Oban – Gateway to the Isles

In a sheltered position in the Firth of Lorne on the west coast of Scotland you will find the ‘’Little Bay’’ of Oban.

https://www.scotland.greatraveling.com/From its beginning as a small fishing village, today’s bustling town of Oban is now the main departure point for ferries to the Western Isles and much of the west coast of Scotland and during the height of the tourist season its normal population of about 9000 people swells to more than 25,000 most of whom stay for only a few days before moving on.

But Oban is far more than a mere stopping point or way station on a bigger journey. This picturesque town, lying in the horseshoe of Oban Bay, is full of history! The ruins of Dunollie Castle occupy a fortified position to the north of the town. With its roots in the early middle ages it has seen much strife and was, for many years, the most important fortress of the Chiefs of Clan MacDougall. It is now run by the Dunollie Preservation Trust and is open to the public.

https://www.scotland.greatraveling.com/Prominent in the town, especially for those who arrive by sea, is a tall, red chimney with a black tip. It belongs to the Oban Distillery which is one of the very few distilleries in Scotland located in an urban setting, as it is, being just off the main road (A85) which runs along the seafront, making it one of the easiest to access and possibly the most-visited distillery in Scotland. Well worth a visit, Oban Distillery goes back to 1794 and was a major factor in the early development of the town. It is now owned by the Diageo group and has been designated a 5-Star Visitor Attraction by VisitScotland.

Oban has no fewer than two cathedrals. The red stone building of St John’s Cathedral, lies on the main road into Oban from the north. It is the Cathedral of the Scottish Episcopal Church. The other one is St Columba’s Cathedral. Situated on Corran Esplanade it is the seat of the Roman Catholic Bishop of Argyll and the Isles. The interior of both of these cathedrals is a ‘’must see’’ for every visitor to Oban. Located near the town’s north pier is Oban War and Peace Museum. Occupying the ground floor of what was once the local newspaper building, the museum offers visitors the story of Oban in wartime and in peacetime and is full of fascinating facts about the local area. There is no charge for admission to this completely independent museum which is run mainly by volunteers so don’t forget to buy something from the gift shop!

https://www.scotland.greatraveling.com/Probably the most prominent feature of the town is the Listed Monument of McCaig’s Tower, often known as McCaig’s Folly. Modelled on the Colosseum in Rome this unfinished structure stands on Battery Hill behind the town and is a favourite subject of the postcards for sale in the local shops. Intended as a family monument the tower was built by a wealthy banker, John Stuart McCaig between 1895 and 1902. His motives weren’t entirely selfish though. It was also his intent to provide work for local stonemasons. McCaig’s Tower is accessible by road (keep your eyes peeled for the signs – some of them aren’t easy to spot!) or, for the energetic, it can be reached by a hard ten-minute uphill slog from the town centre. First time visitors to the tower are in for a surprise. Inside, a grassy hillock provides a quiet public garden as a respite from the busy town and the location is a magnificent viewpoint from which to view the town of Oban and the bay and (if it isn’t too misty) further afield to the isles of Kerrera, Lismore, Mull and the peninsula of Morvern.

Speaking of viewpoints there is another excellent place from which to see Oban and the surrounding area. Pulpit Hill, to the south of the harbour is less than 300 feet high but offers great views. It’s a little harder to reach than McCaig’s Folly but is well worth the effort. There is a viewpoint indicator on the summit which points out various interesting features visible from the top. You can drive pretty close to the top and walk the last few yards or there is a path from a
point near the harbour. If you choose to drive be aware that the road is largely single track with passing places and some sharp bends. Care is needed to avoid oncoming traffic.

https://www.scotland.greatraveling.com/Oban is also a major centre for those who enjoy sailing pleasure craft along Scotland’s west coast. Oban has a large marina but, curiously, it isn’t in Oban! It’s actually located on the island of Kerrera, the large island which shelters Oban Bay. There are several other smaller marinas in the area and transit berths are available at Oban’s North Pier. The town also retains a significant fishing fleet.

https://www.scotland.greatraveling.com/Oban can be a busy and crowded town at times but visitors are well catered for in the shape of the many hotels, restaurants, cafes and bars to be found and there is nothing nicer than finding a strategically-placed coffee shop or hotel bar from where you may sip your favourite beverage, look out over the bay and wonder to which of the many hebridean islands that ferry is going. Just thinking about it might make you want to jump onto the next one leaving the harbour!

And here is a video from Youtube, showing Oban:

Dance Your Way Around Scotland

image courtesy Erik Fitzpatrick/Flickr CC-BY 2.0
image courtesy Erik Fitzpatrick/Flickr CC-BY 2.0

Many visitors to Scotland look forward to savouring a ‘taste of the country’. Food and drink like atholl brose, cranachan, the many fine malt whiskies or even Scotland’s ‘other national drink’ might be consumed and the historic castles of Dunrobin, Stirling, Edinburgh and others will be sought out and explored. Glasgow’s impressive Victorian architecture and the breathtaking scenery of glencoe and the islands will be much photographed and no doubt Scotland’s changeable weather will be the subject of some comment!

There is one other activity which visitors to Scotland who wish to ‘taste the country’ should consider and that is the traditional evening of music, song and dance known as a cèilidh. Derived from an Old Irish word a cèilidh (kay’lee) was originally any social gathering the purpose of which was, apart from entertainment, to allow young people to meet potential marriage partners.

That original purpose, which served the gaelic-speaking communities of both Scotland and Ireland well for many centuries, has now been superseded by more modern activities but cèilidhs are still held as musical evenings or parties, especially in rural communities, whenever a celebration is called for – or to party just for the fun of it!

A cèilidh can be held just about anywhere – the village hall, a pub, a hotel or, in the more remote areas, a farmer’s barn or as an informal occasion in someone’s house (if you are lucky enough to be invited to the latter event then you will find it a memorable occasion and a true ‘taste of Scotland’).

The bigger, organised cèilidhs generally feature a whole host of traditional folk music and songs (often in gaelic) performed by professional cèilidh bands playing traditional instruments like the fiddle, the flute, the accordion and, of course, the bagpipes and dances like the ‘Gay Gordons’, the ‘Dashing White Sergeant’, the ‘Eightsome Reel’ and the ‘Canadian Barn Dance’ will be performed at most cèilidhs.

Photograph by David Dixon/Geograph UK https://www.geograph.org.uk/photo/3910564
Photograph by David Dixon/Geograph UK

Because of the remoteness of some communities informal cèilidhs are more common on the west coast and the islands especially as part of wedding or birthday celebrations. Cèilidhs are also organised as public events which anyone can attend and one of the best of these is held frequently in the west highland coastal town and ferry port of Oban.

If you are interested in seeing and taking part in a modern version of a traditional Scottish cèilidh then the live music venue ‘The View’ located on Oban’s main waterfront road is well-worth a visit and since cèilidhs are family-friendly you can bring the youngsters. Don’t forget your dancing shoes because once you hear that fiddle music you simply won’t be able to stay in your seat.

You will be encouraged to take part in the dancing (it isn’t compulsory but it’s great fun!) but don’t worry if you’re not familiar with the steps since most cèilidhs have a ‘prompter’ or master of ceremonies to keep you on the right track and, with a little bit of practice, you’ll soon be ‘swinging your partner’ with the best of them! Just like you can see here: