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With not much in the way of good news from the contemporary world in these unchartered circumstances, I’m escaping from it all and taking a look back in time to the Great China Tea Race of 1866.

This was the most famous, exciting and closely-run contest of its kind and was won by Captain Donald MacKinnon of Heanish, Tiree. on his ship Taeping.

The Tea Race was an annual event during the mid-1800s that saw fierce competition between the cargo sailing ships known as Clippers or Tea Clippers, as they raced from China to Britain with the first load of tea of the new season. The first cargo to the market would fetch a higher price and therefore a premium was offered per ton by the tea merchants to the shipping company as well as a substantial bonus to the captain of the winning ship as incentive to be the first docked in London.

The race of 1866 was considered the greatest of all because after 99 days at sea and more than 15,000 miles covered, sailing between Foo-chow, China, and London, England, three ships that had sailed on the same tide, Taeping, Ariel and Serica, docked within two hours of each other.

The race was covered closely by the press of the time and its climax, as the Taeping and the Ariel ploughed neck and neck past Lizard Point and up the English Channel at speeds of around 14 knots, was as exciting as any such race could be.

The result could have gone either way right up to the docking of the Taeping. Both ships arrived off Dungeness and were signalling for pilots at the same time. With some jostling, the Ariel got its pilot on board first and gained a mile before the Taeping could follow.

At the mouth of the Thames, where both ships were taken in tow, the Taeping regained the advantage by getting a faster and more powerful tug to take her up the river. Both ships then had to wait for the tide, with Ariel lying at East India Docks and Taeping heading for The London Docks where Captain MacKinnon got his ropes ashore just 20 minutes ahead of his rival Captain Keay of Ariel. The third ship, Serica, docked one hour and 15 minutes later.

Such was the close finish, the owners of the Taeping and the Ariel agreed to split the premium and to the credit of Captain MacKinnon, he shared with Captain Keay his £100 – more than £10,000 in today’s value – prize as captain of the winning ship.

Captain Donald MacKinnon was born in Heanish, Tiree, in 1826 and sadly died aboard the Taeping outward bound for China in 1867 less than a year after his famous victory.

There are a number of living relatives of Captain MacKinnon on Tiree to this day.

The late Donald MacKinnon – Donald the Plumber – was a great grandson of Captain MacKinnon’s first cousin, also Donald MacKinnon. Fittingly, Donald the Plumber spent many years generously teaching youngsters on Tiree, myself included, how to sail.

The plumber’s children, Iain ‘Speedy’, Alasdair and Morag Ann and his sister Flora MacLean – Flora Drumfraoch – are all worthy of being living relatives of Tiree’s most famous seafarer. A slightly closer relative was the late Kenneth Muir QC, whose great grandmother was a sister of Captain MacKinnon.

The race is still celebrated in the Gaelic Song ‘Deoch Slainte nan Gillean’, which was performed at the 2019 National Mod in Glasgow.