When I decided to plan a solo 10-day backpacking adventure around Scotland for the end of September, the western coastal region of the country wasn’t so much a part of my itinerary. Edinburgh, a UNESCO City of Literature, was going to satisfy my rampant obsession with books. A day tour to Trossachs National Park and Loch Lomond from Glasgow would quench my inevitable thirst for time spent outdoors. Two nights in Inverness would bring a large amount of Highland history and culture to the table. But when I looked at a broad view of the country on Google Maps, the jagged, tattered coastline due west of the Trossachs caught my eye. Surely, there needed to be a bunch of bay towns scattered throughout the region that would be worth exploring. As I zoomed in on the area, the first name that popped up was Oban.
The small town checked every box I considered necessary to make a place worth visiting; a train station serviced by ScotRail, (my only mode of transportation throughout the trip), a few boutique hotels, a smattering of seafood restaurants, a distillery, a medieval castle, and ferry service to surrounding islands. Using my powers of foresight, Oban seemed like the perfect place to escape to between multi-night stints in industrial Glasgow and crowded Edinburgh.
I chose the Columba Hotel, which sits on the North Pier overlooking the water. Originally I thought I was making the bold and lavish decision to stay somewhere with such a premier location, until I arrived and realized that almost every hotel and hostel was similarly situated. Oban’s entire waterfront is lined with an esplanade, docks, benches, and stair/ramp access to the rocky beach below. Just across the two-way street is a long stretch of hotels, hostels, restaurants, coffee shops and stores housed in buildings that have that look of salt-air weathering that New Englanders naturally find so charming.
If you take nothing else away from this piece, remember this; upon arrival, after a 6:15 AM wakeup and 4 hour train ride, I neither took a nap in my hotel room nor sat down for a meal, both of which I did after arriving at my other three destinations. I was so enamored with Oban that I spent my first three hours exploring, before finally realizing my overpowering exhaustion and biting hunger.
A northern walk up the esplanade brought me to the War Memorial and, across the street, the entrance to a rudimentary carriage road that leads to the Dunollie Castle, an absolute must-see when in Oban. Acres of farmland (and accompanying grazing sheep) surround the castle ruins and the 1745 House, which has been altered into a museum about the MacDougall Clan. The MacDougalls have owned the castle and house for over 9 centuries, even though the castle’s origins stretch back much further than that. The view of Oban from the castle’s perch high above the water is worth the entrance fee alone.
The most cardinal rule for Oban visitors is to eat seafood on a pier. You definitely have options, but I recommend Ee’usk, which shares the North Pier with the Columba Hotel and a few other restaurants. If you must splurge on any single meal throughout the entire trip, this is the place to do so. The high-end, no-frills atmosphere might feel a little sterile at first, until they drop a life-altering bowl (more like a bucket) of Firth of Lorn mussels in front of you. And you eat every single one while staring out floor-to-ceiling windows at the Sound of Kerrera, only ten miles north of (and directly connected to) the Firth of Lorn itself. The menu is massive, and proudly credits the supplier of each variety of fish…all of which are local, and seem to be on first name basis with the restaurant.
Oban is an ideal starting point for further exploration of the surrounding islands. West Coast Tours operates right near the Oban ferry dock, and offers single-day excursions to a broad range of locations around the Inner Hebrides. The Isle of Mull is 45 minutes away on the massive Caledonian-MacBrayne ferry, complete with a small restaurant, gift shop, arcade and large observation deck. Upon arrival in Craignure, the West Coast Tours motor coach is parked at the end of the dock, with an eager and informative driver waiting to take you on the 90-minute trip across the breathtaking and remote island. The port at Fionnphort has another boat ready to get you to Iona for three hours of exploring.
Few places have captured my heart to the extent that the minute island of Iona did. St. Columba landed here in 563 AD, bringing Celtic Christianity with him. The Nunnery, the Abbey and a host of stone crosses have survived the tests of time. Today Iona wears its heritage pride on its sleeve, while somehow also being a modern tourist destination. Art galleries, pottery studios, silversmiths, craft shops, cafes, bed and breakfasts, and a few small museums drive the tourism economy, while the handful of residences and the primary school prove it to be a place some call home, too. One is never too far from a rocky shoreline, so the water is plainly visible from all parts of the island, along with Mull and other landmasses that can still be seen from an eastern viewpoint. Peace and quiet is commonplace, while the strong sense of community is apparent. Plan to spend the night.
What I Did That Worked:
- I packed clothes for a stereotypical Scottish climate. If you’re going to find that iconic western UK drizzle anywhere, it is going to be on this exact coastline. Proximity to the ocean lowers the temperatures a fair bit, and rain often came out of nowhere. A long, oversized raincoat that can fit over sweaters and other jackets was the perfect move for me. I’m obsessed with my RAINS Long Jacket, which acts as a giant no-frills waterproof shell and packs down easily. Make sure footwear is at least water resistant, too. Even if it isn’t raining, anyone who does Oban right is going to be on or around the ocean at some point.
- I saw some surrounding islands. As mentioned above, the rest of the Inner Hebrides are really special, and there are many ways to explore them. Make sure to work a day trip into your itinerary. No sea legs? The Caledonian MacBrayne ferry is absolutely massive and superiorly comfortable, even for those who don’t necessarily enjoy boats.
- I carried cash. Moreso than their urban counterparts, stores and cafes on the Inner Hebrides don’t always take credit or debit cards. Cash tips are always preferred anyway, and this isn’t exactly the pickpocketing type of crowd.
What I Could Have Done Differently:
- I could have spent the night on Iona. No one warned me of this island’s infectious charm, so I had no way of knowing, but if you’re the type of person who likes quiet single-night getaways in small charming locations, this is the perfect way to dive into all that the island has to offer. The ferry service runs a decent schedule from Oban to Craignure on Mull, and then from Fionnphort (across Mull) to Iona. West Coast Motors runs a bus schedule every day from Craignure to Fionnphort at very low rates. Plan on total travel time from Iona to Oban being over three and a half hours.
- I could have visited the Oban Distillery and McCaig’s Tower. I was so swept up in the town itself that, aside from the Dunollie Castle, I missed out on some good attractions. The Oban Distillery seemed really interesting, and especially considering how much I enjoyed the tour at Glengoyne Distillery in the Highlands, I’m sure it would have been worth the money. McCaig’s Tower overlooks Oban and is visible from the town’s center. It’s construction was much more recent than the other historical sites in the town, having begun in 1897. It was never finished, but still resides at the top of Battery Hill. Both would make great additions to anyone’s stay in the Inner Hebrides.