Topic

Oban

Oban had a population of 5,567 in the 1911 census. At the turn of the century, more than 50% of the population spoke Gaelic on a day-to day basis, though bilingualism was increasingly common. Situated in a well-protected bay, Oban was an important harbour, linking the Crinan Canal and the Caledonian Canal and providing a base for the Inner and Outer Hebrides in the increasing steamer traffic of the late 19th century. As a railway head for the Oban and Callander Line from 1880, and linking to the West Highland Line and Glasgow from 1897, Oban also became an important port for the fishing trade. Both the steamer links and the railway links made Oban a centre for the developing West Highland tourism, and the summer trade supported four or five daily trains.

Despite these links, the early record of touring variety and the cinematograph are sporadic. Readers of the Oban Times are advised to ‘Look Out for the Cinematograph’ in March 1897, but no further mention is made of a screening, and it is not till the Modern Marvel Company visits the Argyllshire Gathering Hall with the 'Celebrated Zoegraph' on 14 and 15 April 1897, having visited the Town Hall in Fort William on 13 April, that the cinematograph seems to have arrived. There is a flurry of screenings around the time of the Boer War, with touring companies like the Brescian Family, the Ormonde Family, J. F. Calverto's Vitagraph, Coutts’ Grand Annual Concert Tour and Robert Calder’s Famous Cinematograph, but then cinematograph exhibitions and touring companies seem virtually to disappear until 1913, with, perhaps, only one or two advertisements a year. During this period, cinematograph exhibitions appear as treats for school children, tenants or parishioners, organised and paid for by members of the landed gentry or the church, and using operators from Glasgow and Edinburgh firms like Lizars. Cinema then becomes incorporated into existing Christmas traditions associated with feudal modes of land ownership.

Public screenings were thus only sporadic. While the social influence of the Presbyterian Church might suggest an explanation for the lack of more sustained activity, the evidence does not bear this out. The church itself used cinema occasionally, as reported for instance in the Oban Times on 6 January 1906, when a cinematograph exhibition was given in Strachur to different congregations in a Parish Church that was ‘filled to overflowing’ on Christmas Day. The sporadic nature of early screenings cannot, then, be laid at the door of the Presbyterian Church. It may have had more to do with the historic strength of the local culture. The Gathering Hall in Oban had a full bill of entertainment in summer and winter, but much of it was Gaelic vocalists and Gaelic choirs rather than touring companies.

Despite this sporadic evidence of demand, the Oban Cinema House opened on 28 July, 1913. It was a new building, with seating capacity for 700, built on land adjoining the Church of Scotland’s St. Columba Church. The prospectus, published in April 1913, identifies the directors as local businessmen — the representative of a Glasgow music business, a licensed victualler, a tobacconist, and a hotel proprietor — and notes that during the summer it is estimated that 100,000 tourists visit the town. The positions of doorkeeper and handyman, ‘cash girl’, four girls as attendants and ticket takers, and a ‘Lad to learn operating’ are advertised in June.

The Cinema House seems to have relied on handbills for advertising rather than weekly newspaper advertisements. There are periods, for instance in 1922, when no advertisements or notices appear in the local paper for nine months. The prospectus of 1913 had noted that the theatre would be available for other forms of entertainment, but there is little evidence of it being rented out, and it seems to operate as a pictures-only theatre throughout the period, with appearances occasionally by solo singers. There is very little comment on it in the Oban Times and it seems to operate as an entertainment venue which services the local and tourist communities without being central to the civic life of the town or to the local culture.

The Cinema House burned down in 1958; its Thomson-Houston projector installed in 1938 can be found in the Oban War and Peace Museum. The Oban Times had a wide coverage, including weekly reports from Fort William, where the Lochaber Cinema was not opened till 1926. For most of the period, the Oban Cinema House was the most westerly cinema on the Scottish mainland, with only the Lewis Picture House in Stornoway on the Island of Lewis, opened in 1915, to its West.