MacPhail: heroic actions of a remarkable man from Tiree

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First and foremost, I must sincerely apologise for a factual error in last week’s article regarding the circumstances of the death of Captain Donald MacKinnon of the Taeping.

A combination of misinterpreting something I had read in my father’s writings and a hazy memory of what I recall hearing many years ago led me to believe, as I had written last week, that he died outward bound to China aboard the Taeping.

In fact, after becoming ill aboard the Taeping, he had to be put ashore at Algoa Bay, South Africa, and later died on board a ship (SS Roman) anchored in Table Bay, Cape Town, when about to embark on his voyage home after some weeks of recuperation ashore.

A conversation with my good friend Donald Meek brought my error to light when he was relaying another very interesting story relating to the cause of the illness and death of the famous captain. Unfortunately, by the time of realising my error it was too late to edit before The Oban Time went to press.

However, the particular story that Donald told me is worthy of relating here, firstly, due to its relevance with regard to the premature death of Captain MacKinnon and, secondly, because it bolsters the picture of his strong character and great ability as a seaman. It also reveals that the heroic actions which ultimately led to his own demise saved the lives of many others.

Shortly after his great victory in the famous Chine Tea Race of 1866, Captain MacKinnon came home to Heanish, Tiree, for a short time. On his return voyage from Tiree to Oban, he was responsible for averting a very near maritime disaster.

The following is an article from the Glasgow Herald of October 3, 1866: ‘On Thursday last, the screw-steamer Chieftain’s Bride narrowly escaped being lost. She was crossing from Tiree to Tobermory, and when about 1½ miles to the south-east of Coll was struck by a sea, and thrown on her beam ends. She had on board a lot of cattle and sheep, 54 of which had to be thrown overboard, and most were lost, some managing to swim ashore. This caused her to put back to Coll, where she was lightened, and the wind having moderated, after about a couple of hours she proceeded on her journey, arriving in Oban early on Friday morning. One dealer lost 17 head of cattle and 26 sheep by the unfortunate mishap. But for the exertions of Captain Mackinnon of the Taeping, who was on board, most likely the vessel would have gone down. Her gangways were carried away, but the damage was soon repaired.’

Captain MacKinnon sailed from London bound for China on the Taeping shortly after this on October 11. The rheumatic fever that he took on this voyage was said to have been a long-term consequence of injuries he sustained while saving the Chieftain’s Bride and her passengers.

Captain Donald MacKinnon died on January 19, just a few weeks after turning 40 and is buried in Cape Town, South Africa. Thanks must go to Donald Meek for alerting me to this fascinating insight into the life and death of a truly remarkable man of Tiree.