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Seaplaning in Scotland

The next day dawned ominously. We were scheduled to fly from Loch Lomond to Loch Earn (a mere twelve-minute trip), from where I could have been on the first tee at Gleneagles after only a short drive. But from Rossdhu House you could barely see the loch through a dark, isolated rainstorm—the weather was too rough to take off. Thus we learned the downside of seaplane travel, but of necessity is born improvisation: We would drive just more than an hour to Gleneagles.

There was undoubtedly some Scottish meteorological explanation of why there was a storm at Loch Lomond and yet only a light drizzle at Gleneagles. I chalked up our change of itinerary to bad luck and headed for the King's course at the resort, my outlook on the weather eased by the caddie master saying to me, "There's never a bad day to play the King's, is there?"

Early the following day, with the sun in the Highlands reappearing, we popped over to Loch Earn to rendezvous with West, who would pilot the plane for the rest of our journey. The Cessna circled overhead, splashed down on its pontoons and rode up the shale beach at the head of the loch. Ribbons of light swept across the water and the shore-edge forests. Ducks paddled in front of the beached seaplane, ignoring what to their eyes must have been an alien visitor.

With our gear repacked into the large tail area of the craft, we took off, bumping over the choppy water before gently easing into the air. All around me were stunning colors I'd never noticed before in Scotland. We were flying low over the loch, in and out of bright sunlight that danced atop the black surface water. Aristocratic mansions and baronial castles appeared, seemingly one after the other, in forest clearings.

Before leaving the area, we circled over the King's and the Queen's courses at Gleneagles. From a couple hundred feet up, there's almost a mathematical feel to these masterful James Braid designs, a kind of Cartesian pleasure. You can see how each ridge and valley has been used; the two old layouts waste nothing.

Donald A. Matheson, the engineer in chief of the Caledonian Railway Company, walked the Strathearn Valley while on holiday there in 1910 and saw its potential as one of the world's great golf destinations. Matheson hired Braid, and only the Great War got in their way. The championship King's course opened in 1919, followed by the shorter Queen's two years later, and in 1924 the Gleneagles resort held its grand opening gala dinner. The resort's erstwhile motto is Heich abune the heich ("Highest above the high"), and it's mystifyingly appropriate. In appraising the land, Matheson and Braid walked over the forested glen; they didn't fly over it or hire a Montgolfier balloon for visual assistance. A century later, I could look down from the seaplane and see the result of their astonishing vision. I wanted to fly over every hole and applaud.

As we Departed the highlands and headed southwest toward Turnberry, I chatted with West about the possibilities that seaplanes offer golfers. People mention Machrihanish, he explained, but British Airways already flies there daily from Glasgow. The military runway at Kintyre can accommodate 747s as well as huge supply aircraft and U.S. Air Force transport planes. Instead, the seaplane for West is all about "the romance of the really remote," as he put it.

"Every week we discover new places we can land, new places that want to welcome us," he said. "If we develop properly, I can see scheduled seaplane flights across Scotland to places that were just too far for people on tight schedules. We can splash into Tobermory Bay or land right next to the golf course at Royal Dornoch. In just over a half hour we can land a group of golfers into Loch Inch, and they'll be on the tee at Boat of Garten not long after. Most lochs—sea lochs included—are no problem at all. We can pretty much go anywhere. And I think it won't take much for the seaplane to become part of the golf landscape. We're not there yet. But people, from tourist authorities to owners of the larger hotels, are now waking up to the potential the seaplane holds."

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