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History of Golf in the Scottish Highlands

A Golfing Heritage in the Scottish Highlands

The history of Highland golf is rich indeed, with the great golf architects including Old Tom Morris, James Braid, Donald Ross and Archie Simpson weaving their magic on the ancient linkslands from the Moray coast to Sutherland in the northern Highlands.

Foremost in ancient Highland golf history are two of the truly great links courses at Royal Dornoch Golf Club and The Nairn Golf Club. Meanwhile, a relative newcomer, Castle Stuart Golf Links, is rapidly making history in its own right through its success on the international scene.

Formed in 1877 at the suggestion of Alexander McHardy and Dr. Hugh Gunn, who had learned golf when studying at St Andrews, Dornoch Golf Club (the Royal charter would follow in 1906) was initially a 9-hole course. All that was to change in 1886 when Old Tom Morris arrived at Dornoch, declared it the finest linksland he had every laid eyes on, and set about sculpting the links and idiosyncratic greens into something like the course we are able to play today.

Golf at Royal Dornoch Golf at Royal Dornoch

More changes and alterations have been made to the Championship Course (as it became known) since and in the intervening years John Sutherland, JH Taylor, George Duncan and Donald Ross all shaped Dornoch’s links into the masterpiece it is today.

Donald Ross, a native of Dornoch, would go onto great things from Royal Dornoch, designing over 400 golf courses in the USA, not least Pinehurst No. 2, Seminole, Oak Hill and Oakland Hills.

The Nairn Golf Club has an equally grand history. Founded in 1887 by local politician Robert Findlay (who would go on to become the British Government’s Lord Chancellor), Archie Simpson was the architect who laid down the first course on the low-lying links with pristine turf on the shores of the Moray Firth. As at Dornoch, Old Tom Morris, the great golf architect of the day, would get his chance to influence the Nairn layout and later came to extend the original course westwards.

Five-time Open Champion James Braid came to Nairn two decades later to alter tees and bunkers as well as creating a number of new greens, for which The Nairn Golf Club is renowned. Braid later oversaw further adaptations by Ben Sayers before CK Cotton made some final adjustments to the golf course, leaving it, save for the lengthening of a few holes, much as we know it today.

Such heritage and design excellence is an ongoing process here. Proving the Highland golf scene has more to it than ancient links, Castle Stuart Golf Links is now cementing its own place in golf history. The Mark Parsinen / Gilbert Hanse modern links course, which only opened for play in 2009, is already rated inside the top 60 of Golf Magazine’s Top 100 Golf Courses in the World and looks set to climb the rankings further in coming years.

A key theme in this venue’s development has been creation of distinctive features to the course, from the traditional links-related ‘rumples’ on parts of certain greens to ‘infinity edged’ greens that dramatically display key Highland landmarks, and shaping of the rich landscape mosaic of Scottish ‘whins’ (gorse and broom), heather, and marram to further enhance the links golfing experience.

In 2011, it was the first Highland golf course to host a European Tour event, the Scottish Open. The event returned in 2012, and again in 2013, and Castle Stuart’s goal is to add much further yet to the rich fabric of golf in the Scottish Highlands.