TAIN GOLF CLUB
Chapel Road, Tain; 011-44/1862-892-314, tain-golfclub.co.uk. Yardage: 6,404. Par: 70. Architect: Old Tom Morris, 1890. Greens Fees: $67$82. T+L GOLF Rating: ****
The Golfing Annual of 1896 contains a review of the Tain Golf Club, at the time a twelve-hole course that had been laid out by Old Tom Morris six years prior. It reported that "only two holes can be seen from the tee as the players drive towards them, while in the case of six of them, the flag remains invisible until the player comes well within reach of the disc." This goes to show how little has changed in the past 110 years. Today the hunchbacked fairways are still sheltered by gorse and broom, the greens still tucked behind grassy dunes. It's a peekaboo aesthetic that finds its greatest expression on the par-four eleventh, with a blind approach to a green that cowers behind two enormous mounds. The hole, officially named "The Alps," is called "Dolly Parton" by the members of this quirky club.
NAIRN DUNBAR GOLF CLUB
Lochloy Road, Nairn; 011-44/1667-452-741, nairndunbar.com. Yardage: 6,765. Par: 72. Architect: Uncredited, 1899. Greens Fees: $74$89. T+L GOLF Rating: ***1/2
A local rivalry exists between this and the Nairn Golf Club, located two miles to the west. Unfortunately, it's a fight Dunbar is bound to lose, lying as it does a quarter mile from the ocean and therefore not as spectacular as the seaside Nairn. That said, Dunbar is a thoroughly challenging and superb round of golf. The outgoing holes are the sterner test, with a demanding stretch of lengthy par fours that skirt bushes, pines, lochs and gorse. The incoming holes play easier—unless those mean old westerlies are blowing.
WICK GOLF CLUB
Reiss Sands, Wick; 011-44/1955-602-726, wickgolfclub.com. Yardage: 6,123. Par: 69. Architects: James Braid, circa 1920s; John Sutherland, circa 1930s; Ronan Rafferty and John Hunter, 2002. Greens Fee: $46. T+L GOLF Rating: ***1/2
Originally designed by James Braid and blessed with undulating land, Wick Golf Club got a makeover three years ago to better incorporate the towering dunes that run between the course and the ocean. After consulting with designer Ronan Rafferty, club captain John Hunter hopped onto an earthmover and got to digging. He tucked five new tees and a par-three green high up in the dunes, introducing dynamic drives and angles to several incoming holes along with spectacular views of Sinclair Bay and its castle. Charter members of the James Braid Golfing Society take note: Wick maintains its original tees and greens and can revert to the old layout, if need be.
BEST OF THE REST
An underappreciated links along the northern coast, the Reay Golf Club ($37; 011-44/1847-811-288) is a dunes-slaloming James Braid design that combines with Durness to form an enchanting day of remote linksland joy. The Fortrose & Rosemarkie Golf Club ($56$65; 011-44/1381-620-529) is a local favorite, another Braid links featuring a tumbling opening nine that traces the scenic edge of the Chanonry Peninsula. Twenty-five miles south of Nairn in the Cairngorms National Park is Grantown-on-Spey Golf Club ($46$56; 011-44/1479-872-079), the challenging middle third of which plays through pine-covered hills reminiscent of North Carolina. Also in the Speyside region is Kingussie Golf Club ($41$45; 011-44/1540-661-374), a mountainside layout by Harry Vardon that features meandering burns, a surfeit of elevated greens and a routing with not one but two pairs of back-to-back par threes.
There are two ways to reach the Highlands: Some prefer flying to Edinburgh or Glasgow and driving three or more hours north to Inverness, while others opt to fly to London and connect via BMI Airways to the tidy Inverness Airport. However one gets there, the "bonny wee town"—as locals invariably describe it—of Inverness is the crossroads of the region. The commercial and cultural hub of the Highlands, it has a population of 55,000, which might seem small by U.S. standards but is huge in a region in which sheep outnumber people by more than ten to one. Indeed, traveling through the barren hills of the Highlands, one can still feel the echoes of the Clearances, the campaign of forced relocation (some might say "ethnic cleansing") that the English unleashed upon the region some two centuries ago.
The upside to a sparse population?Not much traffic. Which is a good thing, given the challenges of Highlands driving. There are three main roads that area drivers come to rely upon: the north-south A9, which runs through Inverness, Dornoch and Thurso; the A96, which heads east from the A9 through Nairn; and the A95, which extends from the A9 toward the many distilleries of the central Highlands. Although primarily two-lane roads, these are veritable megahighways compared with the one-lane affairs that traverse the remainder of the region. (On these roads, drivers quickly learn the utility of "passing places," the intermittent turnouts that are often all that stand between them and imminent doom.) These byways can be stunningly gorgeous—the entire region is stunningly gorgeous—which makes keeping alert to oncoming lorries a challenge. Finally, although Highlanders are some of the most pleasant folks on earth, their bonhomie does not translate into an ability to give even mildly passable driving directions—an affliction compounded by their sometimes unintelligible Scottish burr. When departing main roads, allow time to get lost.
With more than eighty local distilleries and more than fifty golf courses, it's a common notion that Highlanders spend every waking hour drinking single malts, playing golf—or doing both at the same time. That's not the whole truth, but not far from it. Thus, the challenge for those who wish to tour the area's distilleries is often choosing which ones. The web site scotchwhisky.net helps: Its clickable map of Scotland offers an exceedingly detailed catalog of each distillery's history and bottlings as well as tour information. Those seeking directions to Glenmorangie (011-44/1862-892-043) or wanting to know the water source of Glen Ord (011-44/1463-870-421) will be equally pleased by this resource. A more paint-by-numbers approach can be enjoyed on the Speyside Malt Whisky Trail (maltwhiskytrail.com). A collection of eight of the finer distilleries of the "Whisky Triangle" region surrounding the River Spey, the trail includes stops for the tasty offerings at Glenlivet (011-44/1542-783-220) and tutored nosings at Aberlour (011-44/1340-881-249).
When it comes to diversions other than golf and whisky, Inverness actually boasts a wide variety. In addition to enjoying the town's bounty of eateries and pubs, one can learn about man-skirts at the Kiltmaker Centre (011-44/1463-222-781), admire the magnificence of Inverness Castle or walk along the enchanting banks of the fast-running River Ness as it flows through the heart of town. Even quicker-moving water can be found at the Aquadome (011-44/1463-667-500), an indoor water park with flume rides and wave lagoons to keep your clan busy while you slip north for another round at Nairn.
Inverness is also the embarkation point for Loch Ness tours—and no self-respecting fan of hoary hoaxes could visit the Highlands without at least a cursory search for Nessie. (Ignore the trendy killjoy theory that the "monster" is likely a Baltic sturgeon.) By far the finest of these tours is Discover Loch Ness (800-731-5564), which combines a lively guided drive around the Loch, a boat trip across its 700-foot-deep waters to the fascinating ruins of Urquhart Castle and a cheesy Nessie multimedia exhibit called Loch Ness 2000—which your kids will love.
But the Highlands offers more than mere monsters. There is, for starters, an entire subculture of obsessive hill walkers here, each intent upon scaling (or, as they call it, "bagging") all 284 of Scotland's 3,000-plus-foot peaks, which they call Munros. Although these people are clearly insane, the views they earn are often splendid, and a list of Munros for you to conquer can be found in the Outdoors section at lifestyle.scotsman.com. There are also Class IV rapids to be run on the Tummel River, which Splash Whitewater Rafting (011-44/1887-829-706) can arrange. And then there is the Speyside Way, a beguiling footpath that winds for sixty-five miles along the River Spey—a great way to defog after a whisky tasting.