Travelling round the West Coast of Scotland it is difficult to avoid Oban, the small town in north Argyll which is the transport hub for the area. We’ve passed through several times en route to Mull and I’ve paid various visits when I was younger. However, I haven’t stayed overnight in the town since I spent a long, wet summer working there in 1974. So Ted and I stopped for two nights at the beginning of May 2019 on our way back from Islay
Oban (in Gaelic An t-Òban, the little bay) developed as a fishing village in the eighteenth century, followed by a distillery. Tourism and ferry services greatly expanded after the arrival of the railway in 1880.
In 1974 I was part of a team researching second home ownership in Scotland through a questionnaire survey. We visited properties which appeared from council records to be second homes – where the rates demand was sent to a different address from the property. I was allocated the Oban area and set to work. I was saving for a month’s hitchhiking in Europe that September and the miserable weekly wage was doubled by a £3 a night allowance for bed and breakfast. So I borrowed £20 from my folks, bought a tent and camped for nine weeks on the clifftop along the Ganavan Road and banked the B&B money.
In 2019 we stayed in the Columba Hotel by the North Pier in the centre of town. Bed and breakfast wasn’t cheap (even in early May Oban was busy with tourists, many from continental Europe) but we had a large corner room with a view of Oban Bay (pictured) to one side and on the other McCaigs Folly on top of the hill. We didn’t attempt to climb to the folly (been there, done that), built from 1895 to provide work during a recession for local stonemasons, but we did look at it sitting outside the Oban Inn with a pint.
What to say about Oban? Its situation round the bay is particularly attractive in good weather (which happens occasionally). There are fine views over to Kerrera, Lismore and Mull, and you can sit and watch the ferries and fishing boats come and go. Since the 1970s some of the hotels along the esplanade have been replaced by retirement flats and the ordinary shops have been replaced by gift and outdoor shops – the supermarkets for regular shopping are all outside the town centre. Traffic can dominate the town centre – while there is no practicable alternative to the main road through town, there are insufficient crossings to slow traffic, and those that exist take so long to reach the pedestrian phase that people are tempted to dodge the moving traffic.
On the plus side, Oban has become the seafood capital of the West of Scotland with several seafood restaurants and pubs with innovative food menus – the green seafood shack on the railway pier is particularly good. What used to be the Seaman’s Mission (in 1974 I went there for the occasional shower) is now a seafood restaurant and pizzeria. I didn’t notice whether the old public toilets were still there – it was either there or a visit to the woods in the morning. There are still several fish and chip shops. The Oban Fish and Chip Shop sold an excellent fish supper – Rick Stein says so and I agree.
But of course Ted and I were mainly there for the beer and, Oban being the busy and touristy place it is, there is enough demand for cask ales for several of the pubs to serve it. I’ve always liked the Lorne Bar (Stevenson St) which has an old island bar and good beer. It can be a bit food dominated at meal times but it retains a good atmosphere and some local trade. The Oban Inn (Stafford St), conveniently across the road from the Columba Hotel, had good beer, outside seating and music on most nights in the bar. There is a Wetherspoons in an excellent situation on the railway pier, but it’s a Wetherspoons. There are a few old style bars – no real ale, plenty of whisky, with mainly local customers . On this visit we took in Aulay’s, didn’t reach the Lochavullin, but we did manage the Tartan Tavern. As this was the first pub walking into town from the tent I was a regular customer back in the day. They have toned down the tartanry a bit (not difficult to do) but otherwise it hasn’t changed much – there’s not much room to make major changes even if they wanted to.
The modern railway station, opened in 1986, is a poor shadow of its former incarnation (being a listed building didn’t stop it being demolished). In 1974 those of us camping were rained out by a downpour one night (there were very few dry days that summer) and spent the night in first class compartments in the train that parked in the station overnight, with the permission of the station staff and the police. We dumped our stuff and went out and got pished. In the middle of the night I thought I’d unzipped the tent flap and peed outside…unfortunately it was the compartment door and the corridor. The police were not amused when they came round to clear us out in the morning so the train could be prepared. I put on my best Kelvinside accent and persuaded them it wasn’t me – they knew who I was because I had informed them of the work I was doing. They then played hell with the two rough lads from one of the Glasgow schemes in the next compartment. I still feel guilty about this.
Oban railway station, a few years before my first visit
At the time there was a train that left Glasgow at 0100 and arrived Oban about 0500. It was mainly for post, parcels and newspapers for Oban and the Hebridean ferries but they stuck a passenger coach on the back. I caught it one Friday night after I’d nipped down to Glasgow for a party and I have never met such a group of desperadoes as the passengers on that train.
I didn’t find many second homes in Oban – it is too much of a working town. However, the nearby islands of Seil, Luing and Easdale seemed to have many of them. So I upped sticks for a few days, caught the bus and set up camp on some grass outside the village hall in Ellenabeich, the main village on Seil. The photo shows where I camped back then.
Seil was then the only Scottish island linked to the mainland by a bridge (joined by Skye in 1995), a stone hump-backed bridge constructed in 1796, spanning a short stretch of water and known as the Bridge Over the Atlantic. The bridge and the village of Ellenabeich were already on the tourist map to an extent – visited by the occasional coach trip. A local artist C. John Taylor had set up his studio (and shop) – he was definitely a businessman as well as a prolific painter. There were a few second homes along the couple of streets of terraced cottages. There was a small hotel with the usual basic public bar. I remember the manager charging me 15p for the hot water needed for me to have a bath one afternoon, and the water being dark brown with the peat. I also remember a ceilidh at the village hall, where I tried to remember Scottish country dancing. The hall wasn’t licensed but we all had quarter or half bottles of whisky in our pockets to glug from outside the door. I had the opportunity to lose my gay virginity that night (and in Oban a few days later as well). On both occasions I was either too shy or too slow on the uptake to take advantage of the offers….but that is another story, and only after a few pints.
Looking from Ellenabeich across the Firth of Lorn to Mull
I spent a day on Luing, catching the Cuan ferry and walking and hitching to the small villages of Cullipool and Toberonochy – my only memory is of a very old woman answering the door (obviously local – her family must have been looking after her affairs). She could only speak Gaelic – she was either one of the very last monolingual Gaelic speakers, or she had forgotten any English she knew. Today Luing has a population of 200, down from a high of 600 during the quarrying years and is home to a hardy breed of beef cattle. Bizarrely, I met the owners of the island many years later on a Great Rail tour.
The ferry arrives at Easdale from Ellenabeich and a view of Easdale village with one of the flooded quarries in the foreground.
Easdale island (Eilean Èisdeal in Gaelic) was a world apart. It is separated from Seil by 200 metres of water and you called a ferry – a small boat with an outboard motor – to take you across. There was nothing on the island apart from the cottages. It was August and quite a number of them were occupied. There were a couple of second homes and holiday lets, but many people strongly objected to their cottage being called their second home. They were the families or descendants of men who had worked on the island quarries, forced to move out to seek work and they regarded Easdale as their first home. Despite spending most of the year in their flat in Glasgow, it was very definitely Glasgow that they regarded as their second home. There was a melancholy air about the place – it appeared to be a village that once had been lively but now was dying – there were quite a derelict cottages.
Easdale, Seil, Luing and surrounding islands are known as the slate islands. Quarrying began from the 1500s. The slate was exported to the central belt of Scotland and worldwide – in the 1870s ten steamers a week were taking slate from the pier at Ellenabeich. On Easdale Island 500 people worked in seven quarries. In the late nineteenth century storms flooded the quarries in Ellenabeich and Easdale (pictured) and overnight most of the population lost their employment. Some quarrying continued on Easdale until the 1950s and until 1965 on Luing.
The bus still runs from Oban to Ellenabeich – in fact it is more frequent than in 1974. The destination screen says Easdale which would be tricky unless it could float. On the mainland it calls at Barran Estate, a strange suburban housing estate in the middle of nowhere which has appeared in recent years (maybe second homes). On the opposite side of Loch Feochan a boat had been beached to collect timber from a forest being felled. We crossed the Atlantic Bridge, passed the Tigh an Truish Inn, with its ancient Alloa Ales sign (see note 1), then travelled through the township of Balvicar to Ellenabeich.
There were a couple of others waiting for the Easdale ferry which was due to come across the channel. At certain times of day there is a fixed timetable, at other times you signal for it by flashing a light or sounding a klaxon. Easdale is car-free and islanders park their cars on the mainland – one woman had just come back from Oban with her shopping and I crippled myself carrying her huge bag of chicken feed down the slip. The ferry is much the same as in 1974, tough presumably it’s a newer boat. Of course, I had to assist with carrying the chicken feed up the slipway at the other end of the journey. Two women who had joined the bus in Oban were also on the ferry – one of their grandfathers had worked in the quarries and they paid a visit every year for a wander round the island and lunch in the tearoom
It may have been helped by the bright day but Easdale village (pictured) seemed in much better shape – busier in early May 2019 than it was in August 1974. Almost all the cottages have been spruced up and there are even a couple of new houses carefully built to blend in with the landscape. I presumed that with decent broadband people can work from the island. The village hall has been renovated and extended. Most importantly, there is the Puffer tearoom, restaurant and bar. When I checked, my initial impressions were confirmed. The population dropped in the 1960s to a low of 4 permanent residents (the ferryman’s family?). Today there are over 60 with a healthy mix of ages. 30 of the homes have permanent residents, 34 are second homes, mainly owned by people descended from islanders, and 7 holiday lets. A community development trust has been working on various improvements to the village hall and harbour. Several families run internet business and others work in the tourism industry or commute to Oban and elsewhere. The island has become well known (ish) as the site of the annual World Stone Skimming Championships – slate makes good skimmers.
The entrance to the Puffer Bar. You can sneak in without being seen by the customers in the tearoom at the front.
We walked round the village, peaceful without any car traffic, then round the island to the sites of several of the old quarries, and took photos looking over to Mull and back to Seil and Ellenabeich. The ferry doesn’t run while the ferryman had his lunch and we decided to do the same. We found the entrance to the bar of the Puffer and enjoyed a pint, soup and a roll. It seems like a thriving place (though winter must be quiet). It is up for sale, though the current owner is keen that its present ambience is maintained when she moves on (see note 2).
Back in Ellenabeich (pictured) there was an hour before the bus so we explored the village. The streets of white-harled quarriers cottages are in good condition, the hotel (which was originally the slate works managers house) is now a private house. C John Taylor died in 1998 and his art gallery cum gift and tat shop, Highland Arts, closed recently and is empty. Though the hotel has closed there is the Oyster Bar and Restaurant close to the ferry slipway. It had a brewery until a few years ago and there is still a handpump in the bar selling decent beer so we popped in for a pint and listened to the gossip. It was quiet when we arrived but a coach party was due – the landlord had been warned in advance either by the driver or someone up the road, met the coach and got most of them into the Oyster restaurant – with no Highland Arts shop it’s the obvious place to go. Back on the bus Ted and I were joined by a group of older local women who had been to the Oyster for lunch and a wee refreshment or two – they spotted one of their number walking home with the young barman from the Oyster which generated yells of ‘Irene’s got a lumber’. We picked up the six children from the primary school who live elsewhere on the island, then dropped them (and their grannies from the lunch group) off as we travelled through Seil, over the Atlantic Bridge and back to Oban.
(1) Tigh na Truish translates as ‘house of the trousers’. According to Undiscovered Scotland, the inn is where, post 1745 (and pre-bridge), when kilts were banned, islanders changed into trousers before crossing to the mainland.
(2) ‘Remote island pub for sale….just don’t expect a quiet life’ The Observer, 25 Nov 2018, www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2018/nov/25/easdale-island-pub-for-sale/
What we missed in Ellenabeich and Easdale
Im afraid that despite being highly cultured, having a walk around and a beer or two took precedence, so we didn’t have time to visit the Slate Islands Heritage Centre in Ellenabeich www.slateislands.org.uk or the Easdale Island Folk Museum www.easdalemuseum.org . Both look very interesting and worth a visit.
McCaigs Folly from the window of our room at the Columba Hotel
Oban is easily reachable by train or coach form Glasgow, with connections there to and from Edinburgh. There are daily buses to and from Fort William, with connections to and from Inverness. All bus times in the area can be found at www.argyll-bute.gov.uk/timetable/bus . Caledonian MacBrayne operate ferries from Oban to many of the Hebridean islands. Details at www.calmac.co.uk
Inside the ferry waiting shelter at Ellenabeich. I’m unsure what the purpose of the boot is
Ellenbeich is reached from Oban 4 or 5 times a day by West Coast Motors bus service 418/18. The timetable is on the Argyll and Bute Council website. The Easdale ferry timetable is at www.argyll-bute.gov.uk/ellenabeich-easdale-ferry-timetable . Note that the ferry does not operate during the ferryman’s lunch break 1245-1400.
The main sources used were: Wikipedia www.en.wikipedia.org , www.southernhebrides.com, www.undiscoveredscotland.co,uk , and for Easdale the website of the Eilean Easdale community development trust www.easdale.org .
All photographs are by Steve Gillon except for Oban railway station and the Lorne Bar, sourced via Google Images from the Oban Times http://www.obantimes.co.uk .
Ted enjoys the ferry crossing – just visible is the corner of a large bag of chicken feed. Also, a photograph of some slate.
Copyright: Text and photographs (except for those mentioned above) are copyright © Steve Gillon, 2019.