From some of the world's oldest golf courses to dramatic new layouts, the East Lothian region provides an inspirational setting for the travelling golfer. Golfing brothers Andrew & Paul Marshall tee it up along Scotland's Golf Coast...
This is the scene. It’s a sunny mid-May morning at Edinburgh airport, and after loading golf clubs and luggage into our hire car, we drive 15 miles east to Musselburgh Links, the oldest continuously played golf course in the world. This is the start of a five-day journey along Scotland's Golf Coast, playing a half-dozen selection of the 22 top quality golf courses stretching through 30 miles of stunning East Lothian coastline, golden beaches and rolling countryside.
Courses such as Musselburgh Links, North Berwick and Kilspindie are historic links where the golfing forefathers once strode the sheep-cropped turf with their hickory clubs, whilst others such as Craigielaw and Archerfield Links are more recent creations from the modern era.
The great thing about East Lothian is the plethora of options available for golf, accommodation and dining. You can pay around £20 to play a parkland course like Gifford or several times more for an exclusive experience at Muirfield.
You can stay in a caravan by the sea, a local bed & breakfast or a five-star private country house. You can enjoy fish and chips at the Lobster Shack in North Berwick harbour or put on some smart threads for fine dining at Greywalls - there's something to suit all preferences and budgets.
In addition to the excellent golf and stunning coastal vistas, other highlights and attractions along the way include a tour of the famous Glenkinchie Distillery, castle visits, the Scottish Seabird Centre, boat trips to Bass Rock and a tour of Concorde in her final resting place at the National Museum of Flight.
“This is as good a day as it gets at North Berwick West Links,” says club member Drew Cochran, who we join along with Derek Douglas to tackle this traditional links on a narrow strip of land between the town and the Firth of Forth, with scenic island views of Fidra, Craigleith and Bass Rock.
North Berwick Golf Club is steeped in tradition and golf has been played over the historic West Links well before the club was formed in 1832. We discover that playing the West Links is a unique experience and it proves very useful having two members to point out the lines and supply some tips. With its variety of holes and obstacles, the course requires a full repertoire of shot-making to negotiate hidden greens, stone walls, burns, deep bunkers and all manner of humps and hollows.
A hole that sums up the quirkiness of the West Links is the 13th, called 'Pit.' This 362-yard par-4 requires an imaginative approach to a narrow sunken green, protected by a sand dune on the left, mounds on the back right, and most dramatically – by a three-foot-high stone wall that runs completely across the front and sides. One of the world's most famous and most copied holes is the 15th – a par-3 called 'Redan' (a military term meaning 'guarding parapet').
The blind tee shot must carry all the way to a strongly sloping green set at a 45-degree angle behind a long deep bunker. At the following hole, the par-4 16th, you need to carry the burn from the tee, but the real trouble is the putting surface – narrow, raised and dissected by a steep gully. The drivable, short par-4 18th with the clubhouse behind the green and out of bounds on the right, is reminiscent of the closing hole at St Andrews, and concludes an invigorating finishing stretch of golf.
After walking off the final green, we enjoy 19th hole refreshments in the clubhouse bar and then drive a few miles towards the attractive town of Haddington to check in for the night at Letham House, one of East Lothian's finest country houses offering 5-star accommodation. We finish off our day with a meal at the Waterside Bistro in Haddington, known for its good food and range of craft beers. The low whitewashed building is idyllically situated on the banks of the River Tyne with swans drifting by, and pretty views across the water to St Mary's church from the handful of outdoor tables.
Day 2 – The Glen & Glenkinchie
The East Links at the Glen Golf Club in North Berwick is the venue for our second round. Although the East Links live in the shadow of the West Links at the other side of town, this underrated gem offers one of the best-value golf experiences along Scotland's Golf Coast. Originally laid out as a 9-hole course in 1894, it was extended to 18 holes in 1906 with a design provided by James Braid and Ben Sayers.
Every hole of this cliff-top links offers spectacular panoramas and different perspectives of the Firth of Forth and iconic Bass Rock. The course is typified by the 13th, simply known as the 'Sea Hole' which is often likened to the ninth at Pebble Beach. This signature par-3 calls for a blind tee shot of between 92-148 yards over sand dunes with the North Sea crashing against the rugged coastline below.
In the afternoon, as a diversion from golf we visit Glenkinchie Distillery (the home of the Edinburgh Malt), situated in a landscape of rolling hills and farmland 18 miles inland of the coast. “Welcome to the Glenkinchie Distillery,” says our guide Bill Elgin, who walks and talks us through the whisky-making process - one that takes malted barley, grinds it up into a mash with spring water and then distils it before putting it into casks to mature for a minimum of 3 years.
At the end of the tour, Bill announces with a twinkle in his eye, that there will be a taste test in the distillery bar which includes two drams - a Glenkinchie 12-year-old and another whisky from the extensive collection. “The lowlands of Scotland within which Glenkinchie is located has always produced a softer, drier, milder malt whisky than ones from other regions,” Bill tells us.“I always recommend a few drops of water with whiskey, the water opens it up for a fuller aroma and a more rounded flavour.”
Our accommodation for the night is the comfortable Milleur House Bed & Breakfast, run by hospitable husband-and-wife team Drew and Moira Cochran, situated only a par-4 away from North Berwick Golf Club. “We started the B&B before the British Open at Muirfield in 2013 and it's just grown from there,” says Drew. “We now have all kinds of guests staying with us, from truck drivers and scientists, to golfers and Americans hiking the John Muir Way.”
In the evening we drive to the pretty village of Dirleton to enjoy a meal at the family-owned Open Arms Hotel serving wholesome food at good prices, with friendly service and a comfortable lounge with log fires in the colder months. Just across the village green is 13th-century Dirleton Castle, a fine example of a fortified medieval residence and within its walls are colourful gardens including the world's largest herbaceous border.
Day 3: Bass Rock & Birdies The following morning we enjoy a hearty breakfast to fuel up for the day ahead. Paul chooses the full Scottish of eggs, bacon, wild boar sausages, black pudding, tomato and mushrooms. I go for the scrambled eggs and Scottish smoked salmon on a toasted muffin. “I don't do fast food here, I do good slow food, and all our produce is locally-sourced,” says Moira.
We take a leisurely stroll along North Berwick's beach and then board a catamaran from the picturesque harbour for a one-hour island seabird cruise. Less than half a mile away is the small island and bird colony of Craigleith where our guide points out a variety of seabird species; guillemots, razorbills, kittiwakes, eider ducks, cormorants and crowd-pleasing puffins with their clown-like faces and huge, multicoloured bills.
The star of the seabird tour is Bass Rock, a steep-sided volcanic rock which is home to the largest Northern gannet colony in the world, with numbers peaking at over 150,000 birds. Gannets are Britain's largest seabird and have a distinctive appearance: adults are bright white with black wingtips, long neck, pointed beak and long pointed tail. They are famed for their diving prowess and plunge into the sea at speeds of up to 60mph to feed on fish. It's an incredible sight and the rock is literally white because of the sheer volume and density of the gannets.
On the return journey back to the harbour there is a handsome view of 14th-century Tantallon Castle, the spectacular cliff-top seat of the Douglases; one of the most powerful families in Scotland. Back in North Berwick and well worth a visit is the Scottish Seabird Centre, where you can control the interactive live cameras to watch the gannets on Bass Rock and the puffins on Craigleith.
In the afternoon we check in for a stay and play at Craigielaw Golf Lodge which boasts 25 well-appointed rooms with some overlooking the 18-hole golf course. Although only opened in 2001, this Donald Steel design is true to links traditions and looks and plays like it’s been part of the landscape for a century or more. Routed through a gently undulating landscape, it features challenging greens that are tricky to hold, strategically-placed bunkers, meandering burns and ancient stone dykes. Other facilities on site include a grassed driving range, well-stocked pro shop, 6-hole par-3 short course and lessons with a PGA professional.
Day 4 – Parkland & Links On our schedule today is a morning round at Gifford Golf Club followed by Musselburgh Links in the afternoon. Laid out in 1904, Gifford is a lovely 9-hole course set in gently undulating parkland on the outskirts of the picturesque village of Gifford. Judging by the welcome sign in the clubhouse entrance, which says “The best 9 holes in Scotland - Golf World”, we know we're in for a treat.
“A 9-hole course like Gifford is becoming more of an attraction these days, where golfers play 18 holes in the morning at say Gullane or North Berwick and then come here to finish the day,” says Club Captain John Scott who makes up our three-ball. Before leaving, it's worth the green fee alone to sample the delights of the dinky clubhouse oozing with character. We place our food orders and have hardly sat down before Shirley magically produces bacon rolls and bowls of hearty chicken and vegetable soup. Gifford Golf Club is maintained to a high standard and with a friendly welcome assured, it's certainly worth a visit.
If St Andrews is the 'Home of Golf', then our next stop at Musselburgh Old Links is the 'Cradle of Golf.' This 9-hole par-34 links is the oldest course in the world still being played (with documentary evidence dating back to 1672) and the venue of six Open Championships from 1874 to 1889. The course is ensconced almost entirely inside Musselburgh Racecourse adding to the character and charm of the place.
A few more interesting snippets about Musselburgh Old Links: the world's first hole-cutting machine was introduced here by Robert Gay in 1829, the green at the 6th hole called 'The Table' may be the first two level green in golf and Oliver Cromwell set up camp on the course in 1650. For a unique golfing experience, you can hire hickory golf clubs and play the course as it was in its heyday. Make sure to make the pilgrimage.
The home for our last night is the Ducks Inn in Aberlady. Built in 1638, Ducks is classy and relaxed and caters for all tastes - you can choose between pub grub or the 2AA Rosette Restaurant, select from a wine list rated by Wine Spectator, sample one of 90 whiskies, choose from 25 different Cuban cigars or simply order a pint. We enjoy a convivial evening in the bar trying some local ales and playing the infamous 'Duck of Fame' putting game (you will have to stay to find out more) with some golfers from Bolton.
Day 5 – The Final Round We check out of the Ducks Inn and drive 6 miles along the A198 through Gullane (which boasts a trio of superb links courses, appropriately named No.1, No.2 and No.3) and past Muirfield, for a 9am tee time at the Renaissance Club, the latest addition to Scotland's Golf Coast. Designed by acclaimed American golf architect Tom Doak (of Pacific Dunes, Cape Kidnappers and Barnbougle Dunes fame), the Renaissance Club, which opened in 2008 delivers an entirely new golf experience.
Set on elevated coastal ground overlooking the Firth of Forth and carved out of 300 acres of pine forest, this distinctive and pleasing aesthetic design is routed through an open dunes landscape, punctuated by windswept trees, drystone walls, linksy rough and fast undulating greens. The course starts beningly enough, but from the 7th onwards, it builds more character and opens up towards the coast.
Some of the standout holes are the 9th and 11th - two photogenic par-3's featuring ancient rock walls and twisted pines, and the dramatic par-4 10th, where a drive across coastal dunes to a thin ribbon of fairway is followed by an approach to a tilted putting surface set tight to the cliffs. After you leave the green make sure to call at the halfway house for haggis pie and soup.
Although the Renaissance Club is an exclusive private members club, currently on offer is the 'One Time Experience', where any golfer can play the course, stay in fantastic accommodation (one of the many nice touches is the bottle of Glenkinchie whisky and two glasses in each room), enjoy gourmet cuisine, unwind amongst the state-of-the-art facilities or use the club as a base to play nearby courses.
After our round, we feel beaten up by this tough yet thoroughly enjoyable test of golf, and we discover it is all too easy to three or four-putt the professional standard greens with their subtle undulations and breaks. Over a cold beer and gourmet sandwiches on the clubhouse deck, we run through our scorecards and discuss some of the other courses you can play in East Lothian.
When we return, top of the list will be a game at Longniddry - the closest seaside course to Edinburgh dating back to 1921 which is a parkland course with some links-style holes overlooking the Firth of Forth, and a stay at Garleton Lodge, a luxury B&B in the Heart of East Lothian.
Other golf options include Archerfield Links (a unique mix of pine forest and fast running links) and Luffness New Golf Club, renowned for having some of Scotland's best greens. The golf journey along the coast gloriously concludes at Dunbar Golf Club, where three giants of the game, Old Tom Morris, James Braid and Ben Sayers created a classic 1856 links to add to the mix, with fourteen holes hugging the Firth of Forth. Here's to a return golf trip to Scotland's Golf Coast...
Getting Around: Enterprise Car Hire (Pick-up and drop-off from Edinburgh Airport): http://www.enterprise.co.uk
Where To Play:
Longniddry Golf Club: http://www.longniddrygolfclub.co.uk
North Berwick Golf Club: htpp://www.northberwickgolfclub.com
Glen Golf Club: http://www.glengolfclub.co.uk
Craigielaw Golf Club : http://www.craigielawgolfclub.com
Gifford Golf Club (9 holes): http://www.giffordgolfclub.com
Musselburgh Old Links (9 holes): http://www.musselburgholdlinks.co.uk
Glenkinchie Distillery: http://www.discovering-distilleries.com
Scottish Seabird Centre (& Boat trips to Bass Rock): http://www.seabird.org
National Museum of Flight: http://www.nms.ac.uk/flight
John Muir Way: http://www.johnmuirway.org