The following article was printed (with some edits) in Golf Quarterly #47 – it is reproduced here for those who don’t subscribe, but I recommend you do – a fine magazine with not a single advert for the next, or any, golf club capable of launching your over-priced golf ball into orbit:
The golf course is approached by rough single-track road about a mile from the main A888 which circles the island, also single track. There is no clubhouse, just a shipping container with an honesty box attached. My playing partners opted for an exciting arrival by plane, splashing down on Traigh Mohr beach in a scheduled flight from Glasgow. I arrived by the equally exciting combination of ferry and motorcycle, so none of us had clubs. These were available for hire in Castlebay at the very reasonable price of £5 for 24 hours. A mixed bag, they proved no less successful than my own set which I had imagined my game was dependent on.
After posting the £10 green fee in the slot, the first challenge is finding the right tee and choosing the correct target. There appears to be several possibilities – a choice of square greens, they are all protected by solar-powered electric fencing, with access gained through distinctly agricultural, galvanised kissing gates. It is evident from the start that this is a quite different golf course. Golf, but not as we know it.
Closer examination of the scorecard map revealed the intended destination. An opening par 3, where coming up short, as we all did, is ill-advised, but it does give some hint of what lies in store. In short, there is nothing but semi-rough or very rough, combined with water filled gullies and turf so receptive, it can swallow balls whole. Nobody scored better than a six.
Amy Liptrop describes the Orkney farm she was raised on, in her book, The Outrun: … historical agricultural records list farmland in two parts: the ‘in-bye’ arable land close to the farm steading; and the ‘out-bye’ or ‘outrun’, uncultivated rough grazing further away, often on hillsides. The Isle of Barra Golf Club has been built on the out-bye. 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.
The second, a par 5 running along the coastline, is tough. With nothing but semi-rough and cowpats, my best drive of the day flew straight and true but was never seen again. Another feature of the course is scattered, rocky outcrops which provide an element of randomness akin to a pin-ball machine – one of the many possibilities for my disappearing golf ball. Despite these travails, I avoided despondency by simply raising my head, if not my game – the views in all directions, from every part of the course are simply stunning. The third and fourth, both par 4s, ascend Cnoc an Fhithich where the rain of eons has carved deep gullies into both fairways – hazards abound. The fifth tee is another steep climb from the fourth green where the course finally reaches its summit, a suitable location to draw breath and take in the scenery. The skies were blue, the weather benign so we should have counted ourselves lucky – quite what the course must be like in more traditional Outer Hebridean conditions, it is hard to imagine.
A hard course to master, the locals must be made of sterner stuff than me, but under all golfing circumstances, the trick is to remain level-headed and fully focussed. I belong to that rare tribe who are passionate about both golf and motorcycles. There should be more of us as both demand exactly the same frame of mind – living in the moment, 100% concentration and no letting your mind drift. If you do, you are likely to end up in the undergrowth – hunting for golf balls or retrieving a bent motorcycle and/or rider.
The drive from the par 4, 5th is between rocky outcrops. Successfully negotiate this blind drive and you have a sharp right dogleg, downhill to a partially concealed green – my ball found the green from a bounce off the kissing gate. I think it is called good course management. Survive as far as the 5th green with a semi-decent card and, in my experience, the final four holes provide the opportunity to make amends. The elevated 6th tee delivers a glorious high-flying drive and the opportunity for a similar 2nd shot into the heart of the green. Two par 3s and a finishing par 4 make for a much less demanding finish than the opening holes and my sixteen shots over four holes turned an untidy card into something more respectable.
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.
And, in case you missed it, here is Steven Spielberg’s take on the adventure: