Looking for places to visit in Scotland? For first-time visitors, basing yourself in the city of Edinburgh or Glasgow has obvious advantages. But if you’re willing to venture a little further afield, the town of Oban on the west coast offers a wonderful alternative. Swap the city lights for a slower pace of life and immerse yourself in the green and ancient landscape of Argyll.
Oban is known as the ‘Gateway to the Isles,’ and a walk around its pretty harbour offers plenty to see in the form of fishing boats, occasional cruise liners and tall ships, and the more regular sight of Caledonian MacBrayne ferries sailing to and from the islands. It would be easy to spend a morning just soaking up the town’s atmosphere and the scenery, but the area around Oban is beautiful as well. So, while planning your travel, here are some suggestions for some fascinating places to visit in Scotland.
With history being close to my heart, I’ve got to start with one of my favourite places in Scotland: Kilmartin Glen. About 30 miles south of Oban, this is an ancient landscape on the edge of the Moine Mhor (the ‘great moss’), with gently rolling fields, rocky outcrops and clear-running burns. Kilmartin’s history stretches back over five thousand years, and it is peppered with fascinating sites. Wander along footpaths to the stone rows of Ballymeanoch and Nether Largie, explore the stone circles of Temple Wood, and crouch in the dark stillness of a Neolithic burial cairn. A few miles further south lies the hill of Dunadd. Here, from around 500 AD, the kings of Dalriada would stand to swear their allegiance to their people.
A few miles north of Oban is the coastal fortress of Dunstaffnage Castle. This is a MacDougall stronghold, said to have been founded around 1220 by Duncan, son of Dubhgall, who was in turn the son of Somerled, Lord of the Isles. Positioned to dominate the sea routes in the Firth of Lorn, Dunstaffnage has a long and blood-spattered history.
In a scene evocative of the Red Wedding in ‘Game of Thrones,’ Sir John Stewart was murdered here in 1462, on his way to his own wedding at the little chapel in the woods. With his marriage, Sir John was hoping to secure the inheritance of his illegitimate son. He survived just long enough to exchange vows with his bride, but the feuding continued.
About 10 miles south of Oban a road sign points, rather optimistically you might imagine, to the ‘Bridge over the Atlantic.’ If you’re willing to suspend belief and follow the minor road for about three miles, the bridge is revealed in all its glory. It is, in fact, spanning the Sound of Seil – not the entire ocean, admittedly, but a narrow tidal strait that separates Seil island from the mainland. The bridge, which has an elegant single arch, was built in 1793. Prior to that, a small ferry boat would have whisked islanders across the strait to the mainland.
On the island side, a delightful story is preserved in the name of a whitewashed pub just a stone’s throw from the bridge – the Tigh an Truish, or ‘house of the trousers.’ After the Jacobite rebellion in 1745, the Highland clans were severely repressed by the British government, who banned them from wearing their traditional kilts. The residents of Seil came up with a canny solution, before leaving the island they would stop off at the Tigh an Truish to change into trousers, so that they appeared innocent and law-abiding to any soldiers they chanced to meet during their onward journey.
If you’re exploring Argyll on land, you’re only experiencing half the story. This is a wild and ragged coastline of sea lochs and little uninhabited islands, where the water takes on a life of its own and weaves a spell of legend.
Consider the tale of the Corryvreckan, a whirlpool between the islands of Jura and Scarba, where a Norse prince named Breakan put too much trust in the strength of maidens’ hair as an unbreakable anchor rope, and was swept to his doom. Breakan himself may have been a myth but the Corryvreckan is real, Modern charter boats will take you gingerly through this extraordinary natural phenomenon at slack tide.
Explore a little further, to the remote islands of the Garvellachs, where the Irish missionary St. Brendan founded a sixth century monastery; on these haunting windswept islands, it feels as if time exists only in the world you’ve left behind.
There have been oak woodlands growing at Taynish for 7,000 years. Evidence from pollen in peat samples shows an unbroken continuity, a presence that goes back to the very earliest human settlers on these shores. But you don’t need science to tell you that Taynish is special: it’s enough just to set foot there, and wander around in the cool green shade. Rainfall is high – this is a temperate rainforest – and lichens flourish in the pure air.
The trees, which are predominantly oak but also include birch, rowan, hazel and alder, cloak the flanks of a long ridge extending for several miles down the shore of Loch Sween. It is blissfully serene here: birdsong, sunshine, dragonflies and bluebells enchant the senses on a walk in late spring. Taynish is a National Nature Reserve, protected by Scottish Natural Heritage, and it is a precious part of Scotland’s ancient landscape. Human history is interwoven with nature. Here and there you’ll come across an old charcoal platform, where logs were burnt for charcoal to fuel the iron furnaces on Loch Etive; and the ruins of an eighteenth century water mill stand silent among the trees.
Taynish NNR is about 40 miles to the south of Oban, just beyond Tayvallich.
Oban has a wide choice of accommodation: hotels, guest houses, self-catering cottages and apartments, backpacking hostels and a caravan park. Click here for more information on accommodation, places to visit and boat trips.