Gateway to the Isles faces gift-wrap

OBAN has been the 'gateway to the Western Isles' since the geological grandeurs of the island of Staffa became popular in 1772. Since then, pilgrimages to St Columba's island of Iona and the inspiration of Sir Walter Scott's The Lord of the Isles have drawn a procession of visitors to the port.

Today, hundreds of thousands of tourists, vital to the west coast economy, make Oban's tourist office the fifth busiest in Scotland and holiday-makers spend an estimated pounds 20m a year there.

But the gateway is about to be redeveloped. Plans to build a pounds 4m town square at the Railway Pier will be recommended for approval by Argyll and Bute planning committee on Wednesday. Charles Hunter, a local historian, describes them as 'a disaster'.

The scheme, by the developers Plimley Holdings, will occupy the site of an old railway yard which the town agrees is an eyesore. But there the harmony ends. At the end of an acrimonious six-year saga, most townspeople are 'scunnered with the whole bang shoot'. Many believe, but only a few are prepared to say, that the planned shops, offices, flats, ice-rink, library, bistro, bus station and superloo will clash horribly with their Victorian neighbours.

Some are angry that plans for a luxury hotel have been dropped. The curling fraternity wants an ice-rink bar 'to attract spectators'. Others say that Oban needs expensive flats, offices and shops like a hole in the head.

It all began in 1986 when British Rail demolished Oban's much-loved Victorian station. 'We fought long and hard to save it,' says David Walker, chief inspector for Historic Scotland. 'It was a fine example of a Victorian terminus.'

Protesters did manage to save the station's clock tower, which was carefully dismantled and stored. But the intervening years have taken their toll, and now a replica will be built under the plans by the Johnson Smith Partnership, of Cupar in Fife.

The scheme has undergone several mutations since 1987. In fact many - including the local MP, Ray Michie, the provost of Oban Cathedral and even some of the town's architects - say they have no idea what the final development will look like.

The fake slate roof to the main four-and-a-half-storey building has gone, but what planners describe as 'the dormer windows of traditional Highland architecture' have been introduced.

Last year, Plimley completed the pounds 2m first phase, a 'Heritage Wharf' containing a glass-blowing studio, visitor centre, tea- room and shops, which lulled some fears: the staggered, square little buildings all have distillery- style roofs. But the visitor centre pays only lip service to the town's real heritage and, like the hotel, a promised archaeological museum has failed to materialise.

Peter Plimley, a surveyor turned developer, said: 'We did a survey and found that another hotel would not be profitable.' Nor, in the short term, would a museum. But neither have ice-rinks turned a profit in other parts of Scotland, say his detractors, who believe the one planned for Oban is a 'sweetener'.

It is almost 100 years since the town last erected a building of note: John McCaig's unfinished, grey granite replica of Rome's Colosseum. For 70 years it bore the nickname 'McCaig's Folly'; today townspeople present it proudly to the world.

The tower is made of Bonawe granite. 'History won't look so kindly on Plimley's town square,' says Mr Hunter. 'But at least it won't last so long.'

(Photographs omitted)