Tuesday, 25 November 2014

The Royal Dornoch PhD Studentship: Winter Golf By Wade Cormack

Sitting inside the club house at the Royal Dornoch, next to the windows overlooking the links, the sun begins to set at 4:00PM and it is apparent that winter is fast approaching.  Turning my gaze towards the east, the North Sea crashes against the beach, to the south, past the stack of the Glenmorangie Distillery, the hills behind the Struie will start to accumulate snow and to the west, the glistening white pointed peaks will announce their presence against the blue winter skies.

This sight, from down on the links is breathtaking for golfers and non-golfers alike. Here, though, the snow does not fall as deep, or like last winter, rarely at all. The placement of the winter tees signals the beginning of a new golfing season. Although the temperature is dropping and the sunlight lacks its nearly constant glow of the summer months, golf in Dornoch continues with enthusiasm as members adjust their game for winter play.

Royal Dornoch Golf Club
(Dornoch Castle in the Winter from the West 1950, Source: www.historylinks.org)

Royal Dornoch Golf Club
(The 13th Green, the Championship Course December 2010 Source: http://www.royaldornoch.com/Gallery)

Golfers in Scotland have rarely languished in the winter months but remained active continuing their favourite pastime. Sir Samuel Forbes’ 1715 description of the Queen’s Links in Aberdeen provides insight into the favoured winter sport. He wrote that along the Queen’s Links ‘the one end of which field, affords a healthfull summer recreation of short bowls; and the other end, the like healthfull winter recreation of the gowff ball’. The links were indeed an active site of recreation in Aberdeen with university students and grammar school pupils taking to the fields alongside their adult counterparts. Dornoch’s praised links were also busy with sports during the school term. In the seventeenth century we have multiple references to Sir Robert Gordon of Gordonstoun, tutor to the young Earl of Sutherland, purchasing bows, arrows, golf clubs and balls along with other ‘necessars for his lordship’s exercise’ to be used while at school in town. 

Thirty years later, when the Earl of Sutherland’s two sons were in London, they also enjoyed golf during the winter months, as their expenses list the purchase of equipment in mid-November of 1656. The Earl of Findlater and Seafield, travelling in the opposite direction, north from London to his seat at Cullen House,  purchased a set of golf clubs for his son, Lord Deskford, in Edinburgh before returning home in the autumn of 1711. The Earl himself also enjoyed golfing near Cullen throughout the autumn and into the winter months of 1712 and 1713, as he recorded the purchase a dozen golf balls that were to be sent from Aberdeen.

While the elite have left numerous expense accounts for purchasing golf equipment in preparation for winter play, we know that the common people were also playing golf during the winter months. The kirk session was vigilant that people were to observe the Sabbath and attend sermon; however, on occasion, avid golfers contemplated their place with God while out on the links. For example, on 19 January, 1596 Walter Hay of Elgin was accused of playing bowls and golf on Sunday during the time of divine service and was fined accordingly.  Fifty years later in Elgin, golf related business remained active in the winter months. George Watsone, a burgess and golf ball maker, was brought before the burgh magistrates who reprimanded him for not settling his debts and instructed him to pay Alexander Geddes for a set of golf clubs he had purchased in February 1649. 

From these few examples, it is clear that golf has been enjoyed in both the summer and winter months. From the elite to the more common ranks of society, golf was played and business continued as snow began to accumulate on the hills. Although there were fewer hours of daylight and the temperature had cooled, golf in Scotland, and especially along the Moray Firth region, was an enjoyable winter sport. So, put on your hats, throw on another layer of clothing, fill your flask up with tea and do not let your golf clubs gather dust. Golf in Scotland is not just a fair weather sport but fit for all seasons.

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