Two Days at Oban and the Highlands & Islands Festival

By Robert Wallace
Despite the best endeavours of the architects and town planners, Oban still retains a picturesque character, a town in keeping with the beauty of its bay and surrounding hills.

It is a shock, therefore, when the first thing one sees on descending the A85 from Connel is the most grotesquely garish paint job this side of Jackson Pollock. Anyone who lets their eyes rest for more than a few moments on the shocking yellow exterior of the King’s Knoll Hotel risks being blinded by the light.

How do they get away with emptying their old paint tins like this? Someone should do something rapido, or is this lack of visual awareness going to be allowed to blight the town’s approach throughout the summer?

Further on into the bustling streets one sees the proliferation of charity shops but also a growing number of quality restaurants all offering fish and more fish. At last Oban seems to have wakened up to the culinary bounty on its seastep – and people are travelling to don the piscine nosebag. Even in late April the place was busy.



As I walked around on the Friday evening of the festival, Italian, German, French tongues could be heard, their owners maybe making the journey before some supposed Brexit barrier is erected but no, I think it is the quality grub that is drawing them north and west.

Another pleasing development I spotted was the restoration of Oban’s oldest pub, the 18th century Oban Inn, distinctive beams, old photos, pilot charts all in situ as before. Last year it was depressingly derelict.

Oban at the turn of the last century, from a photograph on the walls of the Oban Inn
Important that we support these establishments so in I went for an evening refreshment. The place was going like a fair and in the corner I soon realised why. There was Gregor Lawrie (sorry about the non-Gaelic Gregor) and a small band of musicians providing quality sounds among the drams.

Gregor is the piper son of RSPBA judge Gordon Lawrie. He is an extremely talented musician able to play whistle and guitar and is an accomplished Gaelic singer too. Joining me in the bar with his wife Morag, Gordon told me that away from the stage, Gregor is farming in North Ballachulish where he keeps Highland cattle. Gordon helps out and is a dab hand at castration, artificial imsemination and all the other tasty procedures these farmers get up to. Ballachulish is the family heartland, home of the famous Willie Lawrie, composer and master piper, and a relative of Gregor and Gordon.

Gregor is intent on restoring Lochaber Gaelic and has recorded many locals, all in their late years, for posterity. He hopes, ultimately, to have a school which teaches the language in this form. All the best with that Gregor and thanks for the music. Here he is playing a set of bone-mounted pipes reputedly dating from the Battle of Waterloo:

• To follow: Day Two with a review of the piping competitions. Click here for results from the Festival. The solo games season gets into full swing at the end of this month. Check out the Piping Press Guide to the Games here.