A Golf Guide to the Highlands and Aberdeenshire

Living the Highlife!

The Highlands arguably encapsulate the perception of what Scotland looks like. Towering mountain landscapes, rugged fields, and sheep. Lots of sheep. However, there is a lot more to the north of the country than you would initially believe. Attractive cities in Aberdeen and Inverness can be explored, as can sites of cultural and historical significance strewn throughout the region. And (just to add some icing to the cake) you will find some of the finest golf courses in the world. Northern Scotland combines the very best in old and new to produce an appetizing array of golfing arenas.

Starting in Aberdeen – Scotland’s third city – one of the finest links courses in the country is right on its doorstep. The Balgownie Links at Royal Aberdeen was showcased last summer when it hosted the Scottish Open on the European Tour, with many witnessing the quality for the first time that aficionados have known for some time. Five-time Open Champion, Tom Watson believes that the front nine of the Balgownie is among the best in the world, with the course rolling through stunning dunes. It’s hard to disagree with that.

Adjacent to Royal Aberdeen is the lesser-known (but undeniably impressive) Murcar Links. The two courses are literally a stone’s throw apart. (Though, I would suggest that actually throwing stones would be frowned upon). Soon to be presented to a wide audience – with the inaugural Paul Lawrie Invitational being contested there later this year – the course is a fine complement to its revered neighbor and firmly places Aberdeen as a strong golfing destination.

It is a very pleasant city to visit. Featuring some of the most impressive architecture in the country, Aberdeen was transformed economically by the discovery of oil in the North Sea four decades ago. The Union Terrace Gardens are the heart of the place – making the center of the city one of the most attractive in the United Kingdom. The one downside of the area – and it is a minor thing – is that the thickest Aberdonian accent is one of the most difficult to understand. Even other Scots require an interpreter when visiting.

Leaving the city, just along the coast is the much-publicized and spectacular Trump International Golf Links. The development of the site was highly controversial – as you would expect with Mr. Trump being involved – but the result is unquestionably spectacular. Taking full advantage of a stunning coastline, the championship course was designed by Martin Hawtree and threads through natural dunes and features a challenge for all standards of player. While it will certainly improve as time moves on and the holes embed more naturally into the terrain - the course has proven popular with locals and tourists alike. However, to prevent you from being disappointed when you visit, there is no truth to the rumor that they sell Donald Trump wigs in the club shop.

If Trump International is a modern classic, then Cruden Bay is a traditional masterpiece. It has become a must-play course for many. It always enjoyed a positive reputation, but increased publicity and discussion has seen it become something of a cult-classic. With quirks and stunning scenery, the Aberdeenshire links is a wonderful examination of seaside golf and provides one of the best-value experiences in Scotland. Frequently ranked inside the top 100 courses in the world by a number of leading publications, Cruden Bay recently underwent some changes – with the 9th, 10th and 16th holes all being reshaped. See them for yourself. It truly is a gem.

There are many other courses in the area that could also be considered jewels in the crown of Scottish golf. Fraserburgh and Peterhead are wonderful links courses, with the latter being a favorite of Butch Harmon. There is a lot to enjoy in the north east – and before you leave – don’t forget to visit the Glen Garioch distillery. Providing an interesting lesson on the history and development of whisky – not to mention a welcome taste of the good stuff – it is certainly worth stopping by.

Travelling west from Aberdeenshire into the Highlands you will come across fantastic scenery, sites of historical interest, and golf courses. Lots of golf courses. There are numerous attractions in the Highlands. The best known is undoubtedly Loch Ness, which is among the most tranquil and beautiful spots that you will find anywhere in the world. As you will know, many people still believe (they really do) that there is a monster beneath the serenity of the water. In many ways it is akin to believing that Roger Moore was actually the best James Bond. Madness.

Apart from the obligatory ‘Nessie Hunting’, for those who enjoy studying military history – visit the battlefield of Culloden – which was the site of the last pitched battle to take place in Britain. Nearby, you can discover the impressive 18th-century Fort George – still actively used as a barracks by the army. Dolphins can be frequently spotted in the water from its battlements, as can 50-year-old men who are secretly imagining that they are defending the fort. Yes, we’ve all done it.

In terms of the golf courses on offer, the first real highlight comes before you even reach the city of Inverness. Driving along the A96, you will discover the highly-regarded Nairn Golf Club, which has played host to a number of big events, mostly notable the Walker Cup in 1999. With some of the finest putting surfaces in Scotland, and an enjoyable mix of holes, Nairn is a subtle and engaging links course, perhaps lacking the spectacular visuals of a course like Cruden Bay, but a pure examination of seaside golf.

Continuing west towards the stunning Highland capital of Inverness, you will come across one of the finest courses to have been built anywhere this century.

In the same mold as Kingbarns near St Andrews, Castle Stuart is a modern classic. Designed by Gil Hanse, this brilliant layout opened for play in 2009 to rave reviews. And rightly so. It offers stunning views across the Moray Firth towards the Kessock Bridge and provides a varied and enjoyable mix of holes. It subsequently hosted three Scottish Opens in 2011, 2012 and 2013 – showcasing the qualities of this entertaining and highly playable course. It has something for everyone. Effectively combining modern design philosophies with the tradition of links golf, Castle Stuart is a must visit layout for anyone in the Highlands. Better than Kingsbarns? Quite possibly.

 

Despite the tremendous courses that have already been mentioned, the highlight remains Royal Dornoch. It is (for many) the definitive Scottish links course. With the legendary architect Donald Ross having grown up in the area and been influenced by the Championship Course, many lovers of Pinehurst in North Carolina often view travelling to Dornoch as something of a pilgrimage. For any golfer – it is a special place to visit.

Frequently ranked among the world’s finest courses, it is about as quintessential a links experience that you will find anywhere outside of St Andrews. Rugged, natural and isolated, there is a purity to Dornoch that has charmed so many visiting golfers from afar. Its plateaued greens are a must play for anyone with a love for the game and its origins.

While the Championship Course at Dornoch garners all the headlines, there is something wonderful nearby to be discovered. If there was ever a course befitting the label of “Hidden Gem” then it truly is Brora. Situated very close to Dornoch, about 20 miles north, this James Braid classic needs to be experienced by as many golfers as possible. Uniquely, the course is partially inhabited by a small assortment of farm animals – sheep and bovines – ensuring that your round will be witnessed by a captivated audience. Situated in a spectacularly beautiful location, with some brilliant holes, Brora is an understated masterpiece. It is quite simply fun.

Perhaps the least appreciated of Scotland’s golfing regions – the Highlands and Aberdeenshire are hugely satisfying and enjoyable to visit. As you will see, there is so much to see. Though it may lack the trophy names of St Andrews, Carnoustie, Troon and Muirfield, a visit to this area provides something even more valuable. A rounded and varied experience. It is fantastic.

Please request a quote if you are interested in playing any of these courses as part of your vacation with the golf travel experts at Golfbreaks.com.

Kieran Clark

Author, Kieran Clark

I began playing golf at the age of five on the Isle of Bute in Scotland. It was the start of a relationship that hasn’t waned, with it becoming a mission to tick off as many courses as possible, with the Old Course at St. Andrews being my favourite. I love everything that it represents. After securing a degree in history at the University of Stirling, I have attempted to establish a career as a freelance golf journalist to express my love for the game and Scotland. And I relish any opportunity to share that adoration with anyone willing enough to read.