Welcome to Oban
Oban is known popularly as ‘The Gateway to the Islands'. This is a fitting title for the town which is the undisputed capital of the Scotland's western seaboard. From Oban, ferries will carry you to the scattered islands of the Inner Hebrides: to Kerrera, Isle of Mull, Iona, Tiree, Lismore, Coll, and beyond. The area around Oban is one rich in history and natural beauty. Oban itself literally means “little bay”, derived from the Gaelic “An Ob”. The town consists of predominantly Victorian buildings, hemmed in by hills and cliffs, clustered around the bustling harbour occupying the bay. While the Victorian architecture gives us a clue to the epoch in which Oban grew to become a significant town, it disguises the fact that the site has a longer history which one must dig deeper to uncover.
Stob Diamh from Ben Cruachan summit, nr. Oban
One obvious feature of Oban is the whisky distillery which seems to grow out of the cliffs above the bay. In 1880 when work began to expand the distillery building, workmen were made to cut into the cliffs at the rear of the old building, where they made a startling find. The works revealed a cave which had lain undisturbed for an untold number of years; inside were human bones and implements, later dated to around 4500 BC. Although the remains have now been removed, the importance of the site gives the visitors of Oban Distillery, for whom tours are provided which deal with both whisky distillation and Oban's history, something novel to consider while enjoying a wee dram. Just a short drive south of Oban, near Lochgilphead, is Kilmartin Glen; the location of over 350 ancient monuments, around 150 of which are prehistoric. These range from burial cairns to stone circles. Cumulatively these artefacts and monuments paint a picture of the Oban area as having been a kind of Neolithic hub.
In the 6th century AD the Oban area again became a hub, this time of the Kingdom of Dalriata: the kingdom of the Scotii tribe, the seed from which the Kingdom of Scotland would grow. This kingdom was established when three sons, Fergus Mor, Aonghas and Loarn mac Eric, failed to inherit their father's kingdom (in modern day County Antrim) after his death, in 498. When the kingdom passed to their uncle the three sons established their own kingdoms in the south west of Scotland, bringing with them the “Stone of Destiny” – said to be a meteorite, used by the biblical Jacob as a pillow, carried by the Scotii from Egypt and used in anointing ceremonies for tribal kings and later Scottish kings. Loarn established his stronghold at Dun Ollaigh, present day Dunollie Castle: situated on a promontory which gaurds the northern end of Oban harbour. Fergus outlived the other sons and united the three kingdoms to forge Dalriata, the capital of which was Dunadd, overlooking Kilmartin Glen. While Dunadd was the first capital of the first Kingdom of Scots, Dun Ollaigh remained important as the kingdom's northern stronghold, although nothing remains of the original fort.
When the centre of power shifted inland in the 9th century Oban and her surrounds became of lesser importance. At the same time the Vikings began incursions into the area, marking the beginning of around 400 years of struggle. By the 11th century, with the Western Isles in Viking hands, Oban was on the periphery of the Scots kingdom, in a Scandinavian dominated sea world. The MacDougall family, who were of Viking descent, turned their backs on the Vikings in 1263 at the time of the battle of Largs, in which Scotland wrested back the Western Isles from the Vikings, and at the same time established themselves as one of the most powerful families in Scotland. The MacDougalls were to develop Dunollie Castle (formerly Dun Ollaigh) in the 12th century as one of their primary strongholds, which it remained until 1746 when they relocated to nearby Dunollie House. The neglected castle fell into ruins, which are all that exist today.
Until Victorian times Oban was a quiet fishing town and an important resting place for the drovers who herded cattle from the islands to the southern markets. Oban began to grow into its present shape in the late 19th century when steam ships began to use it as a stopping point as they powered their way between Glasgow and Inverness along the Caledonian and Crinan canals: its location made it an obvious ferry terminal. The arrival of the railway in 1880 further strengthened the town's position and the Victorian buildings began to spring up. In 1887 construction of what would become Oban's most emblematic building got underway. John S. McCaig, a local banker with an interest in Greek and Roman art, decided to invest his immense wealth employing local labourers to construct a monument to himself and his family: a ‘replica' of the coliseum in Rome. Its actual name is McCaig's Tower, but it is known more commonly as McCaig's Folly and it sits like a giant crown over the town and harbour. Whatever you make of McCaig's Tower, its presence makes Oban not just one of Scotland's most significant towns but also one of its most striking.