Fought over forts

For centuries, Tamsui (which means 'fresh water') occupied an important trade and defensive post for the various empires that sought to control Taiwan. Its strategic position, at the point where the largest river system in Taiwan's north empties into the Sea of China, and its steep terrain, made it ideal both as a natural port and a location for forts and cannons. The town's most famous landmark, Fort San Domingo, was established by the Spanish; it was later controlled by the Dutch, Chinese, British and Japanese.

By the 20th century silting had caused Tamsui to lose its importance as a port and the area reverted to a sleepy fishing and farming community until the recent boom in tourism. These days work continues on landscaping and beautifying the riverfront as well as restoring historic sights scattered among the narrow lanes winding up the hillsides.

Mackay's Mission

Among the signs of Western influence is a row of late-19th-century mansions and Taiwan's oldest university. All of these were founded by George Leslie MacKay, a 19th-century Canadian doctor and missionary whose name is nearly synonymous with Tamsui.

Mackay came to Taiwan in 1872 and is revered in certain Taiwanese circles for introducing Western techniques of education and medicine. Thanks in no small part to his influence, Presbyterianism is the most popular Christian denomination in Taiwan.