Golf in the Wild – Going Home – Further East

Chapter 3: Among the Skerray headstones is this touching tribute to another George Mackay, erected by his friends in London. Enough is known about young George to imagine his last days …

It was early morning, 12 April 1912. The house was slowly coming to life, and George was wide awake. In fitful excitement, he had hardly slept. Some last tearful farewells to the early morning maids, a final check that his tickets were secure in his pocket and quietly he slipped the safe moorings of 11 Queens Gate, Kensington, and his life as a footman. Emerging from the colonnaded porch, he touched the iron railings one last time, turned left, and then right onto Prince Consort Road, heading for Waterloo and the 07:45 train to Southampton. He was dressed in his Sunday-best suit and wearing a Sunday smile. He did not look back. The city was already bustling with the clatter of hooves and the too familiar smell of horse manure, soon to be replaced by the salt sea air he had known as a boy.

The young George had only just turned twenty, but already he had travelled far from his humble beginnings on a croft near Tongue, in Sutherland. One of twelve children to William and Christina Mackay, he was determined to better himself. Too often he had heard tales of regret, of lives half-lived in the bitter north. George, the Heilam ferryman, spoke of nothing else but his plans as a young man to travel to Canada and how he was persuaded to stay by the Duke of Sutherland. This George would not make the same mistake.
The third-class boat train from Waterloo pulled into Southampton Docks at 09:30, stopping at Berth 43/44. Clutching a small brown suitcase and ticket 42795, George alighted into the dockside sheds, crossed the road, controlled by a man with a red flag, and momentarily stood, awestruck by the sheer overwhelming size of the ship. It was beyond anything he could have imagined. Nothing like this was ever seen in the Kyle.

As a third-class passenger, George had a simple berth, shared with six other passengers. Keen to escape the claustrophobia of steerage and the company of strangers, many of whom could not speak English, he quickly found his way to the open decks. He was there when the ship cast off and was towed into the River Test by tugboats, there for the near collision with USMS New York, there when Cherbourg appeared on the French coast and there when the ship set sail for Cobh in the dim light of an April evening. All the while he grasped ticket 42795. It had cost £7 11s, all his savings, but he was bound for Rochester and a new life in Detroit. Of one thing he was certain: he was never going home.

Golf in the Wild – Going Home.  Chapter 3 – Further East

Golf in the Wild – Going Home – Reay

Chapter 2:  There is a wild beauty to this place which is quite different from the west. After the high uplands of Sutherland, Caithness is a gentler, flatter and a largely treeless landscape, where landmarks stand out like exclamation marks on the horizon. The golf course at Reay (pronounced Ray) owes its existence and survival to the occupants of Sandside House to the west and the Dounreay atomic energy site to the east. Both are visible from various parts of the course.
Thomas Pilkington, the St Helens glass manufacturer, acquired Sandside House and some of the surrounding estates in the late 1800s for use as a shooting and fishing retreat. Like many landed families of the nineteenth century, the Pilkington clan, relatives, friends and accompanying servants would up sticks from smoky Lancashire and spend the summer sporting in the far north. The contrast between industrialised St Helens and the wilds of Reay could not have been more pronounced. When not shooting, contemplating salmon or installing an early version of double glazing, Thomas’s thoughts turned to golf. Looking east from the upper, condensation-free windows of Sandside House, he would see the perfect location for his very own course …

Chapter 2 – Reay

Golf in the Wild – Going Home – The Road East

CHAPTER 1: Elizabeth Sparkes is buried in the small graveyard at Balnakeil, but I cannot find her. Somewhere, she is lying among the old stones, eternally listening to the sea. She is so far from home and days from her sisters: Mary, Anne, Julia and Harriet. She has no hope of escape, eternally at rest in bad company.
In the same graveyard, Donald McMurdo is easier to find; his tomb is immediately visible, built into a niche in the south wall. A serial murderer and henchman for Clan Mackay, his speciality was to throw his victims down the blowhole at nearby Smoo Cave. Such was his reputation, that the local clergy would not countenance his burial at Balnakeil but were persuaded, by a compromise and maybe the greasing of palms, to bury him half in and half out of the sacred ground. The result is that his memory is better preserved than those of the good souls that surround him. He would no doubt have been proud of his epitaph: Donald McMurdo here lies low – Was ill to his friend, and worse to his foe.

The Road East - Durness to Reay

The Road East – Durness to Reay

 

Golf in the Wild – Going Home is available to purchase from Amazon and from this website.

Printed versions of the first book, Golf in the Wild, have sold out, but can be read on Kindle.

A different sort of golfer …

…  a different sort of biker.  Durness is the place where Golf in the Wild ends and its sequel, Golf in the Wild – Going Home, begins.  The image of the 8th green shows a ball adjacent to the pin – it will not have arrived in regulation.  The approach has the characteristics of an infinity pool – just fairway and water.  It takes confidence to go for the invisible green, anything long seemingly destined for the briny sea.

The view from the 8th/17th green takes in many highlights of the course: the dunes and the edge of Balnakeil Bay; sturdy Balnakeil House – available for rent to the well-heeled and grubby – it has six bathrooms; the graveyard where lies the Clan MacKay henchman, Donald McMurdo – was ill to his friend and worse to his foe; the 18th tee, which provides such a glorious finish across a rocky inlet and the Clubhouse which resembles a coastguard station, forever keeping watch for those in peril on the course.

The image does not sparkle, it was not one of those days – hazy sunshine turned dreich, but I was grateful for the benign conditions; when the winds blow strong across the Parph from Cape Wrath, this will be an inhospitable place for golf and much else besides.

The view from the 8th green, looking east

It was taken in August 2012 and, sad to relate, I have never played the course since, despite becoming a country member for a couple of years when the club’s finances were stretched. Their secretary, Lucy Mackay, has always been very supportive of Golf in the Wild.  That is not to say I have never returned to Balnakeil and Durness – I have been several times, most recently in 2021 by motorcycle.

The NCA Motorcycle Club at Balnakeil Bay – May 2021

My standard line is that I have yet to fathom how to carry golf clubs on my BMW GS, but as I proved on Barra, dependence on my own clubs is entirely illusory, indeed, my game seemed to benefit from using a mixed set of hire clubs.  With this in mind, I am planning more extreme wild golf by motorcycle – in 2023 the intention is to ride to the Lofoten Islands in Norway and play golf under the midnight sun on Lofoten Links.  I have travelled there by car, sea, ship and aeroplane which only leaves the motorcycle to complete the set.  On my last trip I travelled with my eldest son by train from Oslo to Bodø and then took a short flight to Svolvær.  It was the beginning of March and snow was still thick on the ground – the Lofoten Islands are well within the Arctic Circle such that Lofoten Links will only open from 5th of May until 15th of October in 2023.

The road to Lofoten Links – March 2020

Near Lofoten Links – March 2020

Why post this now? It is all part of the process of making it happen – a commitment to myself, and now, to others. It is about not losing face.

Golf Mates at Covesea

The Golf Mates have discovered Covesea!  This entertaining video captures the essence of Andy Burnett’s course in a way that the written word never can.  It is the perfect companion to Chapter 9 of Golf in the Wild – Going Home – the Moray Coast:

Built around natural features, high ground, cliff faces, enormous rocks and ideal links land, it is remarkable.  Andy Burnett bought the land about fifteen years ago and, with his brother Graeme, expended huge effort in turning it into a 9-hole golf course. … as soon as I saw the place, I fell in love with it completely.  Unusually, Covesea is not a members’ club, so the course is entirely Andy’s domain, thereby avoiding the plague of the grumpy golfer who will seek to blame all his misfortune on anything but his inadequate game. Consequently, the usual rules, regulations and members’ priority are entirely missing. “We’ve always run the place without any airs and graces—everyone is welcome to come and play.”  It is an operational model that I find extremely attractive.

The heroic trio came to the same conclusions – a remarkable course that golfers must be encouraged to visit – they will not be disappointed.

 

The wildest of wild golf

This year’s motorcycle adventures have included a trip to the Isle of Barra in the Outer Hebrides.  The initial incentive was to play wild golf on its one and only golf course, but the travel by motorcycle turned the journey into something special and memorable.  Some many days later, I have finally finished the video of the trip.

The Isle of Barra Golf Club has been built on rough and rocky terrain. It is not suitable for the plough and even less so the mower, instead, the course relies on grazing cattle who lack the necessary close-cutting skills of sheep. Unlike the ovine, the bovine are untidy eaters. They also take relief across the course, forcing the golfer to do similar. At least, when we played, they kept to the high ground where they surveyed our every move from atop Cnoc an Fhithich.

Would I honestly recommend going to Barra to play golf, maybe not. Instead, go to Barra for Barra, it is a wonderful destination with scenery as remarkable as anywhere else in the world … oh, and while you are there, don’t miss the opportunity to have a unique golfing experience.

The full story will be told in the next edition of Golf Quarterly.

 

Centrefold …

Years go by I’m lookin’ through a girly magazine
And there’s my homeroom angel on the pages in-between
My blood runs cold
My memory has just been sold
My angel is the centerfold
Angel is the centerfold

The J. Geils Band

It was never an ambition, but here I am, a centrefold in Northern Golfer – the general consensus seems to be that keeping my clothes on was a ‘good idea’.

An expletive may have sneaked into Golf in the Wild – Going Home, but there is no inappropriate imagery.

The Wild Golf Podcast

This image was taken on the beach by my dad – probably Bournemouth, with the family box Brownie.  Like my memories from the time, it is aptly out of focus.  I remember the feel of the jersey bib shorts, the bucket which was soft rubber and a vague sense of my mother’s touch.  It is probably 1954.

The relationship was not always close, especially in my teenage years.  Prone to be judgemental, I wonder what my mother would have made of my elevation to ‘celebrity’, the star of a podcast.  He/she has got too big for his/her own boots; it is sure to end in tears; he/she likes the sound of his/her own voice.  Well, actually mum, I am not sure I do – there is too much the hint of nowhere man and middle England.  It betrays a sense of not really belonging anywhere and it doesn’t go down well in all quarters.  All that apart, I am also not sure she would have entirely seen the funny side of publicising our strained relationship.  I am sad she is no longer around to pass judgement – we are not amused, or just maybe, we are.

The Wrens of the Curragh

The printed page has its limitations.  Chapter 7 of Golf in the Wild – Going Home tells the story of the Wrens of the Curragh – an outcast community of 19th-century Irish women who lived rough, brutally hard lives on the plains of Kildare. The name comes from the shelters they lived in, hollowed out “nests” in the ground which they covered with layers of furze. Their number included unmarried mothers, free-thinkers, alcoholics, prostitutes, vagrants, ex-convicts and harvest workers:

Edward Prince of Wales, as he was at the time, was reportedly introduced to the game in 1859 by his Governor, General Robert Bruce, an R&A member since 1834. Inspired by an exhibition match at Musselburgh, in 1861 his military association with the Grenadier Guards would take him to Curragh in Ireland where the recently opened golf course was immediately adjacent to the Camp. It is not documented if the future King found time for golf during his ten-week visit, but his extramural activities became infamous. A sexual novice, his fellow Guards arranged an introduction to Nellie Clifden, a local ‘actress’ and possibly a Wren of the Curragh who ‘knew her way round the Camp in the dark’. The resulting affair soon became public knowledge as the Guards’ tongues wagged and Nellie became known as the ‘Princess of Wales’. The scandal enraged his parents, Queen Victoria and her husband, Prince Albert, and steps were immediately taken to end the liaison. Prince Albert would die a few months later, a demise that Victoria blamed entirely on the anguish caused by Edward’s indiscretions – “I never can or shall look at him [Edward] without a shudder.” The older generation should never interfere with youthful passion – the ghosts of forbidden fruit can haunt an entire life. If anything is to be learned from this story, it is this – when tempted by sins of the flesh, play more golf.

The chapter heading quote is from Hunting the Wren by the Irish folk band Lankum – it first appeared on their album, The Live Long Day released on 25th October 2019. The ‘wren’ is a direct reference to the Wrens of the Curragh.

The wren is a small bird, how pretty she sings. She bested the eagle when she hid in its wings

It was this track and their anarchic appearance that inspired this section of the book – there is simply no substitute for seeing and hearing this remarkable performance:

 

So begins …

… the ongoing and, seemingly endless task of getting the sequel in stock with booksellers and golf clubs.  To some extent, I have a head start compared to the first book.  I have contacts who have generously agreed to take the sequel without first seeing the book.  These good and helpful souls include:

Allendale Forge Studios – re-opens tomorrow, 1st March 2022 (stock will be dropped off mid-morning)

The Gale Centre at Gairloch

The Dornoch Bookshop

Durness Golf Club

Forum Books, Corbridge

and, needless to say, there is a generous supply at Allendale Golf Club – Neil, our secretary and greenkeeper will happily sell you a copy on request (he has the key to the store room where they are stored).

More outlets will be added soon – when they are, they will appear on the Purchase page.

Copies can also be ordered from Amazon if you think Jeff Bezos is short of a bob or two.

Pages for purchasing from Europe and the U.S. will soon be added to the purchase page.