The lock-down has had some positives for me – with no golf and unable to ride motorcycles, I have been confined to the keyboard such that the sequel has made significant progress. Once south of Edinburgh, I have been forced to make up my mind about the route home to Allendale. A continuing fixation with abandoned railways meant that defunct railway lines more or less determined where I should go next – Lauder, Melrose and Newcastleton has been the result. I have played Lauder and Melrose on many occasions but Newcastleton will remain a mystery until the Scottish lock-down eases. In the meantime, this design for a new business card gives some indication of the likely cover design:
Posts from the ‘The Sequel’ Category
The route for the first book determined itself. The 9-hole courses on the Scottish northwest coast are limited so, it was a simple task of joining the dots from Lochcarron, northwards to Durness. Returning south, beyond Perth, has been an altogether different proposition, there were simply so many choices. In the end, it came down to expediency – I have been lingering in the north for too long and I need to get home. There are fine 9-hole courses in the Scottish Borders I have played for years so, it seemed logical to return via familiar roads. I then realised there was a direct connection between my final destinations and roads didn’t enter into it – the Lauder Light Railway, North British Railway, the Border Counties Railway and the Hexham & Allendale Branch Line. I simply needed to board an imaginary train and I would be home, where ‘home’ is the old Allendale course at Thornley Gate.
Golf in the Wild – Going Home will visit the following courses, with many a diversion along the way: Reay, Wick/Reiss Links, Lybster, Bonar Bridge, Portmahomack, Castlecraig (closed), Fortrose & Rosemarkie, Covesea, Cullen, Rothes, Blair Atholl, Lauder, Melrose, Newcastleton and Allendale (Thornley Gate).
The eagle-eyed will spot a few 18-hole courses among this selection. In the case of the far north, this is simply because there are no 9-hole courses to play – and anyway, Reay and Reiss Links are suitably wild and simply superb.
The old course at Thornley Gate was only a half mile walk from the station, a good deal closer than the centre of Allendale after which the station was named (Catton would be more appropriate). This was a problem repeated along many stretches of these old lines – stations sited too far from the communities they served. When bus services were introduced, rail passenger numbers inevitably went into steep decline.
I have just returned from the annual pilgrimage to Traigh for their Open on 27th July. It is a long way to go for a strokeplay competition and then come to grief at the second, so I was delighted that the club agreed to run a parallel Stableford competition. I supplied the ‘silverware’ and the inaugural Golf in the Wild competition was won by local player, Peter Fleming. My middle-order performance of net 72 and 33 points at least had the merit of not being a ‘no return’. It is always a delight to play at Traigh and this year was no exception, despite the drizzle and threatening clouds. Eigg, Muck and Rum remained out of sight for much of the day.
The weather at Killin on the way up was glorious by comparison and it was good to be back playing this splendid course, the original inspiration for Golf in the Wild. That was Friday, the Traigh Open was on the Saturday, so it was inevitable that we should find somewhere to play on Sunday’s return leg. With time running short, we pitched up at Comrie Golf Club for nine holes and what a splendid nine holes they were. This small course announces itself like no other I know. The New England style clubhouse squats among tall trees and the finely presented 9th green – it is picture-perfect. I had called in once before but, busy competition tees prevented me from turning out and it was this sight of the clubhouse and its surroundings which made me want to return. Would the course disappoint after the excellent first impressions – it did not.
The course is approached by a single track off the A85, adjacent to the village cricket ground with a suitably aged pavilion – the cricket club was founded in 1908, seven years after the golf club. On the day we arrived. a fair was in full swing with children bouncing on ‘Sammy the Snake’ while a Tannoy system was in full flow, broadcasting indecipherable announcements to the assembled masses. It would provide the soundtrack to our round.
The first, Betty’s Knowe, is a middle-distance, blind par 4 at 320 yards off the yellows, from a tee adjacent to the clubhouse. The second shot is also potentially blind into a tight green protected by trees on the left at the lowest level of the course. From here, the fairways tack their path diagonally up the slope towards Laggan Wood, the high point of the course being 160 feet above the first green. The easiest hole, Cauldron, the second, is a par 4 and while relatively short at 238 yards, the front bunkers are likely to catch the unwary. Quarry, the third and a par 3 would be straightforward but for the mountainous rough in front of the tee. Clear this and the elevated green runs straight and true. The fourth, The Pines, would be a no-nonsense 355 yard par 4, were it not for the aforementioned pines which stand too close and to the right of the tee box – negotiate these and it is an uphill drive to another elevated green. I managed a two-putt from off the back of the green so they must be of excellent quality. From the front of the green, there is an excellent view back to the clubhouse, a visual confirmation of just how far you have already climbed.
Above the 4th green is the tee for the par 3 5th, Happy Valley. An uphill drive into another elevated green protected by bunkers left and right, the degree of happiness to be derived from this hole being dependent on missing the sand traps. Another wonderful vista opens out once the 2-putt successfully finds the dark recesses of the hole. My golfing buddies were mightily impressed to see Lord Melville’s Monument on the distant tree covered horizon. Henry Dundas, 1st Viscount Melville was the first Secretary of State for War and became the last person impeached for misappropriation of public money while in office. The monument is unique in its commemoration of a convicted felon – many a 21st century banker will take heart:
The appropriately named 6th, Monument, takes you, in three drives if you are good – two if exceptional, to the top corner of the course. A par 5 with a tight approach, anything right is blocked about by trees although one of our party proved it possible with a high pitch and two putt for a solid par. The seventh, Pulpit, is one fine drive to a sloping fairway, 120 feet below – left there is rough and trees but right, if you are long enough, is the relative safety of the 8th fairway. My natural tendency to ‘fade’ the ball found me on said fairway in the company of four ladies from North Berwick – my pin high shot to the 7th green, leaving a birdie putt from five feet would have impressed, had they bothered to look. My inevitable two-putt was less impressive. Two par fours, Johnnie’s Corner and Coney Hill complete a thoroughly enjoyable round. The test of a good course is ‘can I remember all the holes‘ and on this course the answer is a definite ‘yes‘ – every drive, every putt, every moment taken to admire the view leaves an enduring impression. I will be back.
… all things merge into one, and a road runs through it. With apologies to Norman Maclean.
At the northern end of Fortrose, turn right down Ness Road, signposted Chanonry Point and a single-track leads to the lighthouse and a shoreline dotted with optimists, staring intently out to sea, searching for dolphins. This is the road that cuts through the Fortrose & Rosemarkie golf course, hallowed undulating turf that has played host to golf since 1793. It is a fine stretch of links with arresting views from tee to green on every hole. For the casual visitor, it is difficult to pick out one special hole; they all are.
It is a reassuring coincidence that while the French Revolution’s Reign of Terror was in full swing, the British were building golf courses. As the French honed their guillotines to slice the gentry, we were commandeering the links to slice golf balls. This significant date is carved into the bank of the 18th tee, fully visible from the clubhouse, and styled in the manner of the Fovant Badges. The club proudly claims to be the fifteenth oldest golf course in the world; it is surprising there are so many which are even older.
From the road, the course appears to occupy a narrow strip of land between the town and the lighthouse but there is ample space on both sides and only the wildest of drives is likely to make contact with passing traffic. The exceptions are the 5th, a short par three at the top of the course that crosses the road, and the slightly daunting 12th & 13th where the narrow fairway is bordered by heavy gorse on the right and the road on the left. At the 13th, my drive crossed the road for a subsequent blind 9-iron over gorse in full bloom, onto the edge of the green. It was one of the few holes I parred on the back nine – my game is much improved by blind faith. The back of the 14th green is denoted by large white painted boulders – a strong hint not to go too long otherwise vehicular contact is more than likely.
For all its remarkable vistas, it is the 4th and 5th the top end of the course, nearest the lighthouse, that leave the most enduring impression; a shame, in some respects, that they come so early in the round. The signature hole, the fourth, Lighthouse looks innocuous from the tee to the uninitiated (stroke index 1, par 5 off the whites and a par 4 off the yellows). Those of us, middling golfers, who reach for the driver, seeking distance under all circumstances, will be in for a sad surprise. The marker post may offer an idealised line for the competent but it also coincides with a deep dip in the fairway and some unpleasant rough to the right. I got lucky, landed on an elevated path, took a drop from knee-height, of course, and then found myself with an inviting long pitch to the green. Anything long into the green and you are faced with a knee-trembling downhill putt while anything short is likely to roll off the front and into a severe dip. I threatened the pin, briefly, and then watched in despair as the ball rolled some distance off the green into the aforementioned dip. I was moderately happy to walk off with a six – I am not an ambitious golfer. The lighthouse provides the perfect backdrop throughout – designed by Alan Stevenson, it first came into service in 1846 and adjoins a collection of Egyptian styled keepers cottages.
To the right of the 4th green can be seen the tees for the 5th, a short par 3, Icehouse, which crosses the road and any traffic entering or leaving the Chanonry Point car park. The hardest hole on the course is followed by one of the ‘easiest’ at stroke index 17. There is rough almost all the way to the green which cosies up to the road and, at the back, there is the beautiful briny sea. To the left are a collection of buildings which include the Ferry House, once an Inn and home to the ferryman who plied the waters between Chanonry Point and Fort George. A passenger ferry operated until 1953.
I found the 5th green in one with a ‘perfectly’ executed pitching wedge – the subsequent 3-putt was not so cleverly executed. Worse things happen – as if to emphasise this point, Undiscovered Scotland tells this salutary tale: In about 1675 the point was where Kenneth Mackenzie or Coinneach Odhar, better known as the Brahan Seer, is said to have met his end. The Brahan Seer is often thought of as a Highland Nostradamus. When asked by Isabella, 3rd Countess of Seaforth, why her husband was late returning home he first prevaricated, but when pressed simply told her that her husband was dallying in Paris with a lady who was more attractive than the Countess herself. Coinneach Odhar’s reward was to be hauled off to Chanonry Point where he was burned to death in a barrel of tar. He overlooked the golden rule of seers, or consultants of any sort: first find out what the client wants to hear. It is difficult to think of a worse outcome – the 4-putt perhaps.
Cullen Links, the shortest links course in Scotland, features in this video – Tourist Sauce (Scotland Golf): Episode 8, Cullen Golf Club – it provides a neat audio-visual explanation of why this unique and wonderful course will feature in the sequel to Golf in the Wild. The video must have been shot in high summer when the fairways were parched after that long-forgotten heatwave – when I played earlier in the year, it was all lush green:
Laid out between the railway line and the River Garry, Blair Atholl has all the ingredients of a Golf in the Wild course – surrounded by high hills, 9-holes, an honesty box and, on the day I played, empty but for one other distant golfer. The course was effectively my own.
It is mostly flat – the elevated first tee is the high point of the course. The adjacent combined 3rd and 9th green are on the same level as the first tee, as is the clubhouse. The elevated fourth tee also plays down to what I would guess is their signature hole – a short par 3 with the castellated railway bridge behind the green.
Well maintained, tidy fairways and some very tricky undulating greens, it is a credit to the greens staff. My favourite hole was the stroke index 1, 7th – to the uninitiated it looks tight from the tee with hints of water hazards in the distance – a pond to the left and a stream in front of the green. It turned out they are too distant to be an issue for the average golfer. My unnecessary lay-up resulted in a double bogey. By contrast the 8th looks straightforward until you approach the green and realise there is an over-sized pond about thirty yards out. My best drive of the day came about six inches short of the hazard – after a long hot summer, completely dry.
The course finishes with a testing but very enjoyable par 5 to the elevated green adjacent to the 1st tee and clubhouse – a green shared with the third.
All in all, a very enjoyable experience which is almost certain to appear in Golf in the Wild II.
I have drunk kümmel in the members’ lounge at Muirfield – there I have said it – not exactly Golf in the Wild but a rare and fine experience nonetheless. The full story is told here – Fairway and Tarmac. This extract explains the significance of the liquer:
Lunch is taken in the lounge, jacket and tie being mandatory. I have brought a tie from the funerals drawer for the occasion – I am a guest and I must honour club traditions, no matter that such attire is at complete odds with my late hippy demeanour. A generous tray of sandwiches is accompanied by a gunner (ginger beer, ginger ale, dash of lime and a measure of angostura bitters), followed by coffee and the traditional Muirfield and Prestwick liqueur – kümmel, a sweet, colourless drink flavoured with caraway seed, cumin, and fennel. First impressions are mixed but I warm to it as the glass empties. I am unsure of the effect it may have on the back nine.
Here’s the thing – I played out of my skin that day which helped influence my opinion of Muirfield as a rare and wonderful place. I cannot argue with the members’ claim that it is the finest golf course in the world. Perhaps the kümmel had a part to play – according to Herbert Warren Wind, the American sports writer, writing in 1972, “kümmel has long been a favourite of English golfers, because there is an old wives tale to the effect that it is the best antidote in the world for shaky putting” – Golf Quarterly Issue 4, Winter 2011. The reference to the English should probably be Scottish or maybe the Scots don’t suffer from “shaky putting”.
I will be recommending we stock a bottle at Allendale Golf Club.
George William Mackay
It was early morning, 12th April 1912. The house was slowly coming to life and George was wide awake, in his 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 collonaded 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, 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 43/44 berth. 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 awe-struck 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 back.
IN LOVING MEMORY OF
GEORGE WILLIAM MACKAY
WILLIAM AND CHRISTINA MACKAY
WHO WAS LOST IN THE TITANIC
DISASTER, 15TH APRIL 1912
AGED 20 YEARS
“BLESSED ARE THE PURE IN HEART
FOR THEY SHALL SEE GOD,” MATT V, VIII
PUT UP BY HIS FRIENDS IN LONDON
George’s body was never found.
Golf in the Wild – Going Home will be the sequel to the first book and will take the reader back from Durness, the place where the first book finished, to Allendale, the place where the first book started. The route will be entirely different, heading east along the Scottish mainland’s most northerly coast, first stop, Reay Golf Course. This brief extract is a taster from the second chapter:
When I was small and Christmas trees were tall, I was easily spooked by big things. Taken to the local fire station by my grandfather, I was reduced to tears by the sheer enormity of the engines. Given the opportunity to climb Portland Lighthouse, the endless stairs sent me scurrying outside. The railway viaduct near Goostrey in Cheshire towered so high, I would not go near. In the nearby fields an enormous and strange structure was taking shape and I took exception to it. In the 1950s, Bernard Lovell’s radio telescope at Jodrell Bank was only partially complete.
Many years later, living in the foothills of the Peak District at Bosley, on clear days, the entire Cheshire Plain was visible from our bedroom window. And there, at its centre, the Jodrell Bank telescope – no longer something to be feared, no longer a stranger in the landscape, it had come to define it.
Around the same time in the 1950s, many miles further north, a more threatening structure was emerging from the white heat of technology.
At the outbreak of the Second World War it became apparent that the air defences in the far north of Scotland must be improved, primarily as a consequence of the British Navy’s safe anchorage at Scapa Flow which was particularly vulnerable to air attack. As a first step an airfield was constructed at Wick and then later in the war, another at Dounreay. However, the Dounreay facility, not completed until April 1944, was immediately mothballed. Apart from occasional usage by the Navy as HMS Tern II and later as a camp for displaced Polish servicemen, it remained unused until 1954 when the Government announced that Dounreay was to become the centre for UK fast reactor research and development. Between 1955 and 1958, the Dounreay Fast Reactor (DFR) sphere mushroomed into the landscape and, like Jodrell Bank, it has come to define it. Lovell’s creation says ‘here we can reach for the stars’; Dounreay’s says ‘here we can tinker with the tools of Armageddon, tame Einstein’s monster’.
The Caithness Death Star achieved criticality in 1959 and, in 1962, became the first fast reactor in the world to supply electricity to a national grid. Just fifteen years later it was switched off. Since then it has been a long slow process of decommissioning, an exercise that will not complete until 2025 with the demolition of the sphere. Sadly, retention is not practical – according to the Dounreay Heritage Strategy document 2010,SES(09)P007, Issue 2 : The DFR sphere is contaminated throughout and recent core samples from the vault indicate that the concrete has deteriorated more than anticipated and that original construction techniques may have been lax in some areas … despite the most rigorous decontamination efforts, the risk of receiving a significant radiation dose may never go away.
I have some connection with the Dounreay site having been responsible for establishing an Office Systems field trial there between 1988 and 1989, housed in the buildings adjacent to DFR. This exercise had more to do with my love of travel and wild landscape than the practicalities of running a software trial in this faraway place. It was during one of many site visits that I was given access to the sphere, much smaller on the inside than it appears from without. Fortunately I had grown more tolerant of ‘big things’ in the intervening years. Now it is the things I can’t see that worry me, rather than the things I can.
This image from the archive shows Reay’s par 3 7th, Pilkington. Not quite visible, over the horizon to the left, is the DFR sphere: