An October 2001 trip
to Scotland by BawBaw
Quote: I decided long ago that life and love would be better served by working with Himself’s passion for golf, not against it. That decision has allowed us to co-exist peacefully—and it’s provided the underpinnings for Scottish travels that have become a shared source of joy.
For couples in which one partner plays and the other does not, a trip to Scotland can be a challenge. That’s the bad news. The good news is, it doesn’t have to be. Important as golf may be to Scottish culture, it isn’t everything—not by a long shot (pardon the pun). Take away the golf and there are still castles, churches and abbeys, museums, gorgeous vistas, ancient archeological treasures, gardens, and first-rate shopping for products from Scotland’s other "industries" (e.g., woolens and crystal). That leaves an ample set of options to occupy the time and attention of non-players while their golfers passionately pursue birdies, sandies, and pars.
Moreover, it’s well to remember that golf as practiced in Scotland is simply different. Central to this difference is what for Americans is the vanishing art of walking: Golf in Scotland is a walker’s sport. "Golf carts" as we Yanks know them are rare. Indeed, on Scottish courses the term "cart" is taken to mean a hand-pulled, wheeled trolley on which a player’s bag is placed, not a small automobile used to navigate the course. Trails and paths actually intended for use by the non-golfing public skirt many Scottish courses—including some of the most prestigious. All told, this means that a non-player, if so inclined, is generally free to walk the course with his or her partner. Some of my fondest memories of Scotland involve walking this or that course while Himself played his round. I enjoyed the exercise and the wonderful scenery, and he gained a photographer to document his conquest of some of the world’s most famous courses. Such a deal!
In the end, the formula for a successful golf holiday in Scotland for couples in which one partner plays and the other does not is fundamentally one of flexibility and respect. By sharing those things that both enjoy and by allowing space for each partner to act independently, clever couples can have their cake and eat it too. They can take separate vacations jointly.
Golfers are advised to take along a letter of introduction from their local golf pro, current handicap included. Some clubs require that visiting players produce evidence that they meet the course’s minimum skill requirement. After all, you wouldn’t want to subject the sacred soil of St. Andrews to just any hacker! Especially for some of the more famous courses, reserve your tee time well in advance.
For a wealth of resources on travel in Scotland, check out the Scottish Tourist Board’s website. It’s a genuinely useful tool for anyone planning a visit.
Staying at a major resort, such as Gleneagles, can also eliminate the necessity for a personal car. The Gleneagles website includes instructions for getting there by a variety of means, including car, rail, and limousine. All that’s required is planning, and the Gleneagles staff will even help you with that. Indeed, Gleneagles can be a fantastic single destination for the couple in which only one partner plays golf. The resort offers guests onsite restaurants, pubs, spa facilities, equestrian activities, hunting packages, etc. Talk to the kind folks. They’ll work with you.
For independent travelers who like the freedom to roam and want maximum flexibility, the tried and true answer is a personal car.
Born of Edwardian opulence, Greywalls enjoyed the best of fin-de-siecle aristocratic indulgence. Passing to the Weaver family during the turbulent 1920s, it was requisitioned by the government during World War II. As soon as the Weavers recovered the house in 1947, they began the process of converting it into a hotel, a task initially complicated by postwar rationing. Greywalls is still owned and operated by the Weaver family.
The hotel is expensive (standards rooms are £260 per night, double occupancy), but service and quality are exceptional in all areas. Our experience found the staff to be quietly attentive, consistently finding ways to help guests make the most of their stay. At Himself’s request, we booked two nights at Greywalls (representing a substantial percentage of our holiday budget). The hotel has 23 guestrooms, plus use of all amenities one would expect of an British country house.
Greywalls offers breakfast in the dining room as part of its B&B room rate. As is typical in Scotland, breakfast provides sufficient fuel for a full day of golfing or touring. The hotel also offers tempting dinner menus. Dinner is £40 per person, and reservations are required. The restaurant is justifiably praised for its gourmet cuisine, which is based on traditional Scottish fare with a generous touch of Continental elegance. Delicious and beautifully presented, our dinner at Greywalls was a leisurely meal with impeccable service—one of those meals that provides for the kind of welcome and romantic evening one hopes to find while "on holiday."
Our room was appointed very much in the style of a guestroom in a high-end B&B, complete with a Queen-sized bed, comfortable chairs, and ensuite bath. Ours was one of only three rooms with a second door opening directly to Greywalls' putting green, immediately adjacent to the Muirfield links. Wearing his tweed jacket and matching cap, Himself looked entirely the picture of a Scottish gentleman as he left our room to practice his skills on his "private" putting green.
At checkout, no doubt noting our ages, a busboy quietly confided that during the 1992 Open Championship at Muirfield, our room had been occupied by Jack Nicklaus, with Greg Norman and Tom Watson taking the rooms on either side—because these rooms accessed the putting green. This wonderful bit of trivia earned the young man a handsome trip and gave a grand tale to bring back home: I, er, "we" slept in Jack Nicklaus' bed!
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Gullane, Scotland EH31 2EG
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Our visit to the Kintyre Peninsula was a daytrip from our lodgings in Ardrishaig, some 11 miles north of Tarbert—all told, a roundtrip of about 115 miles. The primary destination for this outing was Machrihanish Golf Club, with secondary targets keyed toward enjoying the marvelous views offered by Kintyre’s incredibly long and incredibly scenic coastline.
As for the inclusion of Machrihanish on our itinerary, I was the responsible party. I had read that this was Scotland's most "romantic" golf course—a claim I simply couldn’t be expected to ignore. Given our pattern of travel in Scotland, the promise of golf and romance intertwined was irresistible. Machrihanish may not qualify as Scotland’s most remote championship course, but it certainly has to be on the short list of top contenders. This magnificent seaside links is located well down Kintyre’s Atlantic coast, just a stone’s throw from the fabled Mull of Kintyre, which in turn was made famous beyond Scotland by Paul McCartney’s rendition of the ballad bearing the same name.
From the beginning of our planning, I intended to walk the course, provided my husband's playing companions did not object. As it turned out, there were no playing companions, and the two of us had the course largely to ourselves. Machrihanish truly is romantic—and beautiful. The greens are judged among the finest in Britain, and the deep rough consists of billowy seagrasses that appear soft as gossamer but are, in fact, tough as wire.
The original course design for this seaside links course is attributed to none other than the legendary course architect and Open champion Old Tom Morris, who allegedly proclaimed, "The Almighty had gowff in his e'e when he made this place." Old Tom's design has been altered several times since the late 19th century, but the first hole, the "Battery," is still undeniably his. (Note that by long tradition, each hole at Machrihanish is known by a name as well as a number.)
The tee box for the Battery is situated on a small rise overlooking the hole's spectacular water hazard: the Atlantic Ocean. A player who misses the fairway with the tee shot generally places his or her ball either in the wet sand or in the water—depending on whether the tide is high or low. The Battery (423 yards, par 4) is regarded by many as the most magnificent first hole anywhere in the world.
Other famous holes include the Islay (no. 3, 376 yards, par 4), with its spectacular view of the Island of Islay; Castlehill (no. 14, 442 yards, par 4) judged to be the course's most difficult hole; and the Burn (no. 17, 362 yards, par 4), where the Machrihanish Burn, the course's "other" water hazard, comes into play. The out-bound nine holes follow the hills and dunes along the Atlantic coast. Each requires accuracy from the tee and care in making club choices. The in-bound nine are a bit more removed from the sea, but they are equally demanding. The fierce and unpredictable coastal winds are always in play at Machrihanish—and they are consistent only in their inconsistency! It is, in short, seaside links golf at its most challenging.
A round of golf at Machrihanish currently costs £35 (£45 on Saturdays). There is no charge to walk the course. A newly renovated and expanded pro shop doubles as the starter's box, and the clubhouse is deceptively modest. Visitors and members alike are welcome. The clubhouse lounge serves tasty fare and, of course, a variety of good scotch and ales. Its offerings are comparable to what one might expect to find in a good pub, and prices are reasonable.
Non-players who don’t choose to walk the course with their golfers should recognize that the village of Machrihanish is small, with a population of about 500. Aside from the sea, the countryside, and the golf course, there is little to attract attention. If walking the shoreline or finding a quiet (even beautiful) corner to read appeals to your sense of order and purpose, then you should be well satisfied. If not, be sure to keep the car keys so you can explore further afield.
After Himself played Machrihanish and the score had been tallied, we headed off for more scenery. Our trip down had been by way of the A83, mostly along the Atlantic coast. In the early morning light, we had grand views of the Western islands—particularly Gigha (which is closer in distance) and Islay (which is further away but much larger). From Campbeltown, Kintyre’s largest community (pop. 5500), we took the B843 to Machrihanish.
Before heading back to our B&B, we returned to Campbeltown and took the B842 to Southend. By then the high overcast weather we had enjoyed that morning had given way to mist, with occational periods of light rain. From Southend, we gazed into the near distance at the Mull to our right and the Dunaverty headland to our left. We could see Sanda Island to the southeast, but we could not make out the more distant Ailsa Craig. We vacillated in and out of uncertainty over whether se could actually see the coast of northern Ireland to our south or whether what we saw was just a bank of mist and cloud. Either way, the scene was beautiful. No doubt, this particular view wears as many faces as Scotland’s volitile weather.
We took another few minutes to seek out the footprints carved in stone that are attributed to St. Columba. The two footprints are accessed by means of a short path (which, of course, is slippery when wet) leading above Southend’s sandy shoreline. St. Columba is said to have begun his campaign to export Christianity from Ireland from this very spot in the year 563. Heading back north to Campbeltown, we stayed on the B842, the scenic (occasionally one-track) road that hugs the Kilbrannon Sound along the eastern costline of Kintyre. In the mists of an autumn afternoon in Scotland, an afternoon that refused to produce either sunshine or genuine rain, the vistas we saw were characterized by an ethereal, eerie beauty. And naturally, the road was often daunting. We stopped occasionally to take in the atmosphere, to look and listen for the golden eagles that nest here, and to scan the horizon for the Isle of Arran, which should have been looming large in the distance but was in fact invisible. All in all, the scenic wandering aspect of our outing was perfect—not at all what we had anticipated, but nonetheless perfect in its own right. But then, Scotland is rarely less than beautiful.
Actually playing the Old Course at St. Andrews, however, was another matter. Players do not simply reserve a tee time and show up as arranged (excepting, of course, through expensive golf packages). To play the Old Course, players typically enter a lottery for the next day’s play and hope for the best. If their names are drawn, they show up at the designated time. But the lottery is an option only for players teeing off in groups of two, three, or four. As a single, the only remaining option is to report to the Starter’s Box and ask to be assigned a spot with a group of less than four.
Thus, our planning complete, the final dates of our first pilgrimage to Scotland came to be governed by the calendar and by our best guess at maximizing the opportunity to play the Old Course. We finally decided to travel during late April and early May. We reasoned that this time of year would be warm enough to enjoy the outdoors but early enough to avoid the hoards of fellow tourists who descend on St. Andrews during the summer months. We also reasoned that the best opportunity to grab a vacant spot would be on a weekday. We even prepared for disappointment: If the Old Course proved unattainable, Himself would play another of St. Andrews’ fine courses—perhaps the New Course or the Jubilee.
So it was that on a Friday in early May 1998, we presented ourselves at the Starter’s Box for the Old Course at St. Andrews—golf cap and camera in hand. The starter examined Himself’s letter of recommendation from his home course, collected the hefty greens fee (currently £110), and told him to expect about a 2-hour wait. Meanwhile, it was off to the practice green for him and a bit of close-in exploring for me. I would not walk the course at St. Andrews. That would be too much of a distraction given the number of players on the course and the nature of the foursome. But I would hang around for the tee-off to capture this historic moment for posterity—and for the golf buddies back home.
Note that the Royal and Ancient Clubhouse itself is striking to look at, but it is off limits to most visitors. Instead, the Visitors Clubhouse, a new and very comfortable facility, provides locker rooms, pro shops, a restaurant and lounge, and just about anything else visiting golfers might need to facilitate their game.
While Himself warmed up and practiced his putting skills, I sat in the shadow of the Royal and Ancient in close proximity to a handful of other golf widows. I particularly noticed a tiny woman, probably Japanese, who beamed with quiet satisfaction when her husband’s name was called and his tee time assigned. Joining three other players about to tee off, he glanced quickly in her direction to make sure she saw, and I imagined that their route to the Old Course quite likely mirrored ours in many ways, though the details surely differed. Lacking the demure qualities of the Japanese couple, when Himself’s turn came, I ran forward with camera poised to capture the moment. Then I followed his progress through the first hole by means of a footpath next to the first fairway. That done, I set off for 4 hours on my own in St. Andrews.
For the non-golfer with curiosity and a bit of time to spare, St. Andrews is easily accessible on foot and chock full of possibilities. My first objective was the castle, and my path from the Old Course to the castle took me up a street called The Scores and past several private golf-related association headquarters and clubhouses. It also took me past St. Salvator's, one of three colleges comprised by St. Andrew’s University. Students bustled busily between classes and lounged contentedly in the spring sunshine.
I wandered through the ruins of St. Andrews Castle, which dates to the 12th century and once served as the residence of the bishops and archbishops of St. Andrews Cathedral. Perched on a cliff above the North Sea, the castle is an impressive landmark. Its 24-foot high "bottle dungeon" hewn from the rock below the castle's northwest Sea Tower is grim evidence of how the lords of the church maintained their rule—as are the letters "GW" embedded in the pavement of The Scores in front of the castle, marking the spot where George Wishart was burnt for heresy in 1547. During that same year, Cardinal David Beaton, the last sitting bishop of St. Andrews, was himself put to death by religious reformers. It all serves as a reminder that in St. Andrews the transition from Catholicism to Protestantism was violent and bloody.
Adjacent to the castle stand the ruins of the great cathedral at St. Andrews. Construction on that magnificent edifice began in 1160 and ended in 1318, when it was consecrated in the presence of Robert the Bruce. The cathedral no doubt replaced a lesser house of worship. Indeed, tradition holds that St. Regulus arrived in the area that is now St. Andrews during the 4th century, bringing with him the new Christian religion and the relics of the Apostle Andrew. (Historians generally credit St. Columba with exporting Christianity from Ireland to Scotland in the 6th century.) Regardless of the accounting, by the 13th century there were several churches, an abbey, and a priory associated with the cathedral—and the relics of St. Andrew were the objects of pilgrimage safeguarded in high alter itself.
In 1472, the cathedral at St. Andrews was the Archbishop’s seat and thus officially the spiritual center of Scotland. By 1559, it had been largely destroyed by fervent reformers who regarded it as a Papist affront to their new, "pure" faith. For centuries, its stones were mined as a source of building materials for the adjacent town. Still, the Romanesque east front, a section of the west front, portions of the aisle, and a gatehouse survived more or less intact. And even as ruins, they are magnificent.
During my exploration, I noticed that students and instructors from the university could be seen sprawled in small clusters amid the ruins of the cathedral. They were obviously taking advantage of the spring sunshine and spectacular surroundings to provide an appealing setting for their studies. The Dean's Court is located immediately across from the ruined cathedral, and on the grounds of nearby St. Mary's College, a rose bush said to have been planted by Mary Queen of Scots still blooms—after nearly five centuries.
The precinct walls reflecting the earthly boundaries of this ancient ecclesiastic seat have also survived largely intact. A total of thirteen towers and four gateways, including the impressive Pends Gate are in good repair. The well-preserved precinct district and the town's medieval layout give St. Andrews much of its character.
The compact town center is neat and pretty, and virtually every building is "listed." Private homes, shops, and churches are often positioned at odd angles and fronted with ancient wooden doors. Several homes showcase tiny front gardens filled with flowers. The town center's three main streets—North, South, and Market—all run west to east, like wagon spokes leading toward the cathedral, and all are connected by a network of narrow alleyways. Sections of cobblestone pavement lend to the overall ambiance, inviting visitors to stop here or there to eat, drink, or shop.
My exploration of the old town was a joy, and 4 hours sped by quickly. Rejoining Himself at the Old Course, I arrived in time to photograph his conquest of the Swilken Burn Bridge and to witness his 30-foot par putt on the 18th green. All in all, it had been a remarkable day: He came away with from his challenge of the Old Course with a respectable 85, and I left with a heightened appreciation for history and traditions of St. Andrews—traditions that extends well beyond the boundaries of its famous links. And we both fulfilled a shared dream.
Himself and Yours Truly go to Dornoch for golf. And quite frankly, one doesn't get to the Dornoch by chance. Located on the east coast of the Scottish mainland about 50 miles north of Inverness, it shares the same line of latitude as Canada's Hudson Bay, just 4 degrees south of the Arctic Circle. This out-of-the-way location has earned the Royal Dornoch Golf Club its nickname among golfers in Scotland as "the Star of the North." In my opinion—and more important, in the opinion of some of the world’s best golfers—Royal Dornoch is hands down the finest seaside links-style golf course in the world. Even for those who hold back somewhat from such a unilateral endorsement, Dornoch is routinely counted in the same league as the Old Course at St. Andrews.
For us, Dornoch is a favorite destination. Indeed, its place as Himself’s favorite Scottish course was sealed during our first visit. In truth, it was love at first sight. On that occasion, we drove north from our lodging in Scotland's Great Glen to encounter Dornoch on a glorious spring day in late April. With the gorse in full bloom, it isn’t difficult to understand how the club earned its "Royal" designation. The deep, bright yellow blossoms of the gorse on the new green of spring set against the backdrop of the North Sea and the Dornoch Firth with those spectacular mountains in the distance—all these elements came together to lend a special enchantment to Royal Dornoch. One need not be a golfer to get caught up in the spell. (For readers who have never seen gorse, these hearty shrubs make the spring come alive in Scotland much as forsythia does here in the States, except that gorse is far more pervasive. This perilously thorny plant is often used as part of the rough on golf courses throughout the British Isles. A ball lost in the gorse is lost indeed.)
Golf has been played at Dornoch since at least 1616, probably much longer. Thus, Royal Dornoch has been a work in progress for centuries, changing gradually with the dunes on which its links are built as well as through the less subtle impact of human intervention. As with the Old Course at St. Andrews and with Machrihanish, the name of Old Tom Morris is indelibly associated with the shaping and planning the links as they appear today.
As at Machrihanish, each hole on Royal Dornoch’s Championship Course has a name as well as a number, and like any good course, each hole has its own personality. The links form a lazy S configuration on two levels of elevation. The front nine occupies the upper level, consisting of old dunes longed tamed by grasses and shrubs. Eight of the back nine occupy the lower level, hugging the pure white sands of the North Sea strand. The final hole, appropriated named Home, doubles back into a tuck between Holes 2 and 3 on one side and Holes 16 and 17 on the other.
In keeping with British tradition, several fine walking trails can be found in and around Dornoch, including one that hugs the western edge of the Championship Course (clearly marked with signs warning against the hazards of flying balls) and leads down to the beaches of Embo Bay. At Dornoch, I prefer this trail to walking the course with Himself, and based on the views provided from above the course, I have my favorite holes: No. 3 (or Earl’s Cross) has a striking series of bunkers along one side of the fairway and a bank of gorse on the other. The visual effect is simply marvelous. No. 7 (Pier) and No. 17 (Valley) are virtually surrounded by gorse, darning players to keep their balls within narrow strips of emerald green rather than lose them in a vast expanse of yellow. No. 17 features bunkers that extend across the fairway. No. 8 (Dunrobin) features thick barriers of gorse near the tee box, followed by a sharp drop in elevation and a spectacular view of Embo Bay.
Golfers should know that tee times are not always necessary at Dornoch, particularly on weekdays an in the off-season. Dornoch does reserve blocks of time for members only, so it’s never a bad idea to contact the pro shop to make sure playing time is available. Proof of handicap is required to play the Championship Course (the maximum handicap accepted for men is 24; for women, 39). If for some reason you can't get a tee time or if your handicap is too high, try Dornoch's other course, the Struie, which also provides an excellent test of the art of golf.
Royal Dornoch’s clubhouse is comfortable and attractive, with plenty of nooks and crannies to settle into for quiet time or reading. Meals are available through the bar during specified hours, and visitors are welcome most of the time. The Pro Shop is well stocked—particularly with balls and other golf necessities bearing the Dornoch logo—and a teaching pro is available for those who might wish to add an Ivy League imprimatur to their official golf education.
Blasphemous as it may sound to golf's true believers, even without its famous course, the Royal Burgh of Dornoch would be worthy of a visit. The village is a short and easy stroll from the carpark next to the clubhouse. While Himself plays, I generally spend much of my time exploring. What remains of Bishop's Palace has been incorporated into the picturesque Royal Dornoch Hotel, and the old jail is now a museum. Off the small central square, pleasant shops line well-kept streets. For me the Dornoch Bookshop on High Street has a particularly strong attraction, but shoppers will also find a woolen mill outlet; gift and antique shops; shops for the baker, butcher and greengrocer; a post office—all those tiny shops required to meet the needs of a small rural community and to provide tempting purchases for visitors.
Quite literally, the focal point of the town is Dornoch Cathedral. This tiny Gothic treasure was consecrated in 1239 and nearly destroyed by fire during the 16th-century clan wars. When the structure was rebuilt in the 16th and 19th centuries respectively, great pains were taken to retain and accentuate architectural details surviving from the 13th-century original. The reconstructed walls of the chancel include several 18th-century mortality stones and the cathedral's original piscina, a stone bowl built into a wall niche and connected by a pipe to the consecrated ground of the cemetery beyond. Before the Reformation, priests would rinse the vessel containing the blessed wine used during celebration of Mass, disposing of the water and unused wine by draining it through the piscina and into consecrated earth. The piscina in the Dornoch Cathedral is one of the few that remain intact and in situ throughout the whole of Britain.
Even a short visit to the cathedral provides an opportunity to experience the peace and timelessness so often evoked by sacred surroundings. It was at Dornoch that I learned how the six-pointed Magen David (the Star of David), which symbolizes the unity of Israel in Jewish tradition, is regarded by Scottish Christians as a double triangle, each symbolizing the Trinity. Learning this finally explained to me why so many Stars of David are displayed prominently on Scottish churches.
Visitors wanting to spend one or more nights in Dornoch have several choices. In addition to the Dornoch Castle Hotel, a number of small country hotels and guesthouses adjoin the links of Royal Dornoch and offer comfortable accommodations. There are also several fine bed-and-breakfast establishments in the area.
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