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Oban can be something of a disappointment for boaties but I like its slightly brassy breeziness. It's very much a holiday place, and a ferry terminal and so has the typical feel of people coming and going, to both the Inner and Outer Hebrides. Now, since pontoons appeared in 2017, it is much more yacht friendly than it has been for years — good for restocking with a butcher, outdoor shops, Watt and Son fishmonger on the railway pier, the Jetty Gallery for arts and crafts, Highland Fasteners tool shop in Stevenson St, Screwfix in Mill Lane, plus supermarkets. And for meeting crew off the train or bus, getting bits and pieces, and catching up on civilisation. But sadly no chandlery since Nancy Blacks closed in 2017. After all it is the biggest town on the west coast. I would not want to be there in a south westerly gale. However, the pontoons are far from cheap, and you will inevitably feel you are in a bit of a goldfish bowl.There is now quite an informative harbour website
There are visitor moorings and a loading pontoon near the Oban Sailing Club but maybe a bit too far from the shops — at least 15 minutes walk into town for all your food at Tesco if you can bear the visual confusion and overheating, or at Lidl, Aldi or Marks and Spencers which are all clustered together to the south of the Railway Station. These moorings are good, but not all that sheltered in a blow. I think there is nothing to stop you anchoring off the Corran Esplanade, but here the problem is wash from the CalMac ferries which dominate the bay, and it is not easy finding a good spot. I can sympathise with CC Lynam who back in 1904 lamented "Oh, why oh why do I ever stay a night on the Oban side?" But in those days he could anchor over in Ardantrive Bay when there were no pontoons and no mooring charges, or at the 'Brandystone' now full of private moorings off the Oban Sailing Club.
Although Oban is alright to change crew, provision the boat, or briefly visit the place it is possibly better to base oneself at Oban Marina (ph 01631 565 333) on Kerrera across Oban Bay, however that does require the inconvenience of a (free) water taxi across to the town. An alternative for provisioning is Tobermory which is likely to be on your way to or from Oban. Of course Oban has form in self destruction; those of us old enough to remember the airy, glass-roofed late 19th century railway station will not forgive its replacement in the 1980s with such boring modern buildings.
There are some very good restaurants in Oban. My own favourite is The Waterfront Fishouse Restaurant (ph 01631 563 110) on the Railway pier. Really excellent for robustly cooked fish. "From pier to the pan as fast as we can" is their slogan. The menu is simple and fairly brief, and the food is brilliant. Roy Stalker has been head chef since 1999. It may be in a very unpromising looking building, originally the seaman's mission up some stairs, but there are great views across the north entrance of Oban Bay. So book a table by the window overlooking the pier and watch the Isle of Mull Ferry come and go while you eat. But watch out, it can get very busy and noisy on some evenings, and they don't have children after 9 30pm. Ee-Usk on the North Pier (ph 01631 565 666) is a more upmarket fish restaurant (no children under 12 in the evening sort of thing, after 5 45pm). Next door is the more downmarket Piazza with excellent pizzas, not too big, and good for kids. And they will do any pizza as calzone which gets you some salad too, at the same price (ph 01631 563 628). From both restaurants the views over the bay and of the ferries are great for interest (mind you the architecture on the North Pier is legolandish, best seen from the inside out). The very well- regarded Etive restaurant moved in 2017 to Oban from Taynault but I have not tried it (ph 01631 564899).
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Oban bay, from above the town
Coast is another good restaurant, but suffers by not having a view of the sea and rather dull decor (ph 01631 569 900). Again no children in the evening, after 7pm, under the age of 10 this time. Why is there no consistency? A mess which puts parents off entering these places and spending money.
The Manor House Hotel is the attractive Georgian building by the visitor moorings, for a slightly formal candle-lit dinner ie no children under 12 again (ph 01631 562 087). The owner, who doesn't live on site, is a sailor and there is a visitor mooring — sailors apparently welcome. The lovely view of the bay is a bit constricted by some unsympathetic modern houses on one side and by the much more attractive buildings of the Northern Lighthouse Board on the other.
For a seafood sandwich you can do no better than the green hut on the railway pier — known as the shack — where the CalMac ferries berth. There is another one opposite the station entrance. The two establishments have had a falling out, requiring them to meet in Court. The newcomer is now tartan, not green anymore.
For a latte and a bun there is, among many many others, Julie's opposite the distillery, and the Oban Chocolate Company for posh chocolates, cakes and Mackie's ice cream. In 2014 Costa Coffee opened near the station with the usual rhetoric about employing local people (and the usual really boring decor and furniture). You have been here hundreds of times already, in airports and shopping malls. Let's hope they don't force out the preferable local cafés with their own character, a far cry from any corporate image.
The War and Peace Museum (ph 01631 570 007) opened in 1995 and at first seemed to be teetering on the brink of insolvency. However, it is now more secure and worth a visit — and a donation because it is free — if for no other reason than to get an idea of how surprisingly important Oban was in the Second World War, mostly as a base for antisubmarine flying boats (the museum features war rather more than peace). The volunteer staff seem mostly to be ex servicemen almost from that era, and always keen to yarn about the old days — and very informative they are too, much better and of course more interactive than one of those audio machines that museums now give you to talk you round their exhibits. And as volunteers they do come free, at least for as long as they remain standing (in the meantime someone should be and probably is recording their stories).
The Atlantis Leisure Centre has good swimming pools for the family on a wet day. There is an adult 25-metre pool which is a bit cold (and has a flume), a toddlers' pool which is a bit warm, a bouldering cube, and soft play area. For a sauna I am told The Oban Bay Hotel is the place to go, not my thing at all.
There is also a cinema for a wet day — the Phoenix. It too rose from the ashes after it burnt down in the 1950s, closed in 2010, but in 2012 it reopened as a community-owned arts venue. In 2013 a second screen was added. Terrific. Use it.
The Oban distillery is right in the middle of town and takes up a surprising amount of space behind the main street. It is not wildly interesting architecturally. It does tours, of course.
The most obvious feature from the sea is the late 19th century Colosseum-like 94-arch McCaig's Tower, built of granite from the Bonawe quarry. Its originator and funder and designer, John Stuart McCaig, born on Lismore, a banker, died in 1902 before it was completed. It has been left as it was then, best seen from afar, although close up it is rather tidier than it once was, with good views across the bay, no litter and nice shrubs. There are steps up to it from the end of the road by the Skipnnish Ceilidh House. Interestingly, McCaig must have been some sort of pre-Keynsian because it is said that in part his idea was to provide work for local stonemasons in the winter. However, CC Lynam visited "the strange new round building" in 1896 and thought he had built it "in memory of himself". Which is indeed true, in his will he instructed to be erected on the summit of the wall statues of himself, his five brothers, four sisters, and his parents. But this never happened.
It's hard to find a really decent pub, at least where you can get good real ale in comfortable and quiet surroundings without feeling threatened. Not bad is The Lorne in Stevenson St, across the main road from Tesco. The bar is rather nice, and they do have Caledonian ales. New (local) owners took over in 2016 with a promise to upgrade the food. The Oban Bay Brewery is at the back of the Cuan Mòr restaurant and bar overlooking the bay, which is where you can get Oban beer on draft (it is more of a restaurant than what I would call a proper pub). If you can cope with the cavernous Corryvreckan by the ferry terminal, they at least have a selection of real ales (but it is a typical Wetherspoon's). Mind you, in 2017 it was awarded a platinum Loo of the Year award - worth a thought if caught short. But best, I think, is the recently reopened — after many derelict years — Oban Inn circa 1790 just behind the north pier, right next to the new pontoons (01631 567441). Cosy, traditional, real ale, good food, harbour views from the upper bar, and music.
You can walk to the less ivy-covered than it was, atmospheric and rather spooky ruin of Dunollie castle on a 7th century site in lovely woods, just at the north entrance to the bay. Actuatlly without the ivy it looks more naked than spooky. 'Pevsner' gets it just right as usual "Ravaged by time, crag and castle alike struggle to resist the green grasp of parasitic vegetation". Most of the ruin dates from the 15th and 16th centuries. It was abandoned in the 18th century. The interior is now open again after stabilisation in 2013-6, which graciously avoided disturbing the European cave spiders which apparently live in the castle walls. There are good views from the courtyard, over the bay just as Jules Verne described in The Green Ray: "Nothing could have been more lovely than the panorama formed by the indentation of the bay of Oban, the wild appearance of Kerrera, the isles scattered in the Hebridean sea and the large Isle of Mull, whose rocky western coasts receive the first onslaught from the storms arising from the western Atlantic". Next door, opened in 2011, is the museum in Dunollie House, small at the moment but growing, and now with the Kettle café. It majors on domestic life in a laird's big house, with some MacDougall family history thrown in and a wonderfully eccentric collection of domestic this and that from the late Hope MacDougall (check out the international wooden spoons!). Started in the late 17th century, the T-plan north range was built in 1745, and the main parts of the house were added in the 19th century. In 2013 a six-metre high dome made from willow, along with a seven-metre high tower, was planted. The idea is that it all takes root, flowers, and grows — and grows. Which it is. The lovely deciduous woods behind have been leased by the family to the Woodland Trust for 99 years at a peppercorn rent
On the way to the castle you take in the Corran Esplanade with all its hotels and the truly architecturally awful Corran Halls, the 1957 Christ's Church now I think a nursery (grade B but hardly worth saving), and St Columba's Catholic Cathedral which is a serious landmark but hardly worth a look inside (very austere and a lot of rather uniform granite so unlike say St Magnus Cathedral in Orkney, a Sir Giles Gilbert Scott design from the 1930s, he of Liverpool C-of-E cathedral and the red telephone box too). Further on past various stray bits of volcanic lava plug, past posh looking 20th century villas with cannons guarding the front door of one, is Ganavan Bay and the town beach.
There was no town of Oban when John Knox visited in 1786 but he realised its potential: "Oban is formed by nature, and by a combination of favourable circumstances, for being a principal harbour, a place of trade, a central mart for the South Highlands, and the numerous islands that lie in its vicinity". Like much of the Highlands it became a 19th century holiday destination, egged on by visits from Boswell and Johnson, Wordsworth, Mendelssohn, JMW Turner and Sir Water Scott. So much so that in 1896 Frank Cowper wrote: "Now we are once more in the presence of beauty and fashion, or the world, the flesh and the devil, as the Catechism neatly puts it." I am not sure this is still the case but then as now "No one stops here, at least not for more than a few days. It's whole season is one of panting, restless bustle. Everyone comes here to go somewhere else".
Henry Reynolds had felt much the same in 1895: "The town is prettily situated. Rank and fashion were so much to the fore that we could not but be somewhat conscious of the shortcomings of our garb, even when the capabilities of our restricted wardrobes were utilised to their full extent. The only drawback to the place is the great depth of its waters".
By 1932 it was not so posh. Heckstall Smith wrote that although Oban "has few attractions as a town, it is a most wonderful centre from which to radiate into the finest parts of the Highlands, both inland and by sea as far as the Hebrid Isles". I would say much the same today.
Finally, in 2010, Shane Spall — wife of actor Timothy — in her lovely two books about their seagoing barge trip round the UK wrote of Oban as "a small compact place with handsome seafront shops selling postcards, tartan scarves, kilts, haggis, shortbread, umbrellas, pocket mackintoshes and miniature bottles of single malt whisky; not in every shop, just most of them. The others sold ice cream".
The place excites strong emotions. So do go there and see for yourself.
Oban in its 19th century heyday
From the the George Washington Wilson and Co. Photographic Collection, courtesy of the University of Aberdeen. Ref 3792/F5220
Oban Bay and cathedral
Under the willow arbour at Dunollie Castle
The Mull ferry leaving Oban bay
"...the approaches to Oban have been given such a superfluity of beacons and buoys that there are none left for any other part of the west coast of Scotland."
Claud Worth, 1919
The late Hope MacDougall's collection of wooden spoons
Gossiping by the sea