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Written by Darrin Pierce,  Internship student from Stirling University

Who is He?

Sergeant Samuel MacDonald was born and raised in Lairg, Sutherland in 1762. He got the famous “Big Sam” nickname for being a unique height for the time period. Many sources state that he was 6 feet 10 inches tall with buff build. But there was one source from 1822 that claimed he was 7 feet 4 inches tall with 48 inches round the chest. The average height of a soldier in the 19th century was between 5 ft 6 and 5 ft 9 inches. Being that tall he was noted as the “strongman” of the time.

What Did He Do?

Big Sam had a very interesting life where he served with the 2nd Sutherland Fencibles from 1779-83 as well as the Royal Scots in 1783-1789 as a drill-leader. From 1791- 93 he worked for the Prince of Wales as a Porter at the Carlton House. But while he was working he would occasionally appear at the Drury Lane Theatre playing Hercules in the play “Cymon and Iphigenia”. I guess you could say they picked the right man for the job since he was built like him. He left the Carlton House from 1793-99 and went to join the 3rd Sutherland Fencibles where he was promoted to be sergeant in the Colonel’s company. From 1799 until his death in 1802 he joined the newly formed 93rd Sutherland Highlanders. He was so large though he typically marched along the side of the ranks, while leading the regimental mascot, a deer (also rumored to be an uncommon size). Alongside Big Sam, there was a man named MacKay who was from Strathmore, Durness. He joined the 93rd and was also was a very tall and powerful man, he marched with Big Sam at the front “to clear the road”. He stood at 6 feet 2 inches tall.

Big Sam went to Gurnsey in 1800 while his regiment was stationed at Fort George.[1] There was a booked called “Every Day Book” by Hone that was published in 1827 and stated that “Big Sam continued active till his thirty-fifth year when he began to decline and he died of water on the chest.”[2] He passed away at the age of 41 on the 6th May. Dying at that young of an age may seem like a shock to many now, but the life expectancy in the early 1800s was around 40 years old for men.

To understand the size of Big Sam here is a painting outside of the John Kay Parliament, you can see Big Sam on the bottom right.

 John Kay Parliament [3]

Funny Stories

Big Sam had a very eventful life and made an impact on many

  • There was a common statement that his mother was not able to nurse him normally so he was fed milk from his father’s mare and this resulted in his brute strength.
  • The Sutherland Highlanders were amazed by the sheer size of Big Sam and gave him 2 shillings and 6 pence a day extra to feed himself because they thought that he required extra food.
  • He was challenged one day to fight an Irish giant; Before the fight Sam didn’t want to fight without shaking hands and kept pushing the man to shake. After finally agreeing to it Big Sam had a grip that was so strong it squeezed the blood out of the Irishman’s fingernails and he backed down.
  • One cold night Big Sam was ordered to go out and keep guard overnight. He was stationed at a sentry which would take two or even three men to move. Sam wasn’t at his post very long but his comrades, who were enjoying themselves at the guard room fire, were amazed when Sam came in with a huge mass of cast iron over his shoulder by himself. When asked why he deserted his post he responded “Why, what’s the use,” he continued “of standing out there in a cold night, watching that bit of iron, when I could as well watch it in here.”[4]
  • The Sutherland Fencibles were stationed in Dublin and the 93rd were purchasing meat from an Irish butcher who didn’t believe any of the stories of his strength. So Big Sam challenged him that if he could carry a bullock carcass for two miles to the barracks then he could have it for free. Sam wasn’t going to turn down that offer and he did just that without any hassle back to the Richmond Barracks.

Big Sam Lives On

Big Sam was notably one of the most unique and colorful of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders to wear the uniform. To this day people retell his stories and are still impressed by tales of strength. Whether true or embellished, these stories help us shape who he was as a person and get a better understanding of what his life was like. His last resting place was in Guernsey at the Stranger’s Cemetery in Upland Road, St Peter Port on 9th May 1802. His gravestone has been restored many times throughout the years with the first in 1820 by N.C.O.’s of the 79th Highlanders.[5] But the final one was on 9th May 1988.[6] The Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders shared the cost of a new headstone and it was to serve as a memorial to every single serviceman who was buried within Stranger’s Cemetery and died protecting Guernsey.

[1] Guernsey – People – Memorial for Big Sam. (2008, November 28). Retrieved July 19, 2017, from http://www.bbc.co.uk/guernsey/content/articles/2008/11/28/memorial_odeon_big_sam_feature.shtml

 

[2] 93rd Highlanders, Cavendish, A. E. (1928). An reisimeid chataich: the 93rd Sutherland Highlanders, now 2nd Bn the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders (Princess Louises), 1799-1927. London?: Privately published. Pg. 22

 

[3] John Kay Parliament, City of Edinburgh Council, https://artuk.org/discover/artworks/the-parliament-close-and-public-characters-of-edinburgh-fifty-years-since-93475

[4] A Series Of Original Portraits And Caricature Etchings: with biographical sketches and illustrative anecdotes. Edinburgh: Paton, Carver and Gilder. page 190

[5] Cavendish, A. E. (1928). An reisimeid chataich: the 93rd Sutterland Highlanders, now 2nd Bn the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders (Princess Louises), 1799-1927. London?: Privately published, Page 22.

 

[6] Guernsey – People – Memorial for Big Sam. (2008, November 28). Retrieved July 19, 2017, from http://www.bbc.co.uk/guernsey/content/articles/2008/11/28/memorial_odeon_big_sam_feature.shtml

 

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