A Tale of the Sea

A PATHETIC tale of the sea I will unfold,
Enough to make one’s blood run cold;
Concerning four fishermen cast adrift in a dory.
As I’ve been told I’ll relate the story.
T’was on the 8th April on the afternoon of that day
That the village of Louisburg was thrown into a wild state or dismay,

And the villagers flew to the beach in a state of wild uproar
And in a dory they found four men were cast ashore.
Then the villagers, in surprise assembled about the dory,
And they found that the bottom of the boat was gory;
Then their hearts were seized with sudden dread,
when they discovered that two of the men were dead.

And the two survivors were exhausted from exposure, hunger, and cold,
Which used the spectators to shudder when them they did behold;
And with hunger the poor men couldn’t stand on their feet,
They felt so weakly on their legs for want of meat.

They were carried to a boarding-house without delay,
But those that were looking on were stricken with dismay,
When the remains of James and Angus McDonald were found in the boat,
Likewise three pieces or flesh in a pool or blood afloat.

Angus McDonald’s right arm was missing from the elbow,
and the throat was cut in a sickening manner which filled the villagers hearts with woe,
Especially when they saw two pieces of flesh had been cut from each thigh,
’Twas then the kind-hearted villagers did murmur and sigh.

Angus McDonald must have felt the pangs of hunger before he did try
to cut two pieces of fiesh from James McDonald’s thigh,
But, Oh heaven! the pangs of hunger are very hard to thole,
And anything that’s eatable is precious unto an hungry soul.

Alas it is most pitiful and horrible to think
That with hunger christians will each other’s blood drink
And eat each other’s flesh to save themselves from starvation;
But the pangs or hunger makes them mad, and drives them to desperation.

An old American soldier that had passed through the Civil War,
Declared the scene surpassed anything he’s seen by far,
And at the sight, the crowd in horror turned away,
which no doubt they will remember for many a day.

Colin Chisholm, one of the survivors was looking very pale,
Stretched on a sofa at the boarding-house, making his wail:
Poor fellow! his feet was greatly swollen, and with a melancholy air,
He gave the following account of the distressing affair:

We belonged to the American fishing schooner named “Cicely”,
And our captain was a brave man, called McKenzie;
And the vessel had fourteen hands altogether
And during the passage we had favourable weather.

’Twas on March the 17th we sailed from Gloucester on the Wednesday
And all our hearts felt buoyant and gay;
And we arrived on the Western banks on the succeeding Tuesday,
While the time unto us seemed to pass merrily away.

About eight O’clock in the morning, we left the vessel in a dory,
And I hope all kind christians will take heed to my story;
Well, while we were at our work, the sky began to frown,
And with a dense fog we were suddenly shut down

Then we hunted and shouted, and every nerve did strain,
Thinking to find our schooner but, alas! it was all in vain:
Because the thick fog hid the vessel from our view,
And to keep ourselves warm we closely to each other drew.

We had not one drop of water , nor provisions of any kind,
Which, alas soon began to tell on our mind;
Especially upon James McDonald who was very thinly clad,
And with the cold and hunger he felt almost mad.

And looking from the stern where he was lying,
he said Good bye, mates, Oh! I am dying!
Poor fellow we kept his body thinking the rest of us would be saved,
Then, with hunger, Angus McDonald began to cry and madly raved.

And he cried, Oh, God! send us some kind of meat,
Because I’m resolved to have something to eat;
Oh! do not let us starve on the briny flood
Or else I will drink of poor Jim’s blood.

Then he suddenly seized his knife and cut off poor Jim’s arm,
Not thinking in his madness he’d done any harm;
Then poor Jim’s blood he did drink and his flesh did eat,
Declaring that the blood tasted like cream, and was a treat.

Then he asked me to taste it, saying It was good without doubt,
Then I tasted it, but in disgust I instantly spat it out;
Saying, if I was to die within an hour on the briny flood,
I would neither eat the flesh nor drink the blood.

Then in the afternoon again he turned to me,
Saying, I’m going to cut Jim’s throat for more blood d’ye see;
Then I begged of him, for God’s sake not to cut the throat of poor Jim,
But he cried, Ha! ha! to save my own life I consider it no sin.

I tried to prevent him but he struck me without dismay
And cut poor Jim’s throat in defiance of me, or all I could say,
Also a piece of flesh from each thigh, and began to eat away,
But poor fellow he sickened about noon, and died on the Sunday.

Now it is all over and I will thank all my life,
Who has preserved me and my mate, McEachern, in the midst of danger and strife;
And I hope that all landsmen of low and high degree,
Will think of the hardships of poor mariners while at sea.

A Terrible Tale of the Sea

In A Dory Eight Days Without Food or Water

Eating the Flesh and Drinking the Blood of a Dead Companion to Keep Themselves Alive

SYDNEY, C.B. [Cape Breton], April 7

A dory came ashore on Guyon Island, about five miles from Gabarus, on Sunday, containing four men – two dead and two alive. They belonged to the American schooner “Cecil H. Low”. They got astray from the schooner on the Western Bank, and were eight days without food or water. The two survivors were very much exhausted when Mr. Winton, the light keeper, took charge of them. After being well cared for they were at once sent to the American consulate at Louisburg, where they now are, but still in a weak condition. The coroner left Sydney last night to hold an inquest. The names of the dead men are James McDonald, of East Point, P.E.Island, and Angus McDonald, of Broad Cove, C.B. The names of the survivors are Colin Chisholm, of Harbor Bouche [sic], N.S. and Angus McEachern, of Long Point, Strait of Canso, C.B. Chisholm is a very powerful man and of fine physique. The arms of one of the dead men is very much mutilated, owing it is said, to being bitten by his companions ere he died.


A sensation was caused here yesterday by the arrival of a dory from sea containing four men, two living and two dead. They got adrift from their vessel, the sch. “Cecil H. Low” (Am.) While setting trawls on the western banks. Not discovering their vessel they all got in one dory. After four days out one succumbed through thirst, and on the seventh, the other, who had become insane. On the eighth day they landed at Guyon Island where they were kindly cared for by the keeper of the light who sent them here yesterday. The body of the first who died is greatly lacerated, one of his arms is cut off at the elbow, his throat much torn, a piece out of each thigh. This was done by the other dead man after death to obtain food and drink. One of the survivors is very sick. The names of the deceased are James McDonald, East Point, P.E.I. and Angus McDonald, Broad Cove, C.B. The names of the survivors are Colin Chisholm, Harbour Bouche and Angus McEachern, Long Point, Strait of Canso. An inquest is being held.

One of the ill-fated men, Angus McDonald, was a brother of Alexander McDonald, barrister of this city. Glancing over the Mail about 11 o’clock last night, Mr. McDonald read the despatch from Louisburg giving a report of the horror and was dazed to discover that his brother Angus was one of the victims. The two McDonalds and Chisholm, were shipmates on the Gloucester fisherman “Mary E. McDonald” which was dashed to pieces along the coast near Port Mouton early in the spring. The crew were all saved and came to Halifax. Mr. McDonald then strongly urged his brother to give up following the fishing business and to settle down upon a farm at his home, Broad Cove, Inverness county. He said he would fish this season and after that would settle down at home. The other McDonald was the mate of the wrecked “Mary E. McDonald”. Angus stayed a week or so in Halifax with his brother, and then went to Gloucester, where with the two men who had previously been his shipmates, he became one of the crew of the “Cecil. H. Low”. Angus McDonald was a slightly built man, not very strong, and Alexander thinks he was the first man to die. Chisholm was engaged to be married at the end of this fishing season. James McDonald of P.E. Island, leaves a family. The “Cecil H. Low” seems to be an ill-fated vessel. She was missing several weeks last winter and was long given up for lost with all on board.

Halifax Herald, 14th April 1886


This macabre tale is based on a real event that happened on Canada’s eastern seaboard in the spring of 1886. As can be seen from the contemporary newspaper report, the names of the mariners involved and the events portrayed are basically correct, though the more melodramatic elements come wholly from McGonagall’s poetic imagination.

McGonagall has gone uncharacteristicly awry with his dates, the men came ashore on the 6th April, not the 8th as he states in the first stanza. Presumably he forgot to factor in the length of time the news took to cross the Atlantic to Dundee. The name of the ship involved has changed from the Cecil H. Low to the Cicely – perhaps a transcription error in the Dundee papers or McGonagall misread his notes (or perhaps he just wanted a rhyme for “McKenzie”!).

As can be seen from the fishermen’s names, Nova Scotia (“New Scotland” in Latin) lived up to its name in terms of its population. The story would have been of interest to the people of Dundee, partly because they may have had relatives in the area and partly because they, too, were engaged in fishing forbidding northern waters. Fishing disasters closer to home often inspired McGonagall’s pen.

As a postscript, the lighthouse keeper upon whose island the two survivors first landed claimed $20 from the US Consul for their bed and board for 24 hours – equivalent to about $375 in today’s money. Two men that ferried the boat and its occupants to Louisburg claimed a further $20 each for their trouble. Claiming for stress or trauma was as yet unheard of in the 1880’s, but the men of the time clearly found a way to do so anyway.

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