Let’s go to Oban
THOUGH its name means “little bay” in Gaelic, Oban’s glorious, crescent-shaped shoreline is expansive. The West Highland town has long been a place to pass through, either by ferry or train, on the way to somewhere else. But those who take the time to stop and explore the “gateway to the isles” are rewarded with a raft of cultural, culinary and scenic delights.
Indeed, just about every corner you turn seems to reveal yet another stunning vista, whether across to the islands of Kerrera and Mull, or the brooding Morven Hills beyond. Enjoyed with the exceptional local seafood, these views become all the lovelier.
It’s hard to appreciate just how fresh the seafood here is until you’ve taken a walk down to the harbour and watched the catch being delivered some of it still alive – to the stalls and restaurants that populate the area
Archaeologists believe people have been living in the Oban area since at least 4000BC.
Always a fishing port, the modern town grew up around the distillery, which was founded in 1794. Sir Walter Scott visited in 1814, the year he published his popular Lord of the Isles poem, which raised the profile of the town and attracted the first tourists. The railway was opened in 1880, bringing prosperity and more visitors.
During the Second World War, Oban was a major base for naval and merchant ships in the Battle of the Atlantic. The town, which has a population of 8,500, is a home to the Mod, the annual celebration of Gaelic culture and tradition first held in 1891.
More recently it has been the backdrop to movies including Eye of the Needle and Morvern Callar.
What to do
It takes a full day – at least – to get around Oban on foot, even more if you stop to fully explore the historic sites and interesting architecture that abound. The War and Peace Museum in the old Oban Times building on the Corran Esplanade is a must. Though small and run by volunteers, it offers an excellent insight into the life and history of the town – the section on 1939-45 is particularly fascinating – and is packed with exhibits and photographs. Open until 24 November, admission free.
Valentine Boyling recommends stopping by the aforementioned Oban Distillery, one of Scotland’s oldest, just minutes from the North Pier ferry terminal.
“The rave reviews are spot on,” he says. “A couple of drams and a glass to take away are included in the admission price.”
Another must is McCaig’s Tower – known locally as The Folly – the dramatic circular granite structure that dominates Battery Hill above the town. Built by banker and philanthropist John Stuart McCaig to commemorate his family and provide work for local stonemasons, it has a circumference of 200m and is comprised of 94 arches. The walk up is pretty steep but the views are well worth the effort.
The esplanade below has some interesting 20th century architecture, meanwhile, not least St Columba’s Cathedral, designed in the 1950s by Giles Gilbert Scott, and the art deco Regent Hotel.
If the weather permits, a trip out on to the water allows you to see things from a different point of view. Etive boat trips (etiveboattrips.co.uk) offers a range of different excursions around Kerrera, Lismore and Loch Etive. There’s every chance you’ll spot seals, though keep your fingers crossed and red deer, otters and golden eagles might also put in an appearance. Oban has a busy schedule of festivals and cultural events running through the year. The 10-day Winter Festival, which starts on 16 November, features parades, live music, exhibitions and markets. And if you’re after a good ceilidh, Hogmanay could be the perfect time to visit.
In springtime, the Highlands and Islands Music and Dance Festival draws more than a thousand musicians and dancers from across Scotland to compete in an array of traditional disciplines.
Where to eat
It’s hard to appreciate just how fresh the seafood here is until you’ve taken a walk down to the harbour and watched the catch being delivered - some of it still alive – to the stalls and restaurants that populate the area.
Though known as the Seafood Capital of Scotland, there are surely few places in the UK – or indeed Europe - where you can eat lobster, langoustine, crab, mussels and scallops this fresh.
The Seafood Hut at the Calmac Pier – also known as the Green Shack – is an institution that attracts shellfish aficionados from all over the world. Be prepared to stand and eat with a paper plate but few mind when the food is this good. If you prefer to sit down, try Ee-usk (eeusk.com) directly across the way. The dressed crab is sensational, the halibut served with creamed leaks simple, elegant and delicious. There’s also a great lunch/early evening menu deal that serves three courses for £16.
The nearby Waterfront Fishouse (waterfrontfishouse.co.uk) Restaurant also has an excellent menu, with highlights including the seafood chowder and scallops seared in lemon butter. Those who don’t like seafood – and that’s a hard concept to master in this town – will be tempted by the excellent venison burgers or steaks.
If it’s a good fish supper you’re after, George Street is definitely the place to be. Gordon Ramsay is a customer at Nories, while neighbouring George Street Fish Restaurant and Chip Shop also has a legion of loyal fans. Valentine Boyling recommends the Oban
Fish and Chip Shop and Restaurant
(obanfishandchipshop.co.uk) on the same street. “It’s a well-established/ family-owned place with great daily specials,” he says. “Rick Stein has visited and granted his seal of approval. And there’s no corkage charge if you take in your own beer or wine. A true gem of a place.”
If you’re looking for something sweet, Oban Chocolate Company (obanchocolate.co.uk), on Corran Esplanade serves the best waffles in town, accompanied by views across the bay and the most wonderful aroma as the chocolatiers work away in the background.
Where to shop
The Jetty Gallery on George Street (thejettygallery.com) has a fine selection of painting and sculpture from established and emerging artists.
Nearby Maison Chic (maisonchicoban), offers clothing, gifts, and quirky homeware. Oban Whisky and Fine Wines (whiskyfix. com), on Stafford Street, not only boasts knowledgeable, friendly staff and a wide array of single malts, but the open fire is a real treat on chilly days. Speaking of which, Outside Edge (outsideedgeoban. com), at MacGregor Court, may come in useful if you find yourself in need of some good outdoor and waterproof clothing.
Made in Argyll (madeinargyll.co.uk), meanwhile, on the waterfront next to the railway station, is run by local craftspeople and stocks work by 32 local artists. And for one-off, handmade jewellery, try The Smiddy on George Street, where you can watch as artist Fiona Fraser make what’s on sale.
Where to stay
Stylish: The Perle Oban (perleoban. com), on Station Square, sits in a handsome sandstone building overlooking the bay. The rooms are comfortable and contemporary, each coming with a Nespresso coffee machine and L’Occitane toiletries. Rooms from £79.
Sea view: Greystones B&B, on Dalriach Road, offers five spacious and beautifully-appointed bedrooms and stunning views across the bay. Rooms from £110
Cute: Just two minutes from the ferry terminal, Portlea Quirky summerhouse, part of a large Edwardian house has its own little kitchen, access to a garden and gorgeous views. Sleeps two. From £48 per night. See Airbnb.co.uk
Successful contemporary artist Charles Avery was born in Oban, as was racing driver Susie Wolff, who attended the local secondary school. In 2014 at Silverstone she became the first woman to rake part in a Formula One race for 22 years.
Oban woman Susan Newell the last woman in Scotland to be hanged.
What to do nearby
Built in the 13th century, Dunstaffnage Castle, just three miles outside the town, is where Jacobite heroine Flora MacDonald was held prisoner. Amazing views from the top of the ramparts.
You’re spoiled for choice when it comes island hopping from Oban, as CalMac sails to 11 destinations. Kerrera is just a stone’s throw across the sound, while Mull is only 50 minutes away.
Main image: Shops and McCaig’s Tower on Battery Hill overlooking Oban Above: The ruins of Dunollie Castle and below, Oban Distillery