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Oban

A historical perspective, drawn from the Ordnance Gazetteer of Scotland: A Survey of Scottish Topography, Statistical, Biographical and Historical, edited by Francis H. Groome and originally published in parts by Thomas C. Jack, Grange Publishing Works, Edinburgh between 1882 and 1885.

This edition is copyright © The Editors of the Gazetteer for Scotland, 2002-2013.

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Oban, a parliamentary burgh in the united parish of Kilmore and Kilbride, Argyllshire. a post and market town and seaport, and capital of the district of Lorn, it stands on the coast of Mid-Lorn, opposite the northern end of the island of Kerrera, curving round the head of a deep-and beautiful semicircular bay, 24 miles N of the W end of the Crinan Canal, 33 NW by W of Inveraray, 92 NW by N of Glasgow, and 136 WNW of Edinburgh. The site of Oban is one of the most beautiful in Scotland, and one of the most healthy. The island of Kerrera, stretching from the northern horn of the semicircular bay to a considerable distance past the southern horn, completely guards the bay, and makes it a tranquil and spacious haven, entered only by channels on the N and S. The southern entrance, called Kerrera Sound, bends so far inward from the bay as to become lost to view; while the northern entrance, though all seen from the town, appears to be blocked up by the island of Lismore, 5 miles off; so that the bay and adjoining channels have all the appearance of a land-locked lake. Its shores are chiefly low and gravelly, although immediately behind the town the ground rises into a protecting row of heights overhanging the town. On the N and E side especially the cliffs are bold, and are picturesquely covered with pine trees and ivy, while a grey conglomerate cliff stands at the southern promontory of the bay. The view commanded from the heights behind Oban, on which many houses and villas have been built, is extensive and magnificent. To the S is the Sound of Kerrera; westward, beyond Kerrera, rise the mountains of Mull; while away beyond Lismore to the NW, and past the entrance to the Sound of Mull, tower the peaks of misty Morven: still further NE lies Glencoe with its dark mountains, seen across the Braes of Appin; while nearly due E Ben Cruachan lifts its double peaks. Situated thus, in the midst of such romantic scenery, Oban is surrounded with places of interest, and has become the headquarters of all who desire to visit the West Highlands. Its natural situation, its accessibility, and its safe and commodious bay have splendidly fitted it to become the capital of the West Highlands and ' the Charing Cross of the Hebrides.' Oban is the focus of steam communication, by land and sea, between the south and the north-western parts of Scotland. It is the terminus of an important railway line, affording direct communication with Edinburgh and Glasgow; it is the final point of the so-called ' royal route ' from Glasgow viâ the Crinan Canal, carried on in the splendid steamers Columba and Iona; it is an important port of call for the larger steamers Claymore and Clansman, after they have ' rounded the Mull ' of Kintyre on their voyage from Glasgow to Stornoway; it is the starting place for numerous steamer-routes throughout all the western coast and islands, and for coach-journeys to numberless places and points of interest on the mainland; and it is the headquarters of the Royal Highland Yacht Club. These facts give Oban its character. During the winter the town is quiet and dull, but by the end of June it awakens to a hurried, brisk, active existence, which lasts for the rest of the summer and autumn. When the tourist season once begins, Oban is bustling and gay. Train and steamer and coach pour streams of eager pleasureseekers into the town-all countries of the world are represented, all ages and ranks in its hotels and streets. The shriek of the engines, the clear tones of the steamerbells, and the rumble of wheels are heard more frequently; the hotels hoist their flags; bands play on the promenade; graceful white-sailed yachts glide into the bay and drop anchor; tourists and canvas-shoed yachtsmen throng the streets and shops; and there is a general air of bustle and of coming and going. For Oban is a place of passage and not of rest. Tourists go to Oban simply for the purpose of getting to somewhere else. Beautiful as the situation of the town is, its chief attraction to visitors is the ease with which, from Oban, they can reach other parts of the Highlands. Thus it is that although the appearance of Oban in the season is always the same, the individuals who make up the scene are always changing. Though the number of families who spend a month or two here in the summer is yearly increasing, comparatively few people, except the proprietors of the villas on the outskirts of the town and the heights behind, visit Oban for more than a week at a time. The prosperity of the town depends on this annual stream of tourists; and the character of its trade, its municipal policy, and its later history have been determined by this consideration.

The main street of Oban is a broad thoroughfare, curving round the bay, and flanked upon one side by the quays, on the other by substantial and handsome shops and hotels. As it leaves the town at the N end, this street assumes the character of an esplanade, and the shops give way to magnificent hotels and pretty villas. Towards the S end of this street another extends at right angles to it, directly back from the sea, while there are various side and back streets. Although much has recently been done in the way of improving the appearance of the town, its beauty and convenience has been sadly interfered with by the careless and injudicious way in which the original streets and lanes were laid out. In 1859 the fashionable northern quarter of Oban, known as the 'Corran,' was feued from the proprietor of Dunolly, and in the two following years the northern esplanade and Columba Terrace, including the Great Western Hotel, were built. Since then the town has been steadily growing, numerous villas being built, especially on the surrounding heights, though admirers of Oban have not thought that all the tenements erected there contribute to the beauty of the burgh. The neighbouring proprietors have done a great deal to beautify the place by planting the environs with fir, larch, oak, spruce, etc., one especially planting 768 acres within eight years. The main body of the town is cut into two parts by a small stream. Over 200 yards of the frontage of the town on the shore is occupied by the large quay and sea-wall, built by the Callander and Oban Railway Company. The construction of this work was begun in February 1880, and during the summer of that year a staff of divers were employed 16 hours daily in laying the foundations. The superstructure is of concrete, and the total length of the sea-wall is 670 feet. Handsome waiting-rooms are provided for the convenience of the passenger traffic, while travelling cranes and lines of rails assist the loading and unloading of cargo. Besides this railway quay there are other two older piers, one of which was improved and enlarged in 1836 by the joint efforts of certain townsmen and the late Marquis of Breadalbane, although the latter managed to obtain control of the whole. The anchorage in the bay is good and safe, and every summer is crowded with yachts of all sizes, and other craft.

With the exception of the court-house and the churches, the most imposing buildings in Oban are all connected with its tourist traffic; they are the quays, the hotels, and the railway station. The court-house was built in 1863 with the aid of a government grant of £1199; and includes a court-room, police-station, and policecells. The parish church, built as a chapel of ease in 1821 at a cost of £1143, is a neat edifice in the eastern part of the town. It is seated for 500. St Columba's Established church was built in 1875 from designs by David Thomson, of Glasgow, at a cost of about £5000; and is seated for between 500 and 600. It is a hand some Gothic edifice, with a spire 120 feet high and stained-glass windows. On the face of the rising-ground behind the town stands conspicuously a Free church, of light early Gothic architecture, with a low Norman tower and pointed spire, built in 1846 from a design by Mr Pugin. The other churches are a U.P., built in 1867; Congregational, built in 1820, and rebuilt in 1880; St Columba's Roman Catholic pro-cathedral, a temporary wooden structure (1879; 300 sittings); and the Scottish Episcopal church of St John the Evangelist, a late Gothic edifice of 1863, with a new nave of 1882, and 400 sittings. It was consecrated by the late Archbishop Tait, then Bishop of London, in 1864. Three schools- the High, Roman Catholic, and Episcopalian-with respective accommodation for 420, 110, and 203 children, had (1883) an average attendance of 268, 24, and 88, and grants of £223, 1s., £5, 1s. 4d., and £71, 17s. 6d. There are also several private adventure schools. The Lorn Combination Poorhouse, with accommodation for 234 inmates, was opened in 1862. The railway station, erected in an open and commanding site near the quay, is one of the prettiest and most graceful buildings in the town. It is a single-storied building of varnished white and pitch pine, iron, and glass; and has a delightfully airy and- elegant appearance. It was opened on 1 July 1880. Oban has even more hotels in proportion to its size than Edinburgh, there being no less -than 16, besides several temperance hotels and numerous lodging-houses. Several of the hotels are of the most palatial dimensions and appointments, and their charges are quite in keeping with their grandeur and the traditions of the Highlands. Even so long ago as 1773 Boswell remarked with approval the accommodation which he and Dr Johnson received in the little clachan at Oban; and the hotel-keepers of the town have not lost their reputation. The chief hotels (in order northward along George Street from the railway terminus) are the Station hotel, opened in 1881; Queen's, King's Arms, Caledonian, and- the Imperial. The Argyll and the Oban Hotels are close to the head of the pier. Overlooking the N end of the bay are the Great Western, built in 1863, but now the largest hotel in Oban, owing to the incorporation with it of two adjoining villas and the building in 1880, at a cost of over £2000, of a dining-hall to hold 200 people; and the Alexandra, which has acquired a kind of extra-professional fame for the large and fine collection of modern paintings, ancient furniture, and bric-a-brac which it contains. On the heights above the town are the CraigArd and the Grand Hotels. Also overlooking the town and bay, and forming a prominent and somewhat melancholy object in the view, rise the unfinished walls of a proposed Hydropathic establishment. The Oban Hills Hydropathic Sanatorium Company, with a nominal capital of £75,000, acquired ground and began to build in 1880 an establishment estimated to cost in all some £61, 000. But in a comparatively short time it got into difficulties, and the bare unroofed walls were left unfinished.

Oban has a post office, with money order, savings' bank, insurance, and telegraph departments, branches of the Bank of Scotland and the Clydesdale, Commercial, National, and North of Scotland Banks, and offices or agencies of 23 insurance companies. Most of the banks are handsome buildings. Other institutions in Oban are a library and public reading-room, opened 19 June 1880 in connection with Oban Scientific and Literary Association, the members of which meet weekly during the winter; a circulating library, an agricultural society, a masonic lodge, formed in 1791; and the Volunteer Improvement Association. The object of this last body is to increase the amenity and attractiveness of the town; and in the summer nearly 100 seats are placed along the esplanade and other popular walks in the neighbourhood and on the various commanding heights about the town. There is a corps of artillery volunteers, formed in 1859 at the very beginning of the volunteer movement. The Royal Highland Yacht Club was instituted in Oct. 1881, and has its headquarters at Oban. The club-house is in a villa near the Great Western Hotel. Its members fly the blue ensign of the navy and a blue badge bearing a crown on a St Andrew's cross. Two weekly newspapers are published in Oban; the Oban Times (1866) appears on Saturdays, and is independent in politics; the Oban Telegraph (1876) is published on Fridays, and is Liberal. Cattle markets are held in Oban on the Monday before the last Wednesday of May, and on the Friday before the last Wednesday in October; horse markets are held on the Tuesday before the first Thursday of March, and on the first Tuesday of September, and on the Tuesday before the fourth Thursday of November; a sheep and wool market is held on the Wednesday after the second Tuesday of July; and hiring markets are held on the second Tuesday of April and the ht Friday of November.

The construction of the Callander and Oban railway was begun in 1867; in 1870 the line was open to Killin; in 1873 to Tyndrum; and in 1877 to Dalmally. The remaining 24 miles took three years to complete, but on 11 June 1880 the first goods engine steamed into Oban. On 30 June of the same year the line was formally opened with much ceremony and public rejoicing. The station and quay, which formed an essential part of the railway company's design, have been already referred to. The prosperity of the town has been much enhanced by this perfecting of its communications with the south, which brings it within five or six hours of Edinburgh or Glasgow. Before the town pier was extended, steamers were unable to touch at Oban except at high water; since then the communication by sea has been enormously developed. In summer there are countless routes open to the tourist by steamer: to Glasgow and the Clyde viâ the Crinan Canal in the fine steamers Iona and Columba; to Skye and Lewis; to Mull, Staffa, and Iona, and the Hebrides; and up the Caledonian Canal to Inverness and intermediate places. There is a steady communication by sea between Oban and many places during winter as well. There are two sailings in the week from Glasgow to Stornoway by powerful sea-going steamers which sail round the Mull of Cantyre and call at Oban; goods steamers which carry passengers sail from Oban to Islay and Colonsay three times a week; and there is also a goods steamer to Tobermory and other points in the Hebrides. In winter there are also two sailings weekly from Glasgow to Oban, Ballachulish, Fort William, and Inverness. On 1 April 1881 a daily mail steamer service began between Oban and Fort William, and Oban and Tobermory, the former packet-boat from Oban to Grasspoint in Mull, and the land-carrier thence to Tobermory being thus superseded. In summer public coaches run to various points of interest in the neighbourhood. The first industry attempted to be established at Oban was fishing; and in 1786 the Government Fishery Board appointed it a fishing-station. The industry, however, languished, probably on account of the distance from markets and the poverty of the fishers' gear; and the station was abandoned. So long before as 1713, however, a store-house had been erected by a Renfrew trading company at Oban; and a humble commerce had gradually grown up. In 1773 two brothers named Stevenson started a business uniting shipbuilding with commerce, which lasted for 30 years. As merchants they dealt in wool, oak-bark, fish, and other produce of the neighbourhood; and their success attracted others to the little town. With the development of steam communication Oban gradually grew larger, though the character of its chief industries changed. An attempt to revive the shipbuilding trade in 1867 failed; and so did later efforts to start a brewery and a farina mill. At present the manufactures of Oban are limited to the distillation of whisky. Its shops are good, and its supply of merchandise excellent. Besides supplying the wants of the summer tourists, on whom the town mainly subsists, Oban purveys for a considerable district around. It has also large sawmills. Oban was raised to a burgh of barony in 1811 by a royal charter in favour of the Duke of Argyll; but this was set aside by the Court of Session; and in 1820 a new charter was granted in favour jointly of the Duke and Mr Campbell of Combie. Under this charter the burgh was governed by a provost and council until the Reform Act of 1832, by which it was formed into a parliamentary burgh, when, however, the title of provost merged in that of senior bailie. The area of the parliamentary burgh was defined as ' the space on the mainland included within a circle described with a radius of one-half mile from the point as centre, where the street leading to the old Inverary road meets the street along the shore.' In 1862 Oban adopted the Lindsay Act of that year, and was erected into a police burgh. In 1881 the town council successfully applied to parliament for powers to extend the municipal and police boundaries of the burgh, by an area which at last census had 344 inhabitants. At the same time powers were acquired to increase the number of councillors, to regulate the maintenance of the roads, and to introduce a new water supply. The dearth of water in 1880 was so great that - it had to be carted from house to house. The former supply was derived from Loch Gleneruitten and Loch Mossfield, capable of storing 6,000, 000 and 5,000,000 gallons respectively. The new supply will be derived from Loch na-Glenna Bheathrack, which can hold 90, 000, 000 gallons, giving 30 gallons a head per diem to a population of 10, 000. The estimated cost is £10, 000. The town council now consists of a provost, 2 bailies, and 6 councillors. The municipal constituency (1884) was 677. Sheriff small debt courts are held in March, July, September, and December. Oban unites with Ayr, Irvine, Campbeltown, and Inverarayin returning a member to parliament. Parliamentary constituency (1884) 536. Annual valuation (1883-84) in original burgh £24,540, railway £2037; in extended part of burgh £2573-total £29,150. In 1847 the rental was only £2830; in 1859, £4616; in 1873, £11,138; and in 1881, in the extended burgh £24,012, of which £2207 was in the extended portion. Pop. (1791) 586, (1821) l359, (1841) 1398, (1851) 1742, (1861) 1940, (1871) 2413, (1881) 3991, of whom 2005 were females, and 2042 Gaelic-speaking. Houses (1881) 808 occupied, 42 vacant, 7 building.

History.-About the middle of last century the site of Oban was occupied by a few thatched hovels, whose inmates supported life by fishing and farming. In 1773 Mrs Grant of Laggan visited it and mentioned it in the first of her Letters from the Mountains. In the same year Dr Johnson and Boswell were ferried over from Mull to Oban, and spent a night there. In 1786 the Government Fishery Board erected Oban into a fishing-station; but the fishing proved unproductive, and the station was abandoned. Its subsequent commercial progress has been already described in connection with its industries. In 1809 Oban became the headquarters of a militia regiment, 1200 strong, raised in the district of Lorn, and disbanded about 1813. Sir Walter Scott visited the burgh in 1814, the year in which he- published his Lord of the Isles. The interest which this poem awoke in the scenes in which its action is Laid, brought many visitors to Oban, in a gradually increasing stream; and the influence of Scott has always been regarded as one of the first causes of Oban's present prosperity. The first feus at Oban had been given off in 1803; but only in 1820 good substantial houses began to be built, in consequence of the growing fortunes of the place. The parish church and the Caledonian Hotel were among the earlier buildings of any note. For some time the headquarters of the Hebridean Survey were at the burgh; and from 1866 to 1870 a corps of ordnance surveyors had their headquarters at Oban during the survey of most of Argyllshire. In August 1847 the town was illuminated in honour of a visit from the Queen (' one of the finest spots we have seen, ' says her Journal); and in 1863 royalty again visited it in the person of Prince Alfred, then a lieutenant on board the Racoon. During the Crimean War the town was the headquarters of the Argyll and Bute regiment of rifles, which had been called out under the Marquis of Breadalbane by royal warrant. In 1861 the regiment was changed to an artillery force; and in 1863, when the Duke of Argyll became lord-lieutenant of the county, its headquarters were changed to Campbeltown, in spite of a petition from the magistrates of Oban. The chief landed proprietors in and near Oban are, to the S, Robert Macfie of Airds, and, to the N, Col. McDougall of Dunolly. Mr Macfie's predecessors were the Campbells of Sonachan, who inherited from the Duke of Argyll, before whom the McDougalls of Dunolly held large estates in Lorn. Lord Bre adalbane and his trustees were the successive proprietors from 1837 to 1866 of North Oban; the former having purchased the lands from Campbell of Combie.—Ord. Sur., shs. 45, 44, 1876-84. See T. Gray's Week at Oban (Edinb. 1881).

An accompanying 19th C. Ordnance Survey map is available.

Note: This text has been made available using a process of scanning and optical character recognition. Despite manual checking, some typographical errors may remain. Please remember this description dates from the 1880s; names may have changed, administrative divisions will certainly be different and there are known to be occasional errors of fact in the original text, which we have not corrected because we wish to maintain its integrity. This information is provided subject to our standard disclaimer

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