Oval, wood-framed profile of Captain Donald MacKinnon, Heanish, moulded from white wax in 1867. Captain MacKinnon was captain of the tea clipper ‘Taeping’ which won the Great China Tea Race of 1866. The portrait is believed to have been made by William Murray of Glasgow, whose daughter, Margaret Anne Murray, married Donald MacKinnon in 1855. William Murray is known to have made wax and plaster portraits of his relatives as gifts, and probably sent this one to Captain MacKinnon to celebrate his success in the race. After Captain MacKinnon died aboard ‘SS Roman’ in Table Bay, South Africa in 1867, the plaque was most likely still among his possessions aboard ‘Taeping’, and would have been retrieved by his wife when the ship returned to London.
The portrait hung on the wall of the donor’s mother’s home (near Oban?) for many years, from at least 1970 to 2015. The family connection is not certain although there is a Flora MacKinnon born around the 1760s in the family tree, and who may have been a relation of Captain MacKinnon’s grandfather.
When the portrait arrived at An Iodhlann, the wax was broken into many pieces and the label on the back had been cut out. It was sent to the Scottish Conservation Studio at Hopetoun House, Queensferry for restoration, where conservators discovered that there had been two previous attempts to repair it, once with candle wax and once with sellotape.
Tiree in 100 Objects – 44 – Wax Portrait
This wax profile represents Tiree’s most famous sailor, Captain Donald MacKinnon of Heanish. It was probably made by the captain’s father-in-law, the carver William Murray.
Miniature wax profiles became very popular in the middle of the eighteenth century, and were only superseded by the advent of photography in the 1840s. They were made in a plaster mould. This meant many copies could be produced, if the subject was famous enough. Being wax, they were quite fragile, and not many have survived. They were carved in what is called bas-relief, a technique where the image is flattened to make it easier to view from different angles.
Donald MacKinnon was born in Heanish in 1828 into a large family. One sister married Captain Angus Lamont, who wrote the Tiree classic song Lag nan Cruachan. Donald left home at the age of sixteen to become an apprentice on boats sailing out of the Clyde, before joining the Jane Brown carrying cargo between Canada, the West Indies and Glasgow. He gained his Master’s certificate at the age of twenty-three. As a sign of things to come, he was presented with a gold watch for making the fastest voyage between the St Lawrence river and Glasgow: nineteen days. When captain of the Montgomery, he was at sea with his wife when his first child was born.
China tea was a luxury drink in the tea houses of London in the mid-nineteenth-century. Traders competed to be the first with the season’s crop, which had the status of today’s beaujolais nouveau wines. The first Tea Race was in 1856, and a special design of sailing ship, the clipper, evolved to meet the demand. Donald MacKinnon was selected to captain the Ellen Rodger in 1861, and then promoted to take over the newly built Taeping, a composite boat with a steel frame and wooden planking, designed to suit light winds. Donald’s brother, Colin, took command of the Ellen Rodger in his place, but was lost at sea on his first voyage with her.
The Taeping‘s first two years on the China run were hamstrung by a late start and then typhoon damage. But 1866 saw her line up in a strong field of nine clippers in the Chinese port of Foochow (Fuzhou). The Fiery Cross had won the prize five times in four years, and The Ariel, under the redoubtable Captain Keay, was another favourite.
After 16,000 miles of racing and one hundred days at sea, the Taeping and the Ariel raced up the English Channel under full sail absolutely neck-and-neck, in what must have been a thrilling spectacle. Arriving at Dungeness station off the Kent coast at the same time, the Taeping took the faster tug, and her shallower draught allowed her to inch into dock thirty minutes before her rival. The Serica made her way into the harbour an hour later on the same tide, in what was agreed was the most exciting clipper race of all time.
The tea merchants behind the race had earlier agreed to split the bonus the tea attracted between the two boats, but Donald MacKinnon won the captain’s prize, with a further £500 from the vessel’s owner. Captain MacKinnon promptly gave every member of the crew a sovereign. However, five million tons of tea hit the London market at the same time, which hit the pockets of the tea traders.
Captain Mackinnon returned to Tiree to a hero’s welcome. It was said that the Duke added a field, Pàirc a’ Chrannaig ‘the field of the pulpit or mast top’, to the family’s croft in recognition. On his way back to his command, Captain MacKinnon took the ferry Chieftain’s Bride. Overloaded with cattle and in bad weather, she took on a list and MacKinnon personally supervised putting fifty-seven animals overboard, saving the vessel. It is possible that he was injured in the process, because although he started the voyage to China on the Taeping, he had to be put ashore in South Africa, and died on board a steamship as started the voyage home at the age of thirty-nine from a psoas (or deep abdominal) abscess. He is buried in Cape Town, but the exact whereabouts of his grave are not known.
This delicate wax profile was cracked into several pieces when it was gifted to our collection. It was sent for specialist repair to Edinburgh, and has now been restored.
I am grateful to Lloyd Pitcher and Mary MacLean, Scarinish, for the information on which this account is based.
It is always good to be reminded of the expertise of readers of An Tirisdeach. Alasdair ‘Bunchy’ Johnston from Scarinish, a merchant seaman, had read my article about Captain Donald MacKinnon and the Taeping. He pointed out that the passage “five million tons of tea flooded the London market” after the Great Tea Clipper race of 1866 was stretching the capacity of even these legendary boats. The figure should have been “five million pounds“. Tea clippers were built for speed, and their hold capacity was limited: typical loads for the journey from China to London were between 500 and 900 tons of tea. Thank you, and well spotted!
Dr John Holliday, 2017