Off the beaten fairway in Scotland
Musselburgh Old Links in Edinburgh is the oldest still-played golf course in the world. (Karl Blackwell/LPI)
“Golf is a good walk spoiled,” Mark Twain once said. But those who have teed off in Scotland, the undisputed home of the sport, may beg to differ.
While travellers are most familiar with the Open championship courses -- like the Old Course at St Andrews or Ayrshire’s Royal Troon -- Scotland’s less-famed courses transport golfers on a journey to the lonely beaches, ancient forests and formidable fortresses. that make up the very heart and soul of the country.
Sign up for a round or three, and discover places you would otherwise almost certainly bypass.
Musselburgh Old Links, Edinburgh
Do not believe what people say about St Andrews’ Old Course being the world’s oldest still-played course. That honour, as the Guinness Book of Records confirms, goes to Musselburgh Old Links in Edinburgh. Mary Queen of Scots supposedly played golf here as early as 1567. Today it is a nine-hole municipal course abutting the Musselburgh Racecourse. Hole two, dubbed “the Graves” is the reputed burial site for soldiers from the 1547 Battle of Pinkie. The dead were buried there to deter would-be golfers from playing at a time when golf was deemed a distraction from more noble pursuits, like archery. Several holes have since been copied by bigger courses, but the original is the best. Fail to play here and you are missing out on a big slice of golfing history.
Machrihanish, Argyll and Bute
Golf’s Scottish roots can be attributed to the rolling, grassy dunes that characterise the country’s eastern coast. In the Middle Ages, golf originally entailed hitting a pebble with a stick along a Fife coastline which, with its gentle undulations, sand and springy turf, was particularly conducive to any sport involving rolling spheres. Thus Fife became the “world capital” of golf, and thus the sport of links golf was born. But six centuries on, the best example of a links course is not anywhere on Scotland’s eastern coast – it is at the foot of the remote Mull of Kintyre peninsula.
Plenty of golfers talk about Machrihanish, but few make it there, thanks to the course’s out-on-a-limb location three hours’ drive from Glasgow. However the course does not take nearly as long to take your breath away. Hole one tees off over an inlet of the Atlantic, onto one of Scotland’s most photogenic fairways, and the shot of the golfer lining up to drive over the water has become a talismanic image of the region. The wide golden arc of sand adjacent to the course (Machrihanish Bay) is also one of Scotland’s top surfing and kite-boarding spots, windy as well as wildly beautiful.
If Machrihanish is not quite otherworldly enough for you, Dunaverty Golf Club is still further south, with formidable views of the Mull of Kintyre headland and cows mooching about the greens.
Spey Valley, Aviemore
Aviemore is not exactly off the radar, as any skier will tell you, but the Spey Valley Championship course at the Macdonald Resort is groundbreaking for several reasons. Its location, amid some of the last vestiges of ancient Caledonian pine forest in Europe, means that its sublime alpine views and abundant wildlife (including red deer and ospreys) might distract you from your swing.
At 635 yards, the course features the longest hole in Scotland (hole five), and a birdie is definitely on the cards for the follow-up hole as you take your shot over a lake that is home to a colony of nesting waterfowl. Hole 12 opens up to the vistas of the Cairngorms that earned this course accolades as one of Britain’s most scenic.
Durness Golf Club, Northern Highlands
The only other Scottish golf course where you can justifiably be said to be playing over the Atlantic, Durness is Britain’s most northwesterly links. Before teeing over the ocean on the final hole, golfers will play eight other holes on some of Europe’s most isolated terrain, against a backdrop of lunar-like mountains that soar up from paradisiacal sandy coves. The clubhouse overlooking Balnakeil Bay has one of the best views in Scotland.
Cruden Bay, Aberdeenshire
“Where is the golf course?” newcomers to Cruden Bay might well ask. The 18 holes are immersed in conical sand dunes, meaning the course is often camouflaged. Begun by legendary golf course designer Old Tom Morris and finished off in the 1920s by Tom Simpson, the course lies in the shadow of Slains Castle, Bram Stoker’s inspiration for Dracula. But the course contains plenty of other dramatic moments. Holes four to nine lead players up grassy ridges, skittering down burns and dipping to the sea, while hole 17 involves the negotiation of a burial mound.