inverness in the morning, we resigned ourselves to spending an uncomfortable night in the van, falling asleep to a throughly awful radio play. By 6.30 the following morning, thanks to the play, our battery was flat.
In my experience, being stranded somewhere is tolerable when you have enough to get something to eat, or sit in a pub and laugh at your misfortune, but when you're broke and tired and hungry it is miserable. Yet, now and then, I believe such minor disasters are almost worth happening if only to delight in the warmth and kindness of others. On this occasion, a farmer came to our rescue. Having spotted us wandering dejectedly round the town at such an early hour, he approached us with a good-natured mixture of nosiness and amusement, and was more than happy to help, providing a set of jump leads. After many heartfelt thank-yous and goodbyes, we boarded the ferry to Ullapool with five minutes to spare, expelling a huge sigh of relief.
Anyone I have met from the islands has been understandably proud of their origins. Crossing the Minch, I wondered how much, if anything, the Giant MacAskill remembered of his birthplace. He may well have relied upon the stories and songs which his elders passed down to the younger immigrants to illustrate vague memories of Berneray and Harris.
I would recommend a tour of the Western Isles to anyone, and would do it all again myself, notwithstanding the fighting over tents, the grubbiness, and the lack of money, simply because the islands truly are incredible – each individual and unique, with dramatic landscapes, immaculate beaches, and he sea never too far away.
Like the Giant MacAskill, they have to be seen to be believed.