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Of Death and Rambles, o'er Falls and Brambles - Parts I & II

Updated: Oct 29, 2020

The Death of Chatterton by Henry Wallis

IT BEING HALLOWE'EN, I thought it appropriate to serve up something frightful. Anyone who has seen the movie, The Revenant, will agree that Leonardo DeCaprio's portrayal of survival was "the ultimate endurance test", as one critic put it. The film is based on the true story of a man named Hugh Glass. His is a story of survival and forgiveness after being left for dead by companions when he was mauled by a grizzly bear.

So, here is a tale that is every bit as grisly ... but much closer to home. It is written by our good friend John Mactaggart, and making an appearance in the gruesome tale is Lieutenant-Colonel John By - they are of course, the two men most responsible for the creation of the Rideau Canal.

As John Mactaggart was such an accomplished writer,[1] I have included two tales and it is only fitting that it is he who should tell them, in his own words.


Tho' ye may be frichtened oot o' yer senses, keep a caum sough ... [2]

COLONEL BY, myself, and some others, were travelling in the wilderness in the month of December 1827; the weather was bitter cold. Having got into a considerable clearing, we bore away for a large house of an American settler.

Lodging-House in Field Lane

On getting in, we found all the rooms on the ground floor crammed full of people of all descriptions: such an ugly, suspicious, dirty-looking set I had never before seen. The back-slums of Holborn, London, where villains and vagabonds congregate, never were honoured with such a crew. By the language and general appearance, I found the majority to be of the landlord's nation; the others were poor wandering Irish emigrants. With some trouble I got through the crowd, and had my frozen feet and hands partly brought round at the fire. Potato whisky and pipes of tobacco seemed in request, and were served out by a bar-maid of such exquisite beauty as Hottentot [3] hath never yet beheld. Not having rested our bones for a long time, fatigue began to overcome us, but there was no place to lie down on: as for beds, such machines were always perfectly out of the question. A plank, partly clean, was all that ever could be expected in such houses, and indeed over all the semi-civilized part of the country; but in this there was not room to stretch on the floor: -we might have space for the vertical, but not for the horizontal position. Wearied out, the Colonel asked me if I could by any means learn if there were any apartments up-stairs. With some trouble the landlord was discovered. This is a difficult thing in an American free-and-easy, as the host appears so much a guest, that it requires some nice discrimination to find him: however, I succeeded, and having put the question, "he guessed there was considerable of room; that I might surmount and see; and if we would kipple up by threes or fours, he had buffaloes would kiver us." [4]

Accordingly, the Colonel, and a few of our party, went up a narrow, frail, dirty staircase; I was afraid of the steps giving way. We then entered a large room, exceedingly cold, round the sides of which a number of weary mortals were stretched. The candle I carried would scarcely burn; for there were many windows in the room, and few panes of glass in any of them, so that the frosty wind poured in cold and strong. While looking round, and muttering to one another, "This won't do, we shall be frozen to death here," we observed something laid upon an old table, and covered with something by way of a sheet. What was this? On removing the same, and holding forth the glimmering candle, we saw the dead body of a young man, seemingly about fifteen years of age. One side of his head seemed to be mangled in a shocking manner, and covered with clotted blood. "No; this place, indeed, will not do," we all agreed, and down stairs we went. On coming below, we found the greater part of the company had "cleared out" as they say. Venturing to make some inquiries about the dead lad, we met with nothing but evasive answers, -as much as to say, it might be better for us all to keep a "caum sough," alias, make no noise about it. However, I found this to be impossible; and although some of our party sunk down in sleep on the floor, where melted snow, brought in by the travellers' feet, had flooded, some of us hung on by the wall by the sides of the fire.

The London Poor by Henry Mayhew 1861

In the course of our distant inquiries, we found that the greater part of the guests had gone to the barn and the stable, there to kennel up amongst hay; -that the dead body up-stairs was that of a young Irishman, who had been killed two days before by a shot from a gun, carelessly let off by one of the sons of the landlord. In the morning, the father and mother of the lad came crying after us in great tribulation, wishing us to interfere, and bring, what they called, the "murtherer of their dear child" to justice; but this was a thing to us impossible, unless by engaging in an affair we had nothing to do with; and, after having done our best, the laws of the country would not probably have been exercised then, as we had often seen. To account for all the whys and wherefores, is what I am not able to do. I have stated some cases, and given the results: this is all that can reasonably be expected from an humble traveller. There is something faulty in the administration of the criminal laws, no doubt; but energy and exertion lie dormant in Canada; humanity begins to be neither much felt nor talked about. Where no encouragement is held out to virtue and talent, the noble spirit of man begins to droop, and Vice to show her ugly visage.


Keep yer heid, as ye trundle thru the frichtful moor ... [5]

IN SOME OF MY CURIOUS WANDERINGS I was accompanied by Colonel By, of the Royal Engineers, a gentleman I shall ever esteem and value. He encountered all privations with wonderful patience and good-humour; was even too daring in some instances; would run rapids that his Indians trembled to look at; and cross wide lakes with the canoe when the Canadians were gaping with fear at the waves that were rolling around them. He could sleep soundly anywhere, and eat any thing, even to raw pork. One night we lost ourselves altogether in Craneberry Lake,(sic) on our route through the waters from the Ottawa to Lake Ontario. There were two canoes of us, and the poor fellows paddled away lustily; but it was of no use; the more we sailed, the farther astray we went, and could not find the outlet of the river Cataraque (sic).

Trout Brook in the Catskills by Worthington Whittred 1875ge

Getting through a frightful marsh, partly overflowed by water, we entered with the canoes into an expanse of flooded woods, and one of the canoes stuck in the fork of a tree buried in the water. We went alongside, and the crew having got into the other canoe, we succeeded in lifting it out of the fork. Dark night came on, and we landed on some sort of wild shore about ten o'clock, clambered up the brow amongst the trees, and pulled the canoes and their cargoes after. We had parted with our provision canoe on the morning before, and appointed to have met with it that night at a station called Brewer's Mills: thus we had nothing to eat but a small bit of cheese; and as for drink, there was nothing but a little drop of brandy in a bottle, and this was not allowed to be touched. There we were, no one knew where, in the heart of an endless wild, without food or any thing else whatever for the comfort of human life; but we minded it not. Although we had had a fagging day, no one was inclined to sleep: could we have knocked up any thing in the shape of a dinner, we might then all have snoozed profoundly; but hunger kept us from the arms of Morpheus, and allowed us to ruminate on our forlorn situation. We hallooed out frequently as loud as we could, but no one heard us.

We were sometimes answered by the owl, afar in the solitary woods, and the lake bird, called loon, also deigned to reply from the distant waters. At one time we heard, or thought we heard, the barking of a dog, -which might have been so, but I thought it that of the wolf species. Having a gun with us, we succeeded in lighting a good fire, which is always a pleasant thing to look at; while the light reflected aloft on the woods, was beautiful. We frequently loaded the gun with powder and fired it off; and the sound reverberating through the forest and rocks was heard for a long time after. Thinking we had got into Loughborough Lake, which opens out of Craneberry Marsh (sic), towards morning we started with the light of the moon, and after paddling away five or six miles until we came to the head of a deep bay, swimming-full of driftwood, we there put about, and were glad to get back to the fire we had left on the unknown shore. We had supplied it well with fuel before we started, in hopes that we might use its light, like that of a Pharos, to guide us on our proper course; but, alas! we now all began to droop a little, for there was a probability that we might not find our way out of the Lake, and of course, therefore, must perish.

Brewer's Lower Mill by Thomas Burrowes 1829

The sun arose; we took to the canoes again, and seeing some wild ducks, we shot at them several times, but could not succeed in killing one of them. Having paddled away several miles, and taking our bearing by the sun, the compass being useless, I found we were returning as we had come the day before; we therefore lay to, to strike the course. While doing so, we heard the report of a musket at a distance. We bore away to the place whence the sound proceeded, heard another shot let off, and even saw the smoke. It was an Indian shooting wild ducks. We all felt rejoiced to see him, divided the drop of brandy, engaged him as a guide, and he brought us out at the famous Round Tail mouth of the Cataraque;(sic) from whence we proceeded to Brewer's Mills, found the provision canoe, and made a hearty breakfast. So much for that time when I had bewildered in the Craneberry Marsh;(sic) but it was by no means the first time. I had spent many dismal nights in it before, and only narrate this on the score that Colonel By was with me, and conducted himself as became a man.

If the mind can find nothing interesting, disease and every evil afflict both it and the body; but where it can find plenty of employment, dangers and difficulties are easily surmounted. In winter, we traversed distant regions on sleighs, and in snow-shoes; broke through the ice frequently, and got ourselves wet and frost-bitten:-no matter; there is ever some balm in Gilead;[6] and although nothing on earth would make me do over again what I have done, still I might undertake an enterprise that would ultimately turn out worse.


[1] For three years, John Mactaggart was Clerk of the Works and overseer of the construction of the Rideau Canal, from 1826 to 1829. When he returned to his beloved Scotland, he wrote a book that was aptly named Three Years in Canada: An Account of the Actual State of the Country in 1826-7-8. His story is told in my five-part blogpost about The Capital Builders (click here for Part I)

[2] Old Scots translated to English: Though you may be frightened out of your senses, keep a calm soul ...

[3] Hottentot is a term that was historically used to refer to the Khoikhoi, the non-Bantuindigenous nomadic pastoralists of South Africa.

[4] "Kipple" means couple; "kiver" means cover

[5] Old Scots translated to English: Stay calm, as you wander through the frightful marsh.

[6] Balm of Gilead was a rare perfume used medicinally, that was mentioned in the Bible, and named for the region of Gilead, where it was produced. The expression stems from William Tyndale's language in the King James Bible of 1611, and has come to signify a universal cure in figurative speech. (source)

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