Jimmy McOuat’s White Otter Castle is one of the most intriguing hermitages of the northern bush.
I first visited the site while paddling the Turtle River in northwestern Ontario in the mid-1990s. I certainly wasn’t the first to paddle there. The eight-by-12-metre log castle, built entirely by a 60-year-old hermit decades earlier, has been a local draw for years. One of the first visitors was canoeist C.L. Hodson, who was working on an article for Rod and Gun magazine in 1914:
Mile after mile of rugged shoreline drops behind and then about 2:30 p.m. “Old Jimmy’s Place” quite suddenly slips into view. A hundred yards back from the lake it stands, on the edge of a small clearing. In the background are dark pine woods. No one speaks but with one accord the paddles pause here. Eyes strain. Heartbeats quicken. In the very air is mystery. Almost, we fear to approach this retreat of the wild man. We are intruders — trespassers. Then, slowly, the paddles dip. The bow grates on a strip of sandy beach. Gingerly we step ashore and approach the hermitage.
I felt a little short-changed after reading about Hodson’s visit. Sure, the castle itself is impressive—standing four storeys high and made of 200 pine logs averaging 16.5 metres long. But what made Hodson’s arrival better than mine was that “Old Jimmy” was home at the time. I think it would have been incredible to chat with such a man.
Countless stories are told of why Jimmy McOuat (pronounced McQuat) built the castle in the first place. The most poetic is that he had mail-ordered a bride from Scotland who cancelled on the deal when she found out he lacked a proper house. So he built her the bizarre monument on the shores of White Otter Lake to prove the marriage was worth the trip from Scotland. As the story goes, however, she never did arrive to marry Jimmy.
During Hodson’s visit with Jimmy, he apparently asked him why he had built the castle, and the story is different than that of the Scottish bride. It seems it had to do with being falsely accused of throwing a corncob at a bad-tempered schoolmaster. It was actually his school chum who had thrown the cob. For some reason, he was never able to forget the curse given out by the angry man: “Jimmy McOuat, ye’ll never do any good! Ye’ll die in a shack!” And, decades later, Jimmy found his accursed prophecy unfolding. After gambling his life savings away on a failed gold rush, he found himself on the shores of remote White Otter Lake (known then as Big Clearwater Lake), living in a shack. “All the time I lived in the shack,” Jimmy told Hodson, “I kept thinking — I must build me a house. And so I have. Ye couldn’t call this a shack, could ye.”
In 1918, four years after Hodson’s visit, Jimmy McOuat drowned while netting fish in front of the castle. His partially decomposed body, wrapped up in fish netting, was found the next spring by forest rangers, and was buried beside his beloved wilderness home. He was buried in front of his “castle,” both of which remains there to this day.