History retold for harbour’s future

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Over the past 260 years, Oban harbour has grown from a sheltered beach where cargoes could be landed to almost the ultimate in multi-user ports.

As an online consultation about the harbour’s future gets under way, members of Oban Community Harbour Development Association (OCHDA) have been taking a look back at its history.

The consultation, which began on November 10 and will run for a month, wants to hear people’s views as part of a plan to develop a community-led harbour authority for the town.

To have your say go to https://ochda.scot/

Protected by Kerrera, and the MacDougall stronghold at Dunollie, the ‘little bay’ has always been a key landing point from the sea highways of the west coast, writes OCHDA.

‘The harbour’s formal recognition began with the creation of a Customs Office in 1760. Ships would anchor offshore because the early North Pier was highly tidal, so smaller boats would lie alongside, as they still do. The building of the South Pier in 1814 was soon followed by the first of many steamer services to be dominated by David Hutcheson. Oban’s current role as a transport hub had begun.

In the 1920s, the harbour area is getting busy. Photograph from Bob McCulloch.
This image from the 1880s illustrates Oban Bay soon after the beginning of the boom in marine tourism. Photograph from Bob McCulloch.

‘The middle of the 19th century brought a series of national and local Acts relating to the management of piers and harbours. At first, Oban seems to have resisted the creation of a harbour trust – too much administration and not enough revenue. It was the Act authorising the Railway in 1878 which first created an Oban Harbour Authority;
its boundary was the line between the Brandystone and the Dog Stone which appeared on all charts until recently. The area excluded waters close to the existing North and South piers and to the new Railway pier which is, of course, entirely on reclaimed land. The tide would have come up to the old stone wall you can still see at the beginning of the appropriately named Shore Street.

‘By 1896, the Town Council owned both the North and South Piers and managed the Harbour Authority. The Lighthouse Board arrived in 1904 and the council built Port Beag slip in 1909.

‘Apart from the commandeering of the harbour during the Second World War, nothing happened for more than 60 years.

‘The Town Council had a piers committee and a harbour master and the accounts
appear in the records but in the seventies the changes began.

‘The first roll-on, roll-off linkspan heralded a massive increase in ferry traffic but, more importantly, local government reorganisation allocated piers and harbours to Strathclyde Regional Council, which seemed blissfully unaware of its responsibilities as the Oban Harbour Authority, with none of the Acts establishing it having been repealed. Harbour regulation was essentially abandoned and a generation seems to have forgotten we ever had a harbour authority.

‘In 1988, the South Pier was passed to CalMac, now CMAL, and since 1996 the new Argyll and Bute Council has recognised the significance of the harbour and helped to create a development group, now Oban Bay Management Group. It proposed in 2012 that a trust port should be established, quite unaware that from an historic and legal perspective, one could already be in existence.

‘More force was added to the drive to restart or recreate the authority by reports which stated the obvious – that increasing ferry and other traffic meant an authority with legal control over ship movements was essential before there was a serious incident.

‘So that’s the story. Over 260 years, Oban harbour has grown from a sheltered beach where cargoes could be landed, to almost the ultimate in multi-user ports – fishing, ferries, lighthouse base, fish farm and other commercial traffic, cruise liners from the smallest to the largest and hundreds of leisure boats.

‘By next year it may once again be controlled by an organisation based in Oban and working for Oban.’