McASKILL, ANGUS, farmer, businessman, and “Cape Breton Giant”; b. in 1825 on Harris in the Hebrides, Scotland, one of 13 children of Norman McAskill and Christina Campbell; d. a bachelor on 8 Aug. 1863 at Englishtown, N.S.
About 1831 Angus McAskill immigrated with his family to Cape Breton where his father was seeking better economic opportunities. Norman McAskill settled on a 100-acre farm on the south side of St Ann’s Harbour in a district called “Englishtown” because its inhabitants “had not the Gaelic.”
For a few terms Angus McAskill attended the one-room school run by Alexander Munro, a graduate of King’s College, Aberdeen. McAskill was no larger than other children as a boy, but he kept growing. At 14 he became known as St Ann’s big boy or Gille Mor, and he continued to grow in his 20s until he became so tall that his father lifted the roof of the family home and raised the ceilings of the kitchen and living room. Angus worked with his father and brothers on the family farm. He was also a fisherman. In a pioneer community which admired strength and had many strong men he was called “the big giant” and was remembered because he could carry a 60-foot beam on his shoulder, set a 40-foot mast into a schooner, throw a man weighing 300 pounds over a woodpile 10 ft high and 12 ft wide, pull the bow off a fishing dory when a crowd of fishermen hauled back on the stern as a joke, and lift grindstones as easily as sugar lumps. Fortunately he had a “mild and gentle manner,” and was always helpful.
Crop failures in 1847 and 1848 caused economic depression in Nova Scotia, and induced Angus to accept the offer of a visitor to St Ann’s to go on a tour as a curiosity. In July 1849 he toured Lower Canada and in 1850 the United States. When he reached his full growth his agents reported his height as 7 ft 9 in., his weight 425 pounds, his shoulders 44 in. wide, and the palm of his hand 8 in. wide and 12 in. long. In 1863 he was wearing boots 17 1/2 in. long. He had deep-set blue eyes and a musical, if somewhat hollow voice. Despite his huge size he was perfectly proportioned.
In 1852 and 1853 he was exhibited in the United States and may have appeared at P. T. Barnum’s museum in Philadelphia or New York; in 1853 the giant toured the West Indies and Cuba. Descriptions of his presentation to Queen Victoria, however, are apocryphal. McAskill was often involved in wagers over his weight-lifting ability. The story of one of these wagers is often told. Some bystanders on a pier in New Orleans or New York bet that he would be unable to lift an anchor weighing about 2,700 pounds. He lifted it and walked with it on his shoulder. However, in replacing it on the pier, his grip slipped and the anchor dropped pinning him beneath it.
The giant returned to St Ann’s about 1854 with a “snug fortune” and bought farms and a grist mill from some of those who had emigrated to New Zealand with the Reverend Norman McLeod. He is said to have established salmon fishing on a commercial basis at St Ann’s. He also operated a general shop at Englishtown in a building he had erected to suit his size, and where he did much of his business by barter. McAskill died after a lingering illness which local doctors described as “brain fever.”
The Giant McAskill and Highland Pioneers’ Centennial Museum at the Gaelic College of Celtic Folk Arts at St Ann’s perpetuates his memory and contains some clothing and furniture used by the giant.
PANS, RG 1, 449/52C, census of 1838; RG 20, C, nos.55, 56. Victoria County Court of Probate (Baddeck, N.S.), 1863, A24 (letters of administration and inventory of the estate of Angus McAskill). Acadian Recorder, 15 Aug. 1863. Novascotian, 7 Oct. 1850, 11 April 1853, 17 Aug. 1863. Yarmouth Herald (Yarmouth, N.S.), 14 Nov. 1850. P. R. Blakeley, Nova Scotia’s two remarkable giants (Windsor, N.S., 1970). W. A. Deacon, The four Jameses (Ottawa, 1927), 123–49. J. D. Gillis, The Cape Breton giant; a truthful memoir (Halifax, 1926). Albert Almon, “The Cape Breton giant . . . ,” Cape Breton Mirror (Glace Bay, N.S.), January 1952, 12–14; February 1952, 12–13; March 1952, 12–13.