From Castle Stuart to Boat of Garten
Scotland has many shorelines, but to my mind there’s none finer than that along the Moray Firth, in the northern highlands of the country.
Play golf on a sunny day at Castle Stuart, near Inverness, and you’ll be dazzled by the beauty of your surroundings. Across the sparkling blue waters of the firth are the headlands of the Black Isle, to your left the mighty spans of the Kessock Bridge, and to your right the Chanonry peninsula jutting out into the firth, home to one of several links golf courses which adorn this coastline.
Castle Stuart is a modern links, home to the Scottish Open in recent years, and it’s regarded by some as the region’s jewel in the crown, having attracted and introduced many more visiting golfers to northernmost parts of Scotland since it opened for play in 2009. It’s conveniently close to Inverness airport.
Castle Stuart is situated on one of the most beautiful sites in golf, comparable to Pebble Beach, but not as dramatic as Pinnacle Point. It’s unique in having been built on two distinct levels, so the views are constantly changing. The opening holes of each nine (in two loops rather than the traditional out and back) are played lower down along the shoreline, and then you climb back up to the higher ground to finish.
With its wide fairways it appears relatively benign, but appearances are deceptive. It was designed by American Gil Hanse, who was commissioned to build the Olympic course in Rio de Janeiro for the 2016 Games, and his greens complexes at Castle Stuart are exceedingly awkward to play. Even the pros have been nonplussed at times. They look delightful to the eye, yet missing them in the wrong place can be catastrophic. You need a vivid imagination, and a touch for unconventional shots, to escape from their clutches.
Hanse has a flair for creating dramatic holes, and there are many that appeal visually at Castle Stuart in the way they naturally fit into the landscape. The short par-4 third is a classic risk-andreward hole, a sliver of a green perched on a rocky beach, guarded by pot bunkers to the left. The par-3 11th, which plays from an elevated tee directly towards the water, is another beauty. The back nine is brilliant; a stunning mixture of holes traversing the rolling terrain. The long par-3 17th, high above the firth, and the downhill par-5 18th back to the clubhouse, particularly make the heart sing.
The downside of Castle Stuart is the green fee. At £190 for 18 holes it’s expensive in a region where there’s excellent value to be found. That’s because it’s purely a ‘resort’ course, with no
members (it closes during the winter months). Nairn Golf Club, along the coast, is ranked above Castle Stuart among the top courses in Britain and Ireland (both are between 20 and 30), yet the green fee is a more realistic £110. Curiously, there is a deal in Nairn where you can play the town’s two courses – the other is Nairn Dunbar, and a fine links it is too – for £105, provided you tee off during certain times.
Nairn, despite or possibly because of its relative remoteness in the Highlands, has always occupied a special place in the pantheon of classic great British courses. When I first visited Scotland, with little knowledge of what was worth playing, I turned for inspiration to a publication called the AA Guide to Golf in Great Britain (1977). It contained essays by various golf writers on “the top 50 courses,” and I set out to play as many as I could. Some of those courses are not even in the top 100 today, but Nairn has endured, and remained a favourite of mine since the day I first discovered it.
Few golf clubs have found a home as perfectly located as Nairn. It’s in a quiet culde-sac at the end of Seabank Road, and the car park is shared by golfers and locals going for a walk along the adjoining beach. In 1887 the Victorians evidently didn’t share our love for seafront living, so the new golf club was granted land on the Moray Firth. You can stand in the club car park and comfortably hurl a ball over the sea wall on to the beach.
The terrain is flat, and the first seven holes stretch their way along the shoreline before looping back inland. The beach is in play on all of these holes. You’ll search the world in vain to find anything like this in golf. This was a wilderness of whins and heather in days gone by, so you have a combination of sea-washed turf and springy heathland grasses. Gorse is an ever-present hazard. After playing 12 links holes, you surprisingly turn uphill at the 13th into a heathland valley, before returning back to links golf for the last four holes. Nairn’s greens are mostly flat, a pleasure on which to putt and chip, yet there is sufficient variety in their shapes to make them interesting. The original design was renovated by James Braid, and any course associated with him has additional cachet.
The delight of being at Nairn extends to the smart modern clubhouse as much
as the course. The bay windows in the spacious lounge area, overlooking the first tee and starter’s hut, provide glorious views down the length of the course and across the firth. Befitting one of the premier members’ clubs in the Highlands, Nairn also provides a fine dining experience, very different though from those men’s lunches at the likes of Muirfield and Prestwick. This is very much a golf club where men and women share the course and facilities equally. Women members enjoy the 9-hole Cameron mashie course close to the clubhouse. In the last 15 years the club has hosted two of the oldest amateur team events in golf, the Walker Cup and Curtis Cup, between the respective men’s and women’s teams of the United States and GB & Ireland.
If you’re spending time in the region, Nairn has a 3-bedroom bungalow available for rent on the course.
The Moray Firth is at its narrowest alongside Castle Stuart, and it gradually widens out into the North Sea by the time you get to Lossiemouth, home to both the Moray Golf Club and Royal Air Force. Moray has similarities to St Andrews. Two courses, the Old and New, an 18th hole on the Old Course coming back into the town, and lots of golf holes stretching out into the distance. Both towns had RAF bases, but army regiments are mov- ing in at Leuchars near St Andrews, with Lossiemouth becoming the main airbase.
If you’re interested in close-ups of fighter jets in flight, and don’t mind the noise, then a day’s golf at Moray has extra value. They come in low across the links while practising touch-and-go circuits. It’s a plane-spotter’s delight.
Lossiemouth is an attractive town, most of it built on a promontory by the mouth of the River Lossie. This is where Moray GC has its clubhouse, a grand old twostorey building overlooking one of the finest 18th holes in the game. The clubhouse is on high ground, providing sweeping views of the sea and course. I found the members here among the most hospitable in Scotland, friendly and welcoming.
The 18th on the Old Course provides an exceptional finish to the round. If Moray had more holes like this it would be among the most acclaimed in the British Isles. On the 17th you’re among low-lying natural linksland; then you walk over to the 18th which is lined on its right side by a row of mansions. They’re up on a slope, so don’t intrude on the line of play. It’s a long par 4, with a rolling fairway full of deep corrugations. In fair weather a good drive sets you up for a mid- or long-iron approach into an elevated green that sits immediately below the clubhouse. Deep bunkers
“MORAY HAS SIMILARITIES TO ST ANDREWS, HAVING AN OLD AND NEW COURSE, AND FIGHTER JETS.”
await left and right. This is a links challenge for the memory bank, and one that we played twice in the same day.
Moray is a full day’s golf, because you need to play both courses to get a sense of what it’s about. They are equally enjoyable, fairly similar – there’s a sense of déjà vu at times – and you only pay £90 to play both on the day: There are some fabulous par 3s to experience. My advice is to begin with the Old, considered the premier layout, because not only is the first tee right by the pro shop, but during the day you will get to play 37 holes.
After lunch in the clubhouse we walked out to play the New, which has its first tee a fair distance away. It also ends in the middle of nowhere, but lo and behold the Old’s 18th is close by, so if no other golfers are in sight, you get to play it again at the end of the day. If you only want to play the Old, it’s £50 if you tee off before 8.30am in summer, eminently good value.
Overlooking the 18th is the Links Lodge, a guest house run by golfers, another ideal base for golf in the region.
The Highlands conjures up a vision of golf in the mountains, and there are good courses inland as well. Far and away the best is Boat of Garten Golf & Tennis Club, in a village on the River Spey. The road there from Nairn takes you over desolate moors, a reminder that this part of Scotland is largely a wilderness. It adjoins the Cairngorms National Park, and on a clear day mountains are visible from the course. On the first tee at the Boat, a par 3, you’ll hear the whistle of a steam train from the station, and out on the heathland course you’ll see it chugging by, pulled by an engine belonging to the Strathspey Steam Railway based in Aviemore. It’s back and forth all day with tourists.
Boat of Garten, an original James Braid design, is on the short side, undulating, quite a switchback ride at times, with a fair share of blind shots, lined with trees and heather, and provides a good deal of fun for £45, or just £30 if you play in the evening. Not only is it a scenic walk on springy turf, but you get to play a collection of varied and challenging shots. If you like it you can have a second round for £13.
Other good 18-hole courses in the area are at Grantown on Spey and Newtonmore. In fact, golf is plentiful around here. We stopped at an attractive moorland 9-holer, Abernethy, where there was the unusual sight of a blind par 3 where the aiming point was a hillside war memorial. Only in Scotland.
The Nairn links is right on the Moray Firth.
The 18th hole on the Old Course at Moray Golf Club.
Boat of Garten is close to the Cairngorms National Park.