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Finding the Hidden Gems

Castle Stuart in the north of Scotland, next to the Beauly Firth, is the new jewel in the crown of fantastic golf courses in the Scottish Highlands. It joins Royal Dornoch and the Nairn Championship course to make a trio of must-play courses on any golfing expedition to Scotland.

Mike, Jay, Chris and I took off this summer on a mission to find some great golf courses in the absolute northernmost part of Scotland, and we had to start at Castle Stuart.

Jay operates a web site (www.forelinksters.com) dedicated to reviewing golf courses all over the world. He put this trip together with a special emphasis on uncovering more of Scotland’s hidden gems. And aside from Castle Stuart, the courses on our agenda for this week were among the best kept secrets of Scottish golf.

The week really started Friday night with our first friendly Ryder Cup at Crail’s Balcomie course against four residents of St. Andrews who are Old Course regulars. Balcomie, built in 1786, is a tremendous links course about twenty minutes south of St. Andrews. The boys from St. Andrews played well, but we managed a draw.

Saturday morning we were off to Castle Stuart, an easy three-hour drive north from St. Andrews. This group of Scots we played, Jim, Graeme, Alan and Derek were good, but Jay was hot and we managed our second Ryder Cup draw. Over pints in the comfortable Castle Stuart dining room, Derek showed us his watercolor prints of famous Scottish courses and scenes of the Highlands. Jay was awarded one of Derek’s prints for his outstanding play. Derek’s artwork is really quite good and worth a look.

On our way east from Inverness we stopped at the two-year old memorial in Culloden, where in 1746 the British army led by the 25 year-old Duke of Cumberland defeated the assembled Scottish clans and Bonnie Prince Charles resulting in permanent British rule of Scotland. The Scots had a bit of an equipment problem. The British army showed up with cannons and muskets, and the clans arrived bearing swords and axes, so the outcome was kind of predictable. The new memorial is terrific because the designers worked hard to tell the story of this historic battle from both the Scottish and British perspectives.

We camped Saturday at the delightful Invernairne bed and breakfast in Nairn, and over cigars and 18 year-old Glenlivet we watched the sun set behind the Moray Firth.

Sunday we had two courses on our radar: Bonner Bridge and the amazing 9 holer in Durness. The weather was nice in Bonner Bridge and the drive to Durness turned into a great adventure. The single lane B838 has to be shared with cars coming the other way. There is a turnout every thousand yards or so and drivers coming towards each other have to decide which one is going into the turnout so the other can pass. Plus you have to mind the stray sheep that has somehow slipped his fence and is eating the really green grass right by the road. The 60-mile trip took nearly three hours.

Durness is stark. Not much there except stunning views of the beautiful Highland mountains, and, it turned out, one great 9 hole golf course. Monday morning we played at 5:30 and had the course to ourselves. This was our first encounter with the honor box. The front door to the starters shack is left unlocked. You walk in, sign a guest book, put 25 pounds in a little brown envelope, drop it in the honor box, grab a scorecard, and go to the first tee. What unfolds over the next two hours is one terrific golf course. It is hard to concentrate on your game because the views are so stunning. We had a dull morning with cloud cover, and a misty light rain. It was classic Scottish golf weather. Afterwards Chris wanted to visit the Smoo cave; a series of huge caves carved out by centuries of water pounding the Durness coast. We also discovered a garden memorial dedicated to John Lennon who, it turns out, used to spend youthful summers in Durness. He wrote “In My Life” about his time here (one of Mike’s favorite songs).

After breakfast we were off to Reay, a comfy little 18-hole course that is typical of the kind of courses you’ll find in almost every little village of Scotland. Again, the honor box. And a really heavy rain started after my birdie on the par 5 14th. We were soaked and tired after 18 holes at Reay and the long drive from Durness. But we had to get to Wick, only another hours drive.

If you stay at the Mackay hotel in Wick, do not miss the Cullen Skink. This is a soup of mussels, smoked haddock, cream, potatoes, leaks and onions that is really a national dish. The Mackay hotel makes very tasty Cullen Skink. And the rooms have large bathtubs where you can soak a sore back that is starting to count how many holes you’ve played the last few days.

On Tuesday we awoke to a beautiful sunny day and immediately made our way to the 18-hole Wick Golf Club. Lovely course. Sort of a less dramatic version of Cruden Bay with the enormous dunes running along the coast, separating the golf course from the North Sea. Nine out and nine back. Not remarkable, but nice. After we walked off 18 we had to hustle to make our tee time at Brora.

When you hear the term “hidden gems” to describe the not-so-famous golf courses of Scotland, Brora has to be near the top of that list. It used to be that Brora had sheep and cows roaming the course. In fact there is a local rule that a ball finding itself on top of a sheep or cow patty results in a free drop. They even put electric wire around every green to keep the livestock off.

But something has changed in recent years. The sheep and cows are gone (but not the electric wire. Just ask Jay who got a butt shock after he backed into a fence while trying to read a putt). The greens fees are up to 40 pounds, and I’m guessing when they raised the price they decided they needed to upgrade the course, which was mostly achieved by removing the sheep and cows. The result is spectacular. Brora rivals any of Scotland’s great golf courses. There are several blind shots, but if you follow the poles that are strategically placed in the fairways you can find the well-manicured, fast running greens. Every hole is good, and some are great. 18 is one of the strongest par 3 finishing holes you will find anywhere.

This part of Scotland, the northern Highlands, can be remote with long stretches of beautiful scenery and not much else. But tucked amongst these small towns and villages are some of golf’s real “hidden gems.” Good job, Jay.