When word began to spread around the office on a Friday afternoon in November that Oban’s ninth annual Winter Festival would be starting at five o’clock that evening with a unicorn parade through the centre of town, the primary concern of most people was how they were going to get home from work when the busiest roads would be affected by the festive fanfare. As someone who uses his feet to travel most places, my thoughts went directly to the claim that unicorns were going to be walked down George Street. The creatures we had only ever read of in fairytales or seen in Disney movies were going to be trotting past Boots, Superdrug and the bank where I had my mortgage. All I could think about was how they were going to pull off such a feat, and why was the world’s media not converging on the town for the happening. In my head I was imagining some kind of trickery; a small white horse with a party hat on the front of its head, for example. In reality, that’s exactly what the unicorn turned out to be.
As a thirty-six-year-old single man I had some concerns about how it would look if I was walking my usual route home after work while there was a unicorn parade going on, yet at the same time I was anxious to see it happen, so I messaged my sister and asked her if she and my niece knew about it. Fortunately they didn’t, and with giddy excitement and multiple renditions of Jingle Bells, we converged at a spot on George Street where we could witness all of the magic unfold before us. One by one the lights in the stores along the high street were gradually turned out, like watching an awkward power cut which was lacking in confidence, in preparation for the Winter Queen to arrive on unicorn back and switch on their Christmas window displays. Anticipation was growing, although for the younger ones around us who weren’t yet old enough to have developed that emotion, it was only restlessness. In the distance, we could see the flashing of blue lights against the blanketed winter sky, and we knew that something enchanting was happening. It wasn’t quite a Disney family favourite, but it was a unicorn receiving a police escort through Oban town centre.
Such was the wonder and mystique of the unicorn, nobody was quite sure which route the parade was supposed to be taking. The official festival programme had suggested that the otherworldly beings would be guiding the Winter Queen down George Street and through to Station Square, despite it being not much more than a fifteen-minute walk for a mere mortal, but if you could ride on the back of a unicorn then why wouldn’t you? Once the parade had passed us on George Street, my sister, niece and I walked the short distance round to Station Square along with all of the other enthusiasts of horned mythical creatures, where we waited for the procession to loop back around. A few minutes had passed, though who knew how long that translated to in unicorn years, and some were beginning to show signs of impatience again when the parade had not reappeared as expected.
There were mutterings of, “they definitely said it was coming back round this way,” before the police escort was finally spotted on the corner of Argyll Square. It was sitting stationary, as though uncertain, like a shy, rosy-cheeked elf. Beyond the emergency vehicle we could see a fluffy spectre in white, and it was apparent that the unicorn parade was taking a left turn up onto Albany Street. We wondered what was going on and why nobody knew the precise route of the pageant, but none of us was truly qualified to question the ways of the unicorn. When the gathering had eventually made its way to Station Square and we were as close as I could ever have imagined we would be to the Winter Queen, we found ourselves merely feet away from a pair of unicorns. For all those people who had ever told me that there was more chance of me seeing a unicorn walk through the centre of Oban than there was of me finding a woman who was willing to date me, it seemed they had been proven right.
Of course, the unicorns had the appearance of two little white horses which had become separated from a birthday party, their dishevelled wee hats having slipped down onto their foreheads. And that’s what they were, to an extent. The young children around us were thrilled to have encountered a unicorn in their own town, but I couldn’t help but survey the scene and wonder what the horses were making of it all. How did they feel about wearing what amounted to an ice cream cone on their faces, like some once amusing internet meme? Were they feeling comfortable amongst a large crowd, or were they like me, cold and worried about what they were wearing?
Later in the night, at the Oban Whisky & Fine Wines Shop, the winter festival was warming up with the traditional whisky tasting. The store, which sat on the corner of George Street and Stafford Street and looked out towards the ferry terminal pier, was an intimate space that felt like standing in someone’s living room with its leather chairs situated by a well-stoked fire and tall oak shelves that could have been stacked with high-brow books, but were instead teeming with high-volume alcohol.
At £10 a ticket for six drams, the whisky tasting seemed like too good a value deal for a single occupant to miss, even if my appreciation of whisky was akin to a youngster’s love for a parade unicorn: I knew that I liked something simple, like a Jameson, but stick a cone on a horse’s head and I would never be able to tell the difference. The bottles were lined up at the front of the room, the way a piece of artwork hangs in a prominent place in a lounge, where all eyes are drawn to it, and we were told that the whiskies would be poured in 15ml measures to ensure that no-one would become too drunk before the sixth drink and that we would begin our journey with a couple of less complex blends as we worked towards the final bottle, which was a special and rarely seen thirty-year-old Bowmore. It was a similar idea to if I was introducing someone to the music of the Irish four-piece rock act U2, in that I wouldn’t take them straight to Achtung Baby.
A young woman who had flowing red hair like a Disney princess and who came from the nearby island of Islay, meaning that her pronunciation of the letter ‘L’ went on for days and had a charming lyrical quality, stepped forward to guide us through each of the whiskies and offer her own tasting notes. She inhaled the fumes from her glass and described such elegant fragrances as a hint of marzipan, yellow skin apple, light wafts of plum, liquorice and even leather. Already I could tell that I was out of my depth as I glanced around the room and could see other people nodding along to the distiller’s sketch of what she was smelling, a look of quiet content drawn across their faces. I was cradling my glass under my nose, contorting and flaring my nostrils like a manic little sniffer dog, desperately trying to catch a whisper of maple syrup, but the only thing I could smell was a future hangover.
I wasn’t much better when it came to identifying the tastes which were washing over my palette. With each different glass, the distiller from Islay talked about tastes as wide-ranging as butterscotch, freshly-baked shortbread, ginger, smoked fish, grape, charcoal and strawberry flavour Haribo. I was getting none of it, and for all I knew I could have been as well walking across the road and dipping my glass into the cold seawater. This was no better evident than when a couple of us lingered around after the whisky tasting had finished, the way a peaty malt hangs on the tonsils long after the drink has been swallowed. We were fortunate to be given the opportunity to sample the thirty-year-old Bowmore again. There were only one hundred and ninety-one bottles produced from the cask, and the sole bottle for sale in the shop had been purchased for £350 that night. It was said that even to buy a single measure in a pub would likely cost around £50. Being unaware of what had been poured into our glasses I turned to my friend and readied myself to make my most insightful contribution of the evening.
“You know, I think this is even better than the thirty-year-old Bowmore,” I said with the heady confidence that only the eighth whisky of the night can bring.
“This is the thirty-year-old Bowmore,” the bird watcher advised me. Having spent £10 on a ticket for the event and received two whiskies with a value of around £100, as well as the others in the tasting, it seemed that no matter how much defeat would come, I would finish the night in profit.
Down the street, through the wreathed arch of The Oban Inn, I became involved in a conversation with a woman who was dressed from head to toe in tweed. On her right lapel she was sporting a white badge which read “I love walking,” with the emotion being signified with a red heart symbol rather than a four-letter word. I wondered aloud if she would have still felt that way now that Oban had a fleet of unicorns offering public transportation, and she intimated that she didn’t know what I was talking about.
Undeterred, and feeling somewhat drawn to another soul who enjoyed wearing tweed in public places, I told the rambler about the evening I had just spent at the whisky tasting. I explained that although I enjoyed a whisky, I didn’t know very much about the spirit, and I had spent the event feeling uncomfortable being amongst a group of people with whom I didn’t belong.
“Do you often feel uncomfortable?” The woman asked, the expression on her face indeterminable through the haze of malt and barley.
My mouth took inspiration from her badge and ventured on a lengthy preamble. “I start the day off feeling uncomfortable, plateau sometime around late afternoon, and then I go to bed and replay the events of my day and become even less comfortable.” Finally, the words strayed even further off the beaten path when I returned to the whisky tasting and offered the insight that all I really knew about the whisky I had drunk was that I was about to go and splash around £50 of the stuff against the urinal. I staggered off towards the men’s room and never heard from her again. The profit on my winning night was diminishing all the time.
Spirits were still high on the first frosty Saturday of the Winter Festival. The sky was a crisp marble blue, the kind of colour one could only ever smell with the aid of some whisky tasting notes. The roads were slick with dew, the low hanging winter sun causing them to shimmer like crystals on a Christmas tree. Into the cold air, I could see clouds of Bowmore leaving my system. The streets were thriving with well-wrapped locals seeking the wealth of events on offer in the festival programme, while the distant yells of a town crier could be heard over the festive chatter and shop music. In every corner, there seemed to be something different going on. A craft market of local handmade goods – glass, jewellery and embroidery – brought colour to the Perle Hotel. There were food markets in The View, with cheese, venison, chocolates, chutneys, foraged mushrooms, fish and other things that I should likely have been able to taste in a whisky. Behind Oban Distillery, children were having their photographs taken with two Shetland ponies.
The local fire brigade was on hand offering passers-by the opportunity to sign up for a home fire safety check, where anyone who put their name on the clipboard would receive four free cinema tickets once the visit had been completed. My sister filled the form in with enthusiasm, and standing a few paces behind I was compelled to put my name on the next line, lest the fireman be given the impression that my sister’s life had drastically hit the skids. We were told that the cinema tickets would be given either as a package of passes for two adults and two children, or for an adult and three children. I wondered how that could be useful to a single occupant whose days of feeling close to thirty came only at a whisky tasting. When I thought about it more, the four cinema tickets I was bound to inherit were going to place a lot of pressure on the £25 Lorne bar voucher that I still had on my pinboard to work miracles, and quickly. The voucher for the meal was due to expire on the ninth of January 2020. It seemed more likely that I would witness a unicorn walking down the street.
The 2019 Oban Winter Festival programme can be found here.
I will be reading winter tales of a single occupant from my notebook at Let’s Make a Scene on Saturday 30 November. The event is part of the Winter Festival, and details can be found on the Facebook page here.