PERCHED ON CLIFFTOPS OVERLOOKING THE MORAY AND Dornoch firths, ancient fortifications and ghostly castles, some in ruins, stand outlined against the gray-blue scrim of the North Sea. And along roadsides and footpaths that trace the coastline, simple rock cairns markthe passing of long-ago people and events. Who built these structures?Who fought and died here?And for what?
These are the sorts of questions that occur to you while playing golf in the Scottish Highlands. Ancient relics are visible from the fairways that now occupy these same shores, and any trip to play the seaside links where the game began gives visitors a glimpse of a deeper history, of where Scotland began. In the Highlands, Vikings battled resident Picts for the eastern shores more than one thousand years ago (the Norse gave the county of Sutherland its name, it being south of Norway). In the fourteenth century, an army of Highlanders helped William Wallace defeat the English at Stirling Bridge to assert Scotland's autonomy. And it was in the Highlands that the struggle for independence was finally lost, at the bloody Battle of Culloden. On a muddy moor southeast of Inverness in the spring of 1746, an undermanned army of Scottish nationalists was crushed by the government's forces. Scotland and the Highlands were never the same.
History is by no means the only compelling reason to drive north. The British Open rota courses get more attention, but the northeast is where the wildest of Scottish linkslands lie. Royal Dornoch, Nairn and Cruden Bay are as good as any trio of courses to be found farther south. And there is nothing, anywhere, quite like the Carnegie Club. Just west of Dornoch, the club houses members and, if space allows, occasional guests in the luxuriously appointed Skibo Castle, the retreat of one of Scotland's most famous emigrants, Andrew Carnegie. Visitors can play the updated Carnegie Links when they aren't out riding or practicing falconry. Tartaned staff deliver tea and pints of beer, often before you think to ask. They stock guest rooms with decanters of the house single malt, and they put hot-water bottles in your four-poster at night.
LINKS GOLF, OF COURSE, TAKES SOME GETTING USED TO. THE Old course at Moray Golf Club, in Lossiemouth, east of Nairn, has the usual high winds, bounding fairways, prickly gorse and crowned greens. It's a little-appreciated gem laid out in 1889, and into the wind, the incoming holes--from the 184-yard par-three fifteenth to the amphitheater green at the 406-yard eighteenth--are as tough a conclusion as you will find north of Carnoustie.
I got there from Glasgow on a route that cuts through the heart of Moray, home to half of Scotland's whisky distilleries, and on the lovely drive down the River Spey was tempted to stop every few minutes to sample Glen This and Glen That. I did stop between Elgin and Lossiemouth to examine the curious ruins of Duffus Castle, a fourteenth-century Norman-style structure that now sits surrounded by grain fields several miles inland from the sea. It was erected on built-up land to give it a better view, but it eventually collapsed because the fill could not support the massive stone walls. Now chunks of those walls sit imbedded in the turf at odd angles, testaments to bad planning. In far better shape are Brodie and Cawdor castles, just to the west. Cawdor, built in the mid-fifteenth century by the sheriff of Nairn, is particularly impressive and has lush gardens full of flox, dahlias and endless shades of heather.
Compared with the Old course at Moray, the layout at Nairn Dunbar is uninspiring. Nairn Golf Club, on the other hand, is uplifting. The site of many championships, including last year's Walker Cup matches, Nairn, built in 1887, is in immaculate condition. The design is brilliant, and what a thrilling setting--the first seven holes are right beside the beach. It helped that I was there on a gorgeous day, the dew-covered fairways sparkling in the early-morning sun and the wind tossing the honey-colored fescue and whipping whitecaps on the deep-blue Moray Firth.
To get a better appreciation of the course, my twosome had Ron and Jack carrying the bags. Both are actually members of this pleasantly informal club and, retired from their respective careers, pick up some extra income caddying. They sensibly advised us to lay up off the tee at number two to avoid a burn that, although 290 yards out, is reachable downwind. And at the twelfth tee, Jack warned prophetically, "The next three are the telling holes here--twelve, thirteen and fourteen are our Amen Corner." They were.
Along the way, these two locals told stories about working the Walker Cup (the "Yanks" were terrific gentlemen, even in defeat) and explained such Nairn oddities as the cat that sauntered onto the third green (a stray that now lives here), and the hut between the ninth green and the tenth tee (a former icehouse where fishermen stored catches of salmon). The caddies also recommended an early lunch in the new clubhouse, which was a good call--great views, Belhaven Best ale and a robust scotch broth.