Could Oban be a city? Council has a crack against rival towns

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Councillors have launched Oban’s bid for city status in a competition celebrating The Queen’s Platinum Jubilee in 2022 – and they want to  make Argyll and Bute ‘UK City of Culture’ in 2029 too. We ask: could Oban, or Argyll, be a city?

Does size matter? No. St Davids in Wales is the UK’s smallest city, with just 1,600 inhabitants – five times less than Oban. Dudley has twice Dundee’s population with 312,000 people, but it’s still only a market town. Even London isn’t an official UK city, but it does contain two cities at its centre: the City of Westminster and the City of London, ‘The Square Mile’ business district.

Do you need a cathedral? Not any more. Oban has two cathedrals, St Columba’s and St John’s, but Ayr, Brechin, Dornoch, Dunblane, Dunkeld, Kirkwall, and Paisley all have cathedrals too, and they’re just towns. Lismore has St Moluag’s Cathedral, and no one calls it a city.

The definition of a UK city is simply a place granted city status by the monarch. The UK has 69 cities: 51 in England, six in Wales, five in Northern Ireland, and seven in Scotland. When all burghs were abolished in 1975, Scotland had only four cities: Aberdeen, Dundee, Edinburgh and Glasgow.

Since 2000, city status has been awarded by competition on special occasions. Inverness came next in the millennium celebrations, followed by Stirling in 2002 to commemorate Queen Elizabeth II’s Golden Jubilee, and then Perth in 2012 to mark the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee. Could the City of Oban be next for her Platinum Jubilee in 2022?

‘Her Majesty The Queen will be the first British monarch to have reached 70 years on the throne,’ said the UK government announcing the competition. ‘This is a truly historic moment for the country and it is right that we celebrate it in a way that recognises the strength of community across the United Kingdom, Crown Dependencies and Overseas Territories.

‘All valid entries will receive individual consideration on their merits, before recommendations will be made by ministers to Her Majesty. The number of awards made will depend on the strength of the applications received.’

The application form asks for eight A4 pages evincing the area’s ‘vibrant and welcoming community’, ‘interesting heritage, history and traditions’, royal connections, ‘record of innovation’, and ‘sound governance and administration’, plus a 10 A4 page profile, 50 photographs, and a map. The competition closes on 8 December 2021.

There’s nothing to stop places declaring themselves a city – Dunfermline did it, and two other cathedral towns called their football teams Brechin City FC and Elgin City FC. So why bother?

‘City status for Oban would create opportunities for growth across Argyll and Bute,’ said the leader of Argyll and Bute Council, Councillor Robin Currie, announcing Oban’s bid at Thursday’s council meeting.

‘Competing for the title, with other places across the UK, is about showcasing that this is a great place to live, work and invest. It’s about attracting the people, skills and investment the area needs for long-term success. I would encourage everyone to get involved in helping Oban, and Argyll and Bute, win.

‘Today’s decision includes engagement with the local community and partners, as key in shaping the final application for city status for Oban. As a first step, members of the public are welcome to indicate their support, and give any comments via our website. Let’s take this opportunity to highlight how much there is to be proud of in Argyll and Bute.’

Of all towns in Argyll and Bute, Oban had ‘the highest chance of success’, argued a council report: ‘It has a strategically important position on the west coast of the Highlands and Islands region independent of other cities. It is a key transport hub, with one of the busiest ferry ports in the UK, good road, rail, active travel and air links, and is an established gateway to a number of our island communities.

‘It is a University Town with in excess of 1,000 students, including the world renowned SAMS institute. It has a growing population, an expanding and diversifying economy, and is an important tourist hub (with its population boosted from 8.5k to 25k during peak summer periods).’

Rival bids have also been launched by Dumfries, Greenock, Livingston and Dunfermline. If at first you don’t succeed, try and try again: after five attempts, Sunderland was awarded city status in 1992 to mark The Queen’s Ruby Jubilee.

The UK Government has also announced a competition for UK City of Culture 2029, Councillor Currie added. ‘For the first time the city of culture competition is not restricted to cities but can be entered by a place, making Argyll and Bute eligible. Council also agreed to develop a bid for Argyll and Bute as UK City of Culture 2029.

‘This is all about bringing opportunities for growth and success to Argyll and Bute. This area is rich in culture and heritage, and is the cradle of the Gaelic language. This makes Argyll and Bute a strong candidate for UK City of Culture.’

To show support for Oban city status, see