I had previously written about how evenings on Pictou Island would sometimes be spent telling ghost stories. I had always considered a lot of my Pictou Island friends to be off a superstitious nature and anticipated that a lot of those ghost stories developed from a personal experience.
One story which I vividly recall is that of the Pictou Island White Woman. Some people have believed that this famed lady and the sightings of the phantom burning ship have been linked. The following is what I have been told years ago.
There once lived a beautiful young maiden who fell deeply in love with a young sailor who had visited the Pictou island shores. They were inseparable and vowed to be with each other forever. Wedding plans were made but his ship was leaving for the fishing grounds before the wedding was finalized. He pledged to return and then set out with the crew. However fate dealt the crew a terrible hand. The ship headed into a fierce storm and large waves smashed against it. It has been speculated that a lantern overturned below deck and fire spread quickly. Word got back to the island about the crew being lost at sea. The young maiden however would not accept the truth. She would go down to the waters edge every day and search the horizon for the ships return.
She deeply mourned the loss of her lover. Her life became empty and she could not go on without him. She was found some days later hanging by her neck from a beam in her father’s barn.
The phantom of this beautiful young lady still roams the island’s lonely road. She is still sometimes seen wearing a long white gown with long flowing blond hair sweeping out behind her. It is said that on certain nights when the moon is bright, she is still seen walking the lonely Pictou Island road waiting for her lover to come back home.
I remember hearing about Punch Patterson almost catching the white women when I was a wee lad living on Pictou Island. People from the mainland would often visit with relatives on the island and it was not uncommon to see a stranger from time to time. It seems that Punch was walking home from visiting with Duncan Rankin one evening when he spotted a lady walking the lonely road ahead of him. Relieved to be with company, Punch immediately quickened his steps and caught up with her. Her long blond hair was flowing out behind her and when Punch reached out to touch her; she disappeared before his eyes.
Now the only one that Punch told this experience to was Captain Morgan. However the story did get out and it was only like two hours before every Pictou Islander had heard about Punch’s encounter with the Pictou Island White Woman.
I bring to mind another sighting that happened after this one. Dougie Patterson was visiting with us at our home. Dougie and Punch were brothers. Dougie was known as the Pictou Island barber. He would often be at our place cutting my father’s, my brother Vincent’s or my hair. Just as Margaret MacDonald, “our nurse,” made house calls during those years, so did our barber. We lived towards the western end of the island and the old Pioneer Cemetery is positioned in the woods about one half-mile east of our former home. Anyone walking from our place had to pass by the cemetery in order to get to the other end of the island. For anyone to be superstitious and having to walk past this cemetery late at night was a task in itself. The only light one may have had would be a small flashlight or kerosene lantern.
Finally after drinking a wee bit of courage on this particular evening, Dougie began the walk to his home. Now our neighbor Duncan Rankin was Pictou island’s practical joker and he had heard about the previously experience that Punch encountered. Duncan lived on the opposite side of the only road leading to the cemetery. Duncan had seen Dougie walking to our place earlier that evening and lay in wait for his return. He had draped a white bed sheet over himself and lay among the trees by the side of the old cemetery road. The evening was late and the moon was bright when Dougie glanced up the old cemetery trail and saw the white woman standing thirty feet away. Well Dougie wasn’t a very big man but I am told that it would have taken a fast racehorse to keep up with him on that night.
Forerunners were something else that many islanders have strongly believed in. A forerunner is a forewarning or premonition of something to happen. I recall my father having a premonition about our neighbor Willard MacLean dying in 1957 at age 53. My father had a dream that Willard had died and a severe winter storm occurred the day prior to his funeral. In his dream, Dad saw the road being completely blocked with snow. Because of this, two white horses were used to haul the hearse on a sled to the cemetery with Willard’s body inside. Willard MacLean did die about three weeks later and the funeral possession did happen exactly as my father had described.
The Pioneer Cemetery lies in the woods north of the only island road. One must walk a grassy trail in order to visit the grave sights. Most headstones in this cemetery are very clear to read while others have faded with the passing of time. The oldest recorded birth on Pictou Island is 1779. The first recorded death is 1830 and the oldest age at death is recorded at 98 years. Present Pictou Islanders have respectfully maintained this pioneer cemetery over past years.
A more recent cemetery was developed in 1959 and is situated behind the only church on the island.