Oban is small by the standards of most towns. But the west of Scotland is not the place where one finds most towns. Indeed, there are very few towns at all – so few that Oban, small though it be, is the centre of Argyll. Ferries to the Western Isles cross the small bay around which the town huddles at irregular intervals, and there are enough shops that one wouldn’t really want for much. Especially fish and chip shops. In fact, a study of chippies per capita would make for memorable reading. (That said, the fish is so meltingly fresh that I can see why you would want to eat nothing else.) But it’s still not what one would call a bustling place.
I am in Oban for a course rather than a holiday. A little way to the north, just outside the even smaller town of Dunbeg, is the Scottish Association for Marine Science, our base for three days’ discussion of marine policy. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea, I know, but there are those of us who find these things interesting. It does mean that I have only a short time to explore, but a little is certainly better than nothing at all.
The town itself is a little on the austere side, something not helped by the dullness of February. The streets are narrow and winding; away from the seafront, they rise sharply into the surrounding hills, twisting about through tightly spaced houses and naked, lichen-covered trees. The buildings, by and large, are grey and severe, their dark Victorian rooftops thrusting into the restless sky.
Weather changes quickly in the remote north west. The snow-dusted mountains that sit on the Atlantic horizon – the mainland cuts down between Oban and the open ocean – are periodically hidden from view by rain and cloud: grey mists that drift across the water before dumping on the town in scarcely an hour as much rain as seems to fall on Norwich in a month.
Whisky production is one of Oban’s better-known industries. My visit being on the short side, I don’t have time to take the distillery tour, but a friend who always seems to have plenty of time for these things tells me that she can (just about) recall stumbling out into the middle of the afternoon after a happy hour spent sampling the house style. People who know more about these things than I do say that Oban is a little pricey for what it is; all I can say with certainty is that it tastes very much of whisky, but in a good way.
Ironically, one of the highlights of my short time in Oban is my journey back to Glasgow. The trip there I made in the dark of a late February evening, but during the afternoon train ride back I was treated to the full splendour of the Trossachs. The open ground on the hillsides is covered with the ruddy-coloured remnants of last season’s bracken, while red-stemmed birch trees reach up to the faded light with a host of spindly fingers. Lochs fill the bottoms of the steep-walled valleys, and the peaks of the snowy hills fade into the white and sky-wide clouds.
The scenery – a far cry from the flats of East Anglia – is magisterial, and it cannot but hold the eye: up and down the carriage, people’s gaze keeps returning to the wintry splendour outside. The three hours pass slowly but not unpleasantly, and the slow descent into Glasgow feels like a disappointing awakening.