In the last years of the 19th century John Stuart McCaig decided to erect a monument on a hill overlooking Oban. Whilst a pillar of the local community, McCaig did not choose a column or obelisk, but instead a colossal circular wall, pierced with gothic windows, giving magnificent views of the harbour and out to sea.
In 1895 McCaig (1823-1902) applied for permission to erect a ‘stone and lime wall and granite tower with freestone dressing’ on a piece of land he owned called Battery Hill. A year later McCaig sold his interest in Oban pier and harbour for £16,500, so he had money to spend, and he made further applications in 1896 and 1897 to add to the wall and increase it in height.
McCaig intended his hilltop project to provide work for local men, so the great wall was built sporadically with work stopping whenever there was employment elsewhere. But by September 1897 a visitor could note that ‘there is rising by degrees a mighty structure’. The tourist was informed that ‘a lofty tower’ would in due course ‘rise from the centre of the gigantic circle’, and whilst that was never built, history has confirmed his opinion that ‘when this is finished Oban will possess a building absolutely unique in the United Kingdom’. A plaque above the entrance records that the tower was
ERECTED IN 1900
JOHN STUART McCAIG
AND PHILOSPHICAL ESSAYIST
AND BANKER, OBAN
With his brother, McCaig was appointed agent to the North of Scotland Bank when it opened a branch in Oban in 1873. However it is his work as an art critic and an essayist that McCaig chooses to first highlight on the stone, which is something of a mystery as he appears to have left no published works: a trawl of the catalogues of the National Library of Scotland and the British Library gives no results.
McCaig died suddenly in the summer of 1902 before the planned central tower could be built. However his will stipulated that his estate should fund the erection of 12 statues within ‘Stuart McCaig’s Tower’ representing himself, his parents and his siblings. Scottish sculptors, especially ‘young and rising artists’, were to be commissioned to design the statues: they were to work from photographs of McCaig’s late family, and if images were not available the artists were to ensure the statues had a family likeness. Prizes were to be offered for the best design, with a competition also to design ‘artistic towers’ to stand in prominent positions on McCaig’s estates.
His only surviving sibling Catherine successfully challenged the will. But then in a bizarre twist Catherine too left a will stipulating that bronze statues of the family be erected. This will was also challenged – unsurprisingly, as Catherine had already set a precedent. Two years after Catherine’s death in 1915 the case made headlines across Britain when the court declared that the ‘directions in question were wholly void, having neither reason nor public sentiment in their favour and involving sheer waste of money’. Local feeling seems to have been against the statues, with one paper reporting in 1905 that ‘we doubt the people of Oban will be prepared to give them a welcome.
The McCaig fortune was eventually used to create Catherine McCaig’s Trust Settlement, which continues to offer bursaries and grants today, and the trust did honour Catherine’s request that her trustees would be ‘bound to properly upkeep the McCaig Tower’. In 1961 the trust spent about £4,000 on repairs before handing the tower to Oban Town Council later that decade. The council began a programme of improvements including landscaping (which the Governors of Catherine McCaig’s Trust had ‘never got around to’) and floodlighting. In the 1970s the council drew up plans to erect an historical centre within the tower, and in the 1980s a very ambitious plan to create an arts and conference centre in the shell was proposed, but neither project came to fruition.
Although McCaig’s dream of twelve statues on his great wall was never realised, he has certainly not been forgotten in Oban where the tower is popular with locals and visitors.
Thanks to Jackie Davenport, Archives Officer at Live Argyll for her help with this post. Jackie’s favourite folly is the little watchtower on the hill called Dun na Cuaiche high above Inverary Castle in Argyll (although, as she admits, this is possibly because of the sense of relief you feel when you see it and realise the climb is over).
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