LOCH & HOLES

Add a unique di­men­sion to a Scot­tish golf tour, and jour­ney by barge through lochs and along the scenic Cale­do­nian Canal. Our cor­re­spon­dents take their golf clubs aboard the Scot­tish High­lander.

Golf Australia - - CONTENT - WORDS AN­DREW MAR­SHALL PHO­TOG­RA­PHY PAUL MAR­SHALL

Add a unique di­men­sion to a Scot­tish golf tour and jour­ney by barge through lochs and along the scenic Cale­do­nian Canal. Our cor­re­spon­dents take their golf clubs aboard the Scot­tish High­lander.

Golf by ho­tel barge in Scot­land, it’s an in­ter­est­ing con­cept. Trav­el­ling by this mode of trans­port harkens back to a by­gone era, one of ro­mance and ad­ven­ture. Com­bine this with four rounds of golf, on cour­ses rang­ing from quirky High­land nine-hole tracks to top notch links such as Royal Dornoch and Cas­tle Stu­art, add in some mouth-wa­ter­ing cui­sine, world­class sin­gle-malts and con­vivial com­pany, and it may just be the recipe for the ul­ti­mate ‘golf, leisure and life­style’ ex­pe­ri­ence.

Keen to give it a try, we join the crew and other guests aboard Eu­ro­pean Wa­ter­ways’ Scot­tish High­lander for a week-long cruise tai­lor-made for golfers – a jour­ney from Fort Wil­liam to In­ver­ness (110km to the north east) along the scenic Cale­do­nian Canal, with views of snow-capped Ben Ne­vis, across mys­te­ri­ous lochs where an­cient cas­tles perch on heather-clad hill­sides, home of golden ea­gle and red deer. This is some of the finest in­land cruis­ing scenery in Eu­rope.

“Wel­come aboard the Scot­tish High­lander and help your­self to glasses of cham­pagne,” says skip­per Dan Clark, as in­tro­duc­tions are made, golf clubs and lug­gage loaded aboard and cruis­ing golf guests shown to their cab­ins. One of four crew, easy-go­ing Dan is an ex­pe­ri­enced barge mas­ter who knows these wa­ter­ways like Phil Mick­el­son knows the con­tours of Au­gusta Na­tional’s greens. He im­presses not only with his abil­ity to guide the 117-foot (35-me­tre) ves­sel into the small­est lock with only inches to spare but is also a dab hand at play­ing the ac­cor­dion.

Other crew mem­bers in­clude house­keeper and deck-hand Melissa Ho, a friendly New Zealand

lady, who as­sists with the lock work and beavers away keep­ing ev­ery­thing ship-shape. Next up, with an ac­cent as thick as a High­land mist, is tour guide Moshy, who chau eurs guests to the golf cour­ses. And fi­nally there’s chef John Bax­ter, an ec­cen­tric per­son­al­ity with a sin­gle-fig­ure hand­i­cap, who is like a cross be­tween cook-show host Keith Floyd and co­me­dian Stephen Fry. John is an ex­pert on lo­cal recipes, cheeses and fine wines, and one of his pas­sions is late night golf con­ver­sa­tions over bot­tles of red. “Help your­self to the wine, beer and whiskies,” he says, dis­ap­pear­ing into his float­ing kitchen with ever-chang­ing views, where he will be­gin to rus­tle up one of many ex­quis­ite dishes fit for a king.

There’s no ques­tion of rough­ing it aboard the Scot­tish High­lander.

Built in Hol­land in 1931 to carry grain and con­verted into a ho­tel barge in 2000, the spa­cious eight pas­sen­ger ves­sel has the at­mos­phere of a Scot­tish coun­try house with sub­tle use of tar­tan fur­nish­ings and land­scape paint­ings. Ev­ery con­ceiv­able com­fort for year-round cruis­ing has been thought of in­clud­ing: cabin heat­ing, ice-maker, pres­sure show­ers, a cosy sa­loon, li­brary, fish­ing gear and bi­cy­cles.

Pow­ered by a 120-hp Gar­diner diesel, the Scot­tish High­lander cruises along at a steady 3 knots. “She never misses a heart­beat,” says Dan, as we mo­tor along the Cale­do­nian Canal to­wards Gair­lochy on the morn­ing of our se­cond day.

The ma­jes­tic Cale­do­nian Canal was built in 1822 to pro­vide a speedy link for sail­ing boats and freight ves­sels be­tween the North Sea and the At­lantic Ocean. It is 60 miles (96.6km) in length, of which about a third is a man-made cut­ting which links a chain of nat­u­ral lochs – Loch Lochy, Loch Oich, Loch Ness and Loch Dochfour.

Our golf­ing trip afloat quickly de­vel­ops into a re­lax­ing life­style. There’s plenty of op­por­tu­ni­ties to watch the scenery un­fold from the barge’s sun­deck, ob­serve lock op­er­a­tion, visit the Ben Ne­vis whisky dis­tillery and of course play golf.

First up is 18 holes at New­ton­more, a park­land track that is renowned for its num­ber of left­handed play­ers. Beau­ti­fully si­t­u­ated amongst the Mon­adhliath and Grampian Moun­tains with the river Spey bor­der­ing its side, it’s a good op­por­tu­nity to get into the swing of things be­fore the more de­mand­ing links tests that lay ahead.

On day three, we moor up in his­toric Fort Au­gus­tus right be­side the five-lock stair­case that forms the cen­tre­piece of the vil­lage, bor­dered by quaint cot­tages, a fish and chip shop and the ap­pro­pri­ately named Lock Inn, a pop­u­lar spot for a canal-side pint. Af­ter a hearty lunch of Navarin of Lamb with thyme, pars­ley and bay leaf, Moshy drives the group to the vil­lage out­skirts where the quirky com­po­nent of our ‘golf-and-barge’ ex­pe­ri­ence awaits.

Si­t­u­ated on moor­land ground, on which crofters grazed their stock, the nine-hole lay­out of Fort Au­gus­tus es­tab­lished in 1930 is as raggedy around the edges, as the wiry heather that lines the fair­ways. For starters, the course lay­out di­a­gram on the score­card is so di¡cult to un­der­stand it would con­fuse a geom­e­try pro­fes­sor. There’s more sheep on the fair­ways and greens than at shear­ing time on a New Zealand farm. The lo­cal rules make in­ter­est­ing read­ing: ‘A ball ly­ing on sheep wool, or made dirty by sheep drop­pings, may be lifted and

cleaned with­out penalty.’

The course record is a 63 cur­rently held by ‘Big Pe­ter.’ “Not a lot is known about him ex­cept he’s big and he’s a long hit­ter,” says one mem­ber with a wry smile. Fort Au­gus­tus is still great fun though, but be care­ful not to slice your tee shot on the par-5, 6th and 15th, ap­pro­pri­ately named Canal.

Each evening, around the time when ev­ery­one is pour­ing them­selves their 19th-hole tip­ple of choice, John emerges from the gal­ley kitchen and an­nounces the din­ner menu.

“Tonight we’ll be hav­ing high­land pie, which is made of ground beef, mashed pota­toes, beer, and ‘a lit­tle bit of that stu‡ from the top shelf’ all mar­i­nated overnight,” he says. “Then we’ll fin­ish of with baked ap­ple and some Lady Jane, a hand­moulded ched­dar from the He­bridean Is­land of Gigha.” All the pro­duce is sourced lo­cally – such as de­li­cious lamb shanks, veni­son, salmon and award-win­ning hag­gis from the butcher in Fort Au­gus­tus. The cheeses are a culi­nary high­light – from Orkney Smoked Ched­dar, and Scot­tish Brie to goat cheese made by Don­ald John, the lock keeper at Dochgar­roch, all paired up with a se­lec­tion of qual­ity French and New World wines.

Meal times are an op­por­tu­nity for guests to get to know one an­other. “My kids bought me this golf trip as a sur­prise birth­day gift and I didn’t know what to ex­pect. I never thought I’d en­joy it so much. It’s so re­lax­ing,” says Rich Colfer, a sprightly and funny gas me­ter sales­man from New Jer­sey.

Stay­ing in the Cameron dou­ble suite is Har­riet Wolfe, a lawyer and sin­gle-malt con­nois­seur from Con­necti­cut. Com­plet­ing the guest list in ad­di­tion to our good selves are keen golf­ing cou­ple Walt and Margi Sch­mick from Den­ver, who are treat­ing them­selves to this golf cruise for their wed­ding an­niver­sary. The con­ver­sa­tion and wine flows freely and in­vari­ably in­volves golf – laugh­ing about the sheep at Fort Au­gus­tus Golf Club, dis­cussing the highs and lows of the day’s round and what would Nairn, our third course be like?

Nairn’s Cham­pi­onship course is home of the fa­mous Great Bri­tain & Ire­land Walker Cup vic­tory in 1999, and one of the finest links cour­ses in the coun­try.

Founded in 1887 and added to and ex­tended by Archie Simp­son, Old Tom Mor­ris and James Braid, Nairn is a clas­sic “out and back” par-72 links course with a strong Scot­tish am­bi­ence. The 1st hole, aptly named Sea, gives a hint of what lies in store as the course threads its way along the south­ern shore of the Mo­ray Firth with spec­tac­u­lar views over the wa­ter to the Su­tors of Cro­marty, Ben Wyvis and the hills of Suther­land be­yond.

The par-4 holes tease and con­found and all four short holes are cun­ningly an­gled, with the 4th a lit­tle gem and the 14th a clas­sic played from an el­e­vated tee-box. All three of the par-5 holes are more than 530 yards long, which is a test for all. With crisp fair­ways, deep pot bunkers and pun­ish­ing rough and gorse, it makes it very di£cult to post a re­spectable score, which we all dis­cover. But it’s the speed of the bil­liard ta­ble-like greens, some of the best in the coun­try which will prove to be the big­gest chal­lenge. Sev­eral decades ear­lier, hav­ing played the Cham­pi­onship Course, James Braid com­mented on their qual­ity – “The tex­ture of the turf and char­ac­ter of the greens is un­ri­valled,” he said.

Af­ter leav­ing our moor­ing at Fort Au­gus­tus

THERE’S MORE SHEEP ON THE FAIR­WAYS AND GREENS THAN AT SHEAR­ING TIME ON A NEW ZEALAND FARM.

we cruised across the mighty wa­ters of Loch Ness. At 22 miles (38km) long and up to 1.5 miles wide (2.4km), its sur­round­ing moun­tains en­ter the wa­ter dra­mat­i­cally enough to form sheer un­der­wa­ter clis. No­body knows for cer­tain if mon­sters in­habit the near 300-me­tre (1000-ft) depths, but cer­tainly its peat-dark­ened wa­ters would be the per­fect place for such a leg­end to hide. In­cred­i­bly, ‘sight­ings’ of a crea­ture are recorded as far back as the 7th Cen­tury, and carv­ings of this uniden­ti­fied an­i­mal made by an­cient in­hab­i­tants of the Scot­tish High­lands some 1,500 years have also been found. We joke to our­selves that there’s prob­a­bly a bet­ter chance of spot­ting ‘Nessie’ than shoot­ing un­der our hand­i­caps at the fi­nal course of our golf cruise – the re­mote and test­ing links of Royal Dornoch, about an hour’s drive from our moor­ing at Dochgar­roch.

“You’ll need a six-inch nail to keep your hat on to­day,” says the starter, as a four-ball made up of Rich, Har­riet, Margi and Walt pre­pare to tee o on Dornoch’s 331-yard par-4 1st. Paul and I fol­low be­hind as a two-ball, and as sure as the qual­ity of John Bax­ter’s cook­ing, the wind is up. I quickly study the course guide and ner­vously draw a 4 hy­brid from the bag. Royal Dornoch throws down the gaunt­let right from the open­ing tee shot.

“Af­ter the se­cond hole, you round a cor­ner, pass a hedge and golf­ing heaven breaks loose.” These words on the club’s web­site are temp­ta­tion enough, but once we go around the said cor­ner, ev­ery­thing about this her­alded links is right in front of us. Framed be­tween the hills and moun­tains to the left and the wild North Sea, is a rich ta­pes­try of un­du­lat­ing fair­ways and greens in­ter­spersed with flow­er­ing yel­low gorse.

Golf was first played here at least as far back as 1616 when the Earl of Suther­land or­dered clubs and balls to take up the game that was be­com­ing so pop­u­lar fur­ther south. This makes Royal Dornoch, the third old­est golf­ing com­mu­nity in Scot­land. It was also the home course of Don­ald Ross, the fa­mous golf ar­chi­tect who cre­ated some of Amer­ica’s finest lay­outs in­clud­ing the famed Pine­hurst No.2.

The lay­out is clas­sic links with the first eight holes fol­low­ing the nat­u­ral slants and humps of the old dune em­bank­ments while the re­main­der skirts the sandy beaches of Dornoch Bay. Plateau greens are char­ac­ter­is­tic as well as raised tees, and on the par-3s, these saucer-shaped greens prove daunt­ing. The 163-yard 6th known as Whinny Brae has to be one of the tough­est par-3 tests with no favours for those hit­ting left into the gorse or right down a steep bank where dou­ble bo­geys are rou­tine.

Al­though the front nine is de­light­ful, it is the back nine where the real ex­am­i­na­tion be­gins. Harry Var­don reck­oned that Foxy, the 445-yard par-4 14th hole was the most nat­u­ral hole in golf, with no bunkers and a suc­ces­sion of hillocks run­ning up to the green on the right. The clos­ing holes over the barely cov­ered bones of the links, and the thin turf can throw a ball in any di­rec­tion no mat­ter how well struck.

Five-time Open Cham­pion and links afi­cionado Tom Wat­son prob­a­bly summed up Royal Dornoch the best when he said “This is the most fun I have had play­ing golf in my whole life.”

And Mr Wat­son’s very same words could eas­ily be ap­plied to a week’s gourmet golf cruis­ing on Eu­ro­pean Wa­ter­way’s Scot­tish High­lander.

FUR­THER IN­FOR­MA­TION:

The itin­er­ary fea­tured in this story is a sam­ple golf trip and other trips o ered by Eu­ro­pean Wa­ter­ways may di er from the one fea­tured. They could in­clude other golf cour­ses (such as Cas­tle Stu­art) and could start in a re­verse di­rec­tion. www.eu­ro­pean­wa­ter­ways.com

WE JOKE TO OUR­SELVES THAT THERE’S PROB­A­BLY A BET­TER CHANCE OF SPOT­TING ‘NESSIE’ THAN SHOOT­ING UN­DER OUR HAND­I­CAPS ...

Flow­er­ing gorse and heather at Fort Au­gus­tus Golf Club

A golfer heads to­wards the green of the par-3 (7th & 16th) at quirky Fort Au­gus­tus Golf Club.

A lux­ury twin cabin on the Scot­tish High­lander.

A scenic view to­wards the green of Cas­tle Stu­art’s par-4 3rd hole.

Leav­ing the Scot­tish High­lander with clubs for the next 18-holes

The view to­wards the green of the par-5 18th at Cas­tle Stu­art Golf Links, In­ver­ness.

The Scot­tish High­lander cruis­ing on the beau­ti­ful Cale­do­nian Canal.

Royal Dornoch Golf Club with the gorse in full bloom.

The out­stand­ing par-3 6th hole at Royal Dornoch.

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