The name 'Oban' means 'little bay', from Scots Gaelic ob or Norse hop, meaning 'little', and the Scots Gaelic diminutive suffix an. According to George Mackay, author of Scottish Place Names (2000), the name derives from the larger Gaelic name An t-Oban Latharnach, or 'little bay of Lorn'. The town of Oban skirts a natural anchorage on the Firth of Lorne in North Argyllshire, beneath Dunollie, a sixth-century Dalriadan stronghold and later seat of the MacDougall clan. Despite the long human history of its surroundings, Oban is a comparatively recent foundation. Planned town building in Scotland can be divided into two major periods, the first from the twelfth to the fourteenth century, the second covering the eighteenth century, and Oban belongs firmly in the second period. The first known house on the site was built around 1715, and by 1767 it had a post office and a customs house, although poor roads frustrated early attempts to improve Oban as a fishing station. The Duke of Argyll assisted the development of Oban, funding a new school and building a mansion house near the town, but more instrumental were the Stevenson family, who built a distillery and other significant buildings at the very heart of Oban. By 1800 the town was a registered port and a fast-growing urban settlement, by 1811 a burgh of barony, and after 1833, it was a parliamentary burgh. From 586 people in 1791, the population of Oban had grown to 1,940 in 1861.
Towns built in eighteenth-century Scotland generally maintained the original burgh principle of the main commercial and administrative buildings being concentrated round a compact centre. However, where the medieval burghs commonly had a long high street leading to an open marketplace, the eighteenth-century foundations were more often focused on a central town square, with secondary streets arranged in a gridiron round about this square. Oban is a good example of the thinking behind Scottish eighteenth-century burgh planning. The heart of the town is Argyll Square (sheet XCVIII.7.20), a stone's throw from the harbour and ferry terminal, and upon which all the major streets in the town converge. The gridiron pattern is not as pronounced in Oban as it is in other Scottish towns of a similar period, but this is probably because of the hills which rise sharply up behind the bay, limiting the space for municipal building. Street-names also betray the period of the town's foundation: although there is still a street named 'High Street' in Oban, it is a less prominent thoroughfare in the burgh than George Street, probably named after George III, who reigned during the town's most significant period of development.
Both trade and industry grew steadily in Oban in the first half of the nineteenth century, due to the excellence of its harbour and also to the opening, in 1801, of the Crinan Canal, which linked the Firth of Clyde to the Firth of Lorne, and, in 1822, of the Caledonian Canal, which ran from Oban to Inverness. According to Wilson (1857), the principal imports into Oban were 'miscellaneous goods from Glasgow and Liverpool', while the main exports leaving Oban were 'pig-iron, whisky, wool, fish, kelp, and Easdale slates'. Many of these exports were not produce or manufacture of Oban itself, but of inland areas for which Oban was the nearest port. The main manufactures in the town were whisky, and silk and straw hats.
Despite its natural anchorage, Oban was not one of the more significant fishing ports in Scotland, but it did have a small fleet, which numbered thirteen vessels at the time of the 1845 Statistical Account. The parish of Kilmore and Kilbride, of which Oban was the principal town, had notable salmon and trout rivers, and the shores near Oban produced several kinds of shellfish. A variety of seafish, most notably herring, was caught in the waters around Oban. The Highland countryside of Oban's hinterland dictated that it was not as productive for farming as many Lowland areas. Wilson (1857) noted that 'supplies in the butcher, fish, and vegetable markets are neither regular nor prime', despite the fact that Oban had a weekly produce market, and livestock markets several times a year. Nevertheless, agricultural improvements, including crop rotation and land drainage, were introduced to the land around Oban in the early-nineteenth century, and the staple crops produced were barley, oats, potatoes and turnips. The principal livestock were black West Highland cattle and black-faced sheep, but a few Ayrshire cows and South Down sheep were also kept in the parish. Other notable industries in the hinterland of Oban were the iron works at Bunawe, and the slate quarries at Easdale.
The relative modernity of Oban meant that the town did not have a parish church - the two Established parish churches in the area were in the older settlements of Kilmore and Kilbride. In the 1850s, the churches in Oban comprised an established Church of Scotland chapel of ease, a Free church, a United Presbyterian church, an Independent chapel, and a Scottish Episcopalian chapel. In the twentieth century, with the building of St Columba's Roman Catholic Cathedral, Oban became the centre of the Roman Catholic diocese of Argyll and the Isles.
Schools in Oban in the mid-nineteenth century included a Church of Scotland school, a Free Church school, a United Presbyterian school, a ladies' school, a ladies' boarding school and two ladies' charity schools. The town had branches of the City of Glasgow Bank and of the National Bank, a national security savings bank and twelve insurance agencies. Oban's other notable institutions were inns and hotels, which included the Caledonian, the King's Arms, the Royal and the Commercial. This number of hotels was quite numerous for a town of less than 2,000, and reflected the fact that by the mid nineteenth century Oban had already developed a healthy tourist trade. This was probably due to much increased passenger traffic off the west coast, which was a result of the advent of steam passenger cruisers and the opening of the Caledonian and Crinan Canals.
In the 1850s and 60s Oban had still had comparatively little time to develop a strong sense of community, and social and cultural amenities were sparse. Those that existed included a reading room, a circulating library, a horticultural society and a district agricultural society. Sea-bathing was a popular pastime, but at the time of the Imperial Gazetteer of Scotland in 1857, the beach had not been developed as a resort.
A View of the People of Oban in 1845
'The prevailing language is Gaelic, but English is generally understood and gaining ground.' (from the Statistical Account)