Kintyre, the southern portion of Scotland’s western peninsula, is a remote and sparsely populated region of some 500 square miles. Attached to the rest of the peninsula by a narrow isthmus separating Loch Tarbert from Loch Fyne, Kintyre is very nearly an island—indeed, as the local folks claim, "Scotland’s only Mainland island."
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.