Travel Report: Dunollie Castle Museum, Oban.
July 2019. It was a stunning summer’s afternoon in Oban as Natalie and I made our way down the nature path towards Dunollie Castle Museum. Another Scottish castle for the Leighton Travels back catalogue then, although this one was certainly different from anything I’d seen before. In fact, the main draw here is the lovely Dunollie House, home to the famed MacDougall Clan since 1746.
Today Dunollie House stands as a cool museum detailing the MacDougall family’s history, along with a look at everyday life in the region throughout the 1700s and 1800s. The collection here is really impressive, with around 5000 antique objects displayed throughout the house. We started our journey in the Old Kitchen, home to all manner of historical cooking equipment. The MacDougalls used this as the main cooking room until the mid 20th century.
Among all the pots, pans, silver and blacksmith-made iron bits, this fantastic Household Wants Indicator stood out. I just love the idea of having this in my kitchen. “Honey, we’re out of beeswax again”.
It was also in the kitchen that we met Robin MacDougall, proud clan member and informal Dunollie House tour guide. He was just mooching around, but seemed very open to a bit of Q&A.
Actually it was Robin that took us to one of the old bedrooms for a look at the global MacDougall map. Basically it shows how spread out they all are these days. Although to be honest, I noticed quite a few variations of the spelling and there were even a few McDowells and McCains thrown in, so it’s clearly descended into a free for all. Apparently the clan still gathers every year. In 2014 over a hundred MacDougalls met up in Oban, with people travelling from Argentina, Germany and New Zealand.
There really is a treasure trove of antiques to check out throughout the house. A fawn overcoat worn by Colin Edith MacDougall in 1874. A series of black and white photographs taken by Miss Hope MacDougall between 1913 and 1998. Moreover, I found myself drawn to some of the ghoulish toys and games. This weathered horse chair for example would have scared the shit out of me as a kid!
We also got to see one of the servants quarters, a poky little matchbox of a room decorated with all the tools and costumes used by the maids and cooks of the time. Look out for the chamber pot under the bed!
Once you’re finished with the interior, head outside for a stroll around the beautiful house and castle grounds. This is the amazing Willow Hall, built in 2012 as part of a creative arts project. The 22 foot structure was a collaborative effort between a German arts group Sanfte Strukturen and a number of local artists, including willow art expert Tara Coia.
Elsewhere, the grounds are full of charming wood sculptures, resting benches, fruit and vegetable patches and various conservation projects.
One of these conservation spots includes the Tree of Tranquility, a life-size metal sculpture installed in June 2019, less than a month before our visit. The charity group SiMBA, which provides support to families who’ve experienced the loss of a baby, were behind the project. This is the 8th such tree they’ve placed around Scotland. Meanwhile, Oban High School contributed plants to the area in which the tree stands. At the time of our visit, an archaeological dig had also been scheduled following the discovery of a buried Victorian midden.
Finally, it was time to go and see Dunollie Castle itself! Or rather, what was left of it. Following an ascending woodland path, we made our way up the hill to the site of a single ruined tower overlooking Oban Bay. The MacDougalls moved into the castle in 1164 and called it home for over 500 years, until the eventual construction of the house below.
A long-running and expensive consolidation project keeps the tower in good shape and accessible to the public. So far over £340000 has been spent, with the next phase of the project to include a handrail leading up and down the access path.
If you’re a bit disappointed with the castle itself, the views from the tower across Oban Bay will more than make up for it! It’s simply gorgeous from up here and worth the entrance fee alone.
Before leaving, why not grab a bite and a drink at Kettle Cafe, right outside the entrance to Dunollie House. Nestled beneath a fine beech tree in a dark timber shed, the cafe focuses on snacks and drinks with a Victorian slant. Hence you can treat yourself to the likes of freshly made sandwiches, sponge cake and scones.
We had big dinner plans that evening, so a couple of cold drinks were enough. What did we have? A bottle of Raspberry Lemonade and 1886 Cola. Not too shabby.
For more on visiting Dunollie Castle Museum and Grounds, including opening time and ticket prices, head to their website.
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