A big man on an island of big men

Online First Pictou Island Memories

I was very fortunate to have met Hilton McCully from Dartmouth, Nova Scotia. Hilton had taught school on Pictou Island 1944-46 and provided me with old newspaper clipping from that era. The following is taken in part from an article written by Roland H. Sherwood for The Pictou Advocate 1952 and is entitled,

Lobster Fisherman Is Still Active At 78

One of the best known of all the active lobster fishermen on Pictou Island was Duncan MacCallum. He was known the island over by all fishermen simply and respectively as “Big Duncan”. A big man on an island of big men.

In October of 1952, Big Duncan MacCallum celebrated his 78th birthday.

He carries the name Big Duncan to distinguish him from another man on his home island. He, however, earns this nickname rightfully as he is a big man weighting 238 pounds, ruggedly built and standing a shade over six feet.

Big Duncan spent 66 of his 78 years fishing the lobster grounds of the Northumberland Strait thus being the oldest active fishing along the coast at that time. Those 66 years saw him fishing from dory to sailboat to power craft.

Despite the fact that dozens of younger fishermen were on the fishing grounds during 1952, 78-year-old Big Duncan was the first boat in with a load of live lobster for the Fred McGee firm at the Pictou Island’s east end. With a record of 46 years of fishing for Fred MaGee Ltd., Big Duncan has also fished lobsters for that firm’s predecessor. He delivered the first catch of lobster to the first lobster factory on Pictou Island. That first lobster factory was owned by John Hogg of Pictou and later to a Mr. McClure.

In his 66 years of lobster fishing, Big Duncan has seen many changes in the fishing industry. The early years as he recalled so well were the tough and trying times of the fishing industry. We would put out in dories at the 3:30 daybreak to hand haul our lines and traps, said Big Duncan. We would row the heavily laden dories back to shore and finish a long wet cold day in the late afternoon only to repeat it the following day.

Today, Big Duncan stated that in 1952 practically all lobster fishing along the Northumberland Strait is done in high powered motor boats and the traps are pulled by power gear haulers. I still favor my two H.P. Fraser Marine engine over those bigger powered engines. I get more mileage and have lower maintenance costs.

I began fishing for McGee Company in 1907 and I landed a catch of 14,000 pounds that first year. That was a big year, stated Duncan, recalling that we had slower boats and hand hauled lines. Lobsters were more plentiful during those years, stated Big Duncan, it was possible to catch 40,000 pounds. That was a lot of lobsters and would be big money today. In those days, the price was 50 cents a hundred weight and that didn’t make you rich.

The worst year I have ever fished, Duncan stated, was 1924. We didn’t think that we were ever going to be able to set our lobster traps. The ice was solid in the strait right up until May 20th and a lobster wasn’t landed until May 24th of that year.

Lobster catches were so poor all along the coast that we thought lobster fishing was going to be a thing of the past. The highest catch for anyone that year was 6,000 pounds and we fished 500 plus lobster traps.

During his earlier years on the fishing grounds, Big Duncan fished alone. Later he fished with his brothers, Hector and Lauchie Dan. For his past 13 years, he has had Frank Munro as his helper.

Big Duncan’s father, Dan MacCallum once was one of the leading men of the island. He played a hero’s part during a tragic ship wreck when on November 15th 1884, the Inverault drove on the east end reef during a roaring storm. Dan MacCallum along with two other brave souls from the island set out in dories and managed to rescue some of the crew. For his part in that night’s rescue work, the Canadian Government presented him an engraved gold watch. That time piece still kept perfect time and is a treasured keepsake of Big Duncan.