Staring at giants

In the army he was invariably placed at the head of his regiment when marching, accompanied by a huge red deer.

He was Samuel Macdonald, Big Sam, born at Lairg in Sutherlandshire whose regiment, the Sutherland Fencibles fought in the American War of Independence – where the ‘bare-kneed Scotch divils’ were more feared than their English equivalents. For a time Sam transferred into the Royals, also as a marker man or fugelman. During this time he attracted the attention of the Prince of Wales, later George IV, who made him a lodge-porter at Carlton House. Soon bored, Sam rejoined the 93rd Highland Sutherlanders, becoming a sergeant.

Big Sam was modestly big, at 6ft 10 inches or 8ft high, as some insisted, with a 48 inch chest. He was statuesque and towering over his comrades he was usually placed on the right of his regiment in combat or at its head when on the march. Like most very large men Sam was good natured – the advantage of height to intimidate. But there are always some who’ll push their luck. Two fellow-soldiers goaded him to fight. Reluctantly Sam agreed, insisting on first shaking hands. When the first man held out his hand, Sam grabbed it and hoist the fellow up, swung him round and threw him quite a distance at which point the other would-be pugilist scarpered.

As with many large men and women, Sam was coerced into entertaining lesser mortals. While in the Prince of Wales’ household he was persuaded to play Hercules in a play at the London Opera House. Indeed, one of his nicknames was the ‘Scottish Hercules.’ This sort of life did not suit Sam who refused to display himself for money as so many other very large people did.  He resisted becoming a figure of curiosity – or rather wanted to separate that part of his life from his real self and occasionally was coaxed to dress as a woman and appear in exhibitions as “the remarkably tall woman”. Yes, the vogue for men claiming to be women from simply donning a dress is nothing new. Sam died when the Fencibles were in Guernsey, on 6 May, 1802.

This blog came about after I watched a Netflix film about a giant and got to wondering if there were Scottish giants. The answer to this question was, of course, yes. Where to stop …

Sam Macdonald was not what might be classed as a giant, more a big bloke. But Scotland, in keeping with every other part of the world has had its share of very large people – those who for some reason kept on growing. Life for many of them was miserable; frequently the subject of ridicule and unwanted attention. People stare at the unusual and people certainly stared at the giants. For some the very act of staring was literally bread and butter to them – and their opposites, dwarves. For those who chose the life, if people wanted to stare they should pay for the privilege. And they did. However, let’s not kid ourselves this was an easy life, sitting about being stared at.

One who adopted this life was a ‘Little Scotchman’, 2ft 6in tall who at 60 years of age in 1698 was still touring as a curiosity, singing and dancing to entertain wealthy people in English country houses. Why he did this, I don’t know, presumably for the money for he was well-educated, knowledgeable about the scriptures and history and ran his own writing school.  

General Tom Thumb dressed as a Scotsman

Staring at giants onscreen through Netflix avoids the discomfort for the viewer of publicly gawping at a fellow-human but we haven’t ended that habit yet in zoos where we pay to gaze at fellow-primates. The circuses and travelling shows that toured people of unusual heights were often referred to as ‘freak’ shows. ‘Freak’ shows were not restricted to unusual humans but any unusual animal, including humans.  

Now I’m going to stick my hand up at this point and admit that one time driving across the United States I, in the company of others, made a short detour to Prairie Dog Town, drawn by enormous advertising billboard. At Prairie Dog Town we saw two headed cows, six-legged cows, a kind of freezer box (unfrozen) filled with writhing rattlesnakes. It was a god-forsaken place of wretchedness and has since been closed down. It is within this context that some overgrown and undergrown people found themselves, centres of attraction for their very differences, to be pointed at, laughed at and objects of revulsion.   

Giants largely have had a bad press, frequently characterised as angry monsters in fairy stories while actual giants appear to have had pleasant natures. Gigantism, a condition where individuals grow excessively tall is rare and it is rarity that attracts attention. There are different causes giantism including a tumour of the pituitary gland and mutated genes. What has surprised me looking into this is the sheer number of males and females affected – either growing very large or hardly growing at all. I also discovered not to believe everything I read. As we saw with Big Sam some people will say anything to separate folk from their money. With that in mind let us begin.

I began on this topic to see if there were Scottish giants and in my head was Donald Dinnie from Aberdeenshire. Now stonemason Dinnie wasn’t as tall as some other big men but he was strong and as a champion on the Highland games circuit here and overseas; an all-rounder described as ‘the nineteenth century’s greatest athlete’ – participating as a pole vaulter, sprinter, hurdler, caber tosser, hammer thrower, wrestler, high jumper, long jumper, stone putter. He died wealthy in 1916, aged 78, and with obituaries galore including in the New York Times. His fame lives on in the form of two muckle boulders known as the Dinnie Steens which weigh 332 kilograms and were famously carried by Dinnie across the bridge at Potarch.

Donald Dinnie with a chestful of medals

But, Dinnie wasn’t a giant. A couple of years before his death, at the start WWI, a group of Highland soldiers disembarked at Boulogne in France as part of the British Expeditionary Force, the UK’s military vanguard. Disembarking from their ship the British troops were met by a large crowd who were underwhelmed by the men’s khaki uniforms; these French people associated the military with colourful uniforms. Then the Highland division stepped ashore in khaki jackets over kilts. Their appearance drew gasps from the crowd. Who were these men? they asked. On learning they were the Scots a cheer went up and cries of ‘Vive l’Ecosse.’ The cherry on the cake was one of the Highlanders’ officers, all 6ft 4 inches of him. Not a particularly unusual height today but the people of Boulogne were transfixed by his stature and gawped at him in near silence. One of the BEFs began singing, It’s a long way to Tipperary and the rest joined in. Another shouted, ‘Are we down-hearted’ to which his comrades shouted back, ‘No-o-o-o’ and so it went on – flags flying, singing and cheering and women pressing forward to claim the brass initials from the men’s shoulder straps on their khaki jackets. There were lots of tall Highlanders there but none that could be described as giants.

 Most English persons who visit Scotland as strangers are struck with the stature and proportions of the generality of its inhabitants, male and female … However, we did not know till lately that Scotland had produced a rival to the celebrated O’Brien, of Irish birth.

The Mirror, 1830

O’Brien was an Irish ‘giant’ – one of many but I’m still looking for a Scottish one to fit that description.

The people of Berneray, off Scotland’s west coast were some of those unfortunate Highlanders forced out of their homes and packed off overseas in the Highland Clearances, the MacAskill family included, about 1830. A young Angus therefore grew up in Cape Breton in Nova Scotia.  And kept on growing, reaching an impressive 7 ft 9 in and and, at one point, weighing in at 425lbs (30 stone.) Canada claimed him as their giant, otherwise known as Big Boy.  

Big Boy was described as the world’s tallest and strongest man – most giants were so described – and his life is celebrated in a museum at Dunvegan on Skye. Typically for people suffering from giantism, his life was short. He died in 1863 aged 38 years having lived mainly out of trunks, touring with circuses and shows as a strongman – his shoulders measured over 44 inches. One of Angus’ feats of strength was to lift a hundredweight with two fingers. He could carry a horse over a 4ft fence, take the place of a horse in ploughing a field and famously he lifted a 2,400lb anchor during an appearance in New York. His sometime employers, Barnum and Bailey, liked to match him with General Tom Thumb (Charles Stratton), dubbed the world’s smallest man. Both Stratton and Macaskill were physically normally proportioned to their sizes.

William Campbell was another Scottish ‘giant’. Born into poverty in Glasgow in 1852 he was only 26 years old when he died in 1878. It’s a stetch to have him described as a giant for he was a mere 6ft 8 inches tall but heavy and stout; 96-inch shoulders, 85-inch waist, 76-inch chest, 47-inch thighs and 35 inches around the calf, he weighed about 50 stone. Campbell was exhibited as William the Conqueror or the Scotch Giant. Originally a printer, he joined those touring as circus attractions, often the butt of jokes he played up to the public’s insatiable hunger for titbits about his private life by making stuff up.

Being gawped at did not end with Campbell’s death. This fine looking, affable young man said to only drink a small drop of sherry in a tumbler of water had become a pub landlord in Newcastle where his bedroom was on the building’s third floor. Unwell for about a week he died suddenly and because of his gigantic size gave the funeral directors immense problems.  A coffin had to be built in the room to take his body. Made from 2-inch-thick elm the 7ft 4in coffin was lined with lead and covered with black cloth. All these preparations took a while meanwhile others tackled getting the coffin out of the house. The bedroom window was removed along with a section of wall. Outside a block and tackle were set up to lower the coffin. By the time the lid was screwed down on William Campbell’s corpse he was beginning to decompose. For two hours men struggled with strong chains and stout timbers to lower the coffin, under the gaze of a growing crowd of thousands. For a further two hours the coffin sat on a wagon while the crowd of onlookers swelled to 40,000 people.

Enormous numbers followed the funeral procession of the Scotch Giant. People lined the route, clambered over railings, leaned out from windows and perched on rooftops. A band played the Dead March and Newcastle’s mounted police accompanied the cortege of 5 carriages that included one with Campbell’s mother and brother. All went to plan until they reached the cemetery when there was a crowd surge. Women, children and men were trampled underfoot, trees were broken, graves were trodden underfoot. It was chaotic and to prevent more trouble it was decided to forego the last rites and get on with lowering the huge coffin. This took an hour, all the time the crowd pressing forward as a service of sorts was read by the vicar of Newcastle from the back of a wagon.

Murphy is an unlikely name for a Scot, giant or not, and show people were not fussy about the accuracy of their descriptions with lots of men and women dressed in Highland garb and promoted as ‘Scotch’ but it seems one Scottish Murphy was the genuine article.

It happened like this. Murphy was at home in Scotland when one day a Frenchman who heard about a man mountain looked in on him. Satisfied with what he saw he offered Murphy one hundred pounds sterling to go to Paris for a year. He would have board and lodgings, two bottles of Bordeaux a day, pleasant company, nothing to do and be provided with all sorts of amusement. Murphy accepted. The money was handed over and Murphy shared it with his two sisters.

About the 7ft 9in mark Murphy continued growing and this very tall man drew enthusiastic audiences at a concert hall cum café, the Café du Geant on Boulevard du Temple in Paris which was said to have been named after him. Two or three times each evening Murphy would parade up and down the large room, sometimes accompanied by General Tom Thumb and the diminutive Princess Colibri. Customers clambered onto chairs to get a better look at him and he would pick up children in hold them on the palms of his hands.

This life was monotonous. Murphy couldn’t go out without creating a disturbance and took to walking in the middle of the night to escape attention. He became depressed and homesick, longing to go back home to Scotland and spoke about the lochs and hills that he missed terribly. To all outward appearances this now French linguist was contented. He was proving so popular his salary was increased to ten thousand francs a year but his only desire was to return to Scotland. He never made it for he died suddenly in 1869. His two bottles of Bordeaux had increased to six and he took up drinking porter as well. He would down at least a dozen bottles stout a day and always appeared drunk. Despite scarcely earing he grew broader and fatter every day. He weighed 382 pounds (27 stone). Even in death his wish to return to Scotland was denied for he became a museum artefact, his body displayed at the natural history museum at the Jardin des Plantes, alongside those of Native Americans and Maoris.

There were so-called ‘Scotch giants’ galore throughout the nineteenth century – star attractions with travelling shows. Sanger’s Circus boasted of exhibiting ‘the Wonderful Scotch Giant’ – ‘the tallest man in the world’ and ‘the finest specimen of humanity ever brought before the public’ in the 1820s. This was 6ft 9in James Thompson. James died suddenly one winter night in his tent. His death attributed to starvation. Like most ‘giants’ I’ve read about, James was a humble and proud man who suffered in silence rather than seek help for his depression. It has been said, although it sounds far-fetched, that days following his death a relative died leaving him a large estate.

Women giantesses tended to be described as Mrs so-and-so. Mrs Randall was married, to an English giant but Barnum, who they worked for kept up the pretence he was also Scottish and dressed him in Highland garb which was thought to accentuate his size. Mrs Randall was just 6ft 5in so not so very tall and certainly far shorter than a Yorkshire giantess, Mrs Bark, reputedly 7ft tall but perhaps pass the salt at this point.  

One nineteenth century giantess who was actually a Mrs but went under the name of Miss was another celebrated ‘Scotch Giantess’, Miss Freeman. Early one morning in London a carriage was stopped by police because of loud groans coming from it. Inside a couple were found, a man and woman, both very large and clearly ill. They were taken to Guy’s Hospital and had their stomachs pumped. Arsenic was discovered. It emerged Miss Freeman had a husband, the man in the carriage with her, but she was in a relationship with a Spanish giant and at the end of her tether she swallowed poison. Her husband found the cup and finished what was left of it. I don’t know what became of them.

Far taller women from around the world were involved in the world of showbusiness, many as strongwomen, such as the German Josephine Schauer who could break horseshoes and catch cannonballs fired from a cannon. She married an American giant. Another couple popular in America were the Quaker Giant and Giantess in the 1840s. He was said to be 8ft tall with her about the same height. The craze for giants and giantesses (and dwarves) led to impersonations. Someone in the UK was accused of impersonating a famous Swiss giantess, Fair Circassian, in the 1820s. There were questions over whether the fake Circassian was a woman or a man in a dress.  

And there we will leave it. People of uncommon size whether tall or small have probably always attracted attention for being out of the ordinary. Every country has them, including Scotland. For some fortunes were to be made on the back of their special differences but for others what marked them out as unusual caused them misery. It is natural for people to find difference interesting but there’s a fine line between that and having callous disregard for the feelings of those whose lives must always be defined by what marks them out as curiosities.


https://creativecommons.org/publicdomain/mark/1.0

2 Comments to “Staring at giants”

  1. Interesting, and so sad for so many with the condition. Apparently very tall and long limbed people can have all sorts of health problems, and it used to be they’d die young. Not often you see really tall people these days?

    There was an article a few years ago about a Baltic country that is quite mountainous, where the people living high up in the land are exceptionally tall. I can’t remember which country, but very interesting.

    • Hi, what struck me were the numbers of people of extreme heights in the public gaze during the 19th century, especially the earlier years. Taking into account exaggeration then, though audiences wouldn’t have kept paying for fakes, there does seem to have been a change, presumably medical, that prevents constant growth from happening. L

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