Top 10 Courses in the Scottish Highlands and Aberdeenshire

The pick of the region!

The northern half of Scotland boasts an impressive golfing portfolio to match anywhere in the world. The North East is spectacular, while the famous Highlands are enchanting. The stunning scenery and tranquility has always been an attraction, with the remote nature of so much of the landscape transporting you to unsurpassed serenity.
Many of the region’s courses are iconic, while some are legends in the making. Here are ten of the very best.

  1. Royal Dornoch

For many people, Dornoch is the definitive Scottish links course, and its high rankings in major publications attest to that widely held belief. It may not be quite *that* great, but it is undoubtedly a magical piece of golfing landscape, featuring some of the finest holes that you will find anywhere in these isles.

Records state that golf has been played at Dornoch since 1630 (just a few years before Betty White was born), and there is a sense of natural authenticity to the course that you won’t find anywhere outside of St Andrews. It feels and looks like it has always been a permanent part of the land.

Its design has been altered through the years by Old Tom Morris, J.H. Taylor and - the greatly unappreciated - George Duncan. The legendary architect, Donald Ross (the maestro behind Pinehurst) grew up in Dornoch and held the roles of greenkeeper and professional before immigrating to the United States.

The most startling feature of Dornoch is the plateaued greens, which is best evidenced on the short 2nd hole, and the famous and exceedingly difficult 14th. Interestingly, this reduces the need and effectiveness of the traditional “bump and run” shot that you normally require on a links course. The ball has to be flown through the air onto the greens, which is very challenging when a strong breeze blows across the course!

Prior to the 1970s, Dornoch was largely untouched and unknown outside of Scotland. Its remote location separated it from the flocks of golfers who would make the pilgrimage to Fife and Ayrshire. However, eventually the likes of Pete Dye, Ben Crenshaw and Tom Watson did make that journey, and fell in love with the majestic links. Word soon spread, and its reputation has continued to grow ever since.

“It was the most fun I've had playing golf in my entire life” – Tom Watson on playing Dornoch for the first time.

Dornoch isn’t a perfect course. Some of the closing holes don’t match what preceded them, but the intoxicating thrills of what came before don’t fully dissipate. At its best, the old links is absolutely breathtaking, and the experience of playing there is transcendent. It is a must-play for anyone with a love for seaside golf.

  1. Balgownie Links, Royal Aberdeen

Showcased to the wider public in 2014 with the European Tour’s Scottish Open being contested on the Balgownie, Royal Aberdeen is a thoroughly satisfying and traditional links course. Situated on the fringes of Scotland’s third largest city, the Balgownie runs alongside the tantalizingly treacherous North Sea.

The front nine of the links meander through some spectacular dunes, offering an aesthetic quality that few courses can match anywhere else in Scotland. For a number of people, these nine holes are among the finest to be found in the world.

That’s not to say that the back nine is necessarily weak. It’s not. Though less scenic and visually stunning, the second half of Royal Aberdeen is a traditionally stern challenge of links golf, and offers visitors the opportunity to walk in the footsteps of the great Tom Watson who won the Senior British Open on the Balgownie in 2005.

There are a number of fantastic courses to be discovered in the north-east of Scotland. However, Royal Aberdeen is arguably the very best of them.

  1. Championship Course, The Nairn Golf Club

Some courses are curiously referred to as “Hidden Gems”, while others are simply underrated. The Championship Course at Nairn falls into the latter category. It is a thrilling, spectacular and challenging links that has tested the game’s leading amateur players in the Walker and Curtis Cups. A jewel of the Highlands.

Notably, each hole on the Championship Course boasts a view of the Moray Firth, though you shouldn’t become too distracted by its beauty as Nairn is extremely difficult in a strong breeze. The fairways are relatively narrow, and this places a premium on straight tee shots, which isn’t always easy to accomplish when the undulating, moon-like targets interfere with your golf ball.

The luck of the bounce is always something that needs to be accepted on a links course. Sometimes it works for you, but often against you. While that may be frustrating at times, if you were to sit down afterwards and honestly review your round, it would most likely be that the luck evened out.

Intelligently bunkered, with the greens consistently running true, and always in immaculate condition, Nairn is about as solid a links experience as you can find. It is a strong platform to build any golfing itinerary from.

  1. Cruden Bay

Reminiscent of North Berwick in the respect of quite simply being ‘fun’ to play, Cruden Bay has grown into something of a cult-classic. It is a somewhat quirky masterpiece that has charmed visitors from near and far with its spectacular views and thrillingly unique holes. One of the great golfing experiences in Scotland.

At just over 20 miles north of the city of Aberdeen, Cruden Bay is a small village with a population of approximately 1,500. That provides the course and surrounding area with an intimacy that you also find in places like Dornoch and Gullane.

The course has just about everything, from blind shots to consecutive par 3s. Not long on the scorecard, the challenge to Cruden Bay is having the strategic mind and technical execution to plot your way effectively around the course, taking into account its undulating and bumpy fairways.

The views, particularly from the 9th tee, are spectacular. The North Sea, beach and dunes are all in sight, offering a stunning panorama that few courses can come close to matching. It’s certainly a fun place.

  1. Castle Stuart

Officially opened in 2009, Castle Stuart is an undisputed modern classic. Having hosted three Scottish Opens early in its lifetime, Gil Hanse’s ingeniously designed contemporary links course found an audience early, and will continue to make an impact on the golf scene in Scotland with a second (Arnold Palmer designed) course to be built in the next few years. In the same mold as Kingsbarns, only better.

What stands out at Castle Stuart is the width of the fairways. Straight hitting is not essential here, so the course isn’t as punishing off the tee as nearby Nairn and Dornoch. However, accurate hitting is paramount. There is a difference. Finding the right part of the fairway is key, offering the best angles into the greens.

It is fair to say that Castle Stuart is one of those courses that becomes more difficult the closer you get to the greens. That ensures that the layout is playable for even the most modestly gifted of players, while retaining a sense of challenge and difficulty for visitors of a higher standard. It is very well put together.

The highly professional organization and warm welcome has become another appealing facet to Castle Stuart. Staff are extremely friendly, know your name, and do their very best to make the experience as enjoyable as possible. These are small touches, but important ones. Castle Stuart should be near the top of anyone’s list.

  1. Brora

For many people, Dornoch is the end of the line. That is about as far north in Scotland as they are willing to trek. However, those people are missing out on something unique and special. Just 20 miles north of the legendary links you will discover Brora; a Sutherland village with a thrilling golfing secret.

James Braid produced something resembling a masterpiece at Brora Golf Club. In fact, it is a masterpiece. The quaint old course is about as enjoyable an examination of links golf that you will find anywhere. It’s not long, or especially punishing, but a wonderfully well-structured course in a beautiful setting. What more could you want?

Uniquely, there are grazing animals on the course. Cows and sheep. Consequently, the greens are surrounded by small electrified fences to ensure their protection any four-legged trespassers. Don’t let that be a distraction, as neither of these quirks will interfere with play with any great frequency.

If you are seeking a quintessentially traditional and enjoyable layout with stunning vistas, then Brora is for you.

  1. Murcar Links

If Royal Aberdeen and Cruden Bay are on your itinerary, there is an important third segment that has to be included to complete a thoroughly satisfying trio of links courses. Murcar is just north of the Balgownie Links, and is an excellent complement to its more revered neighbor.

A challenging layout, so not for the beginner, Murcar demands good drives and crisply struck approaches, which can be testing when the North Sea’s breeze bellows across the links. There are a few more blind shots and undulations than you would find at Royal Aberdeen, which only adds to the examination.

Its reputation has been boosted even further with the inaugural Paul Lawrie Matchplay on the European Tour being contested at Murcar in the summer of 2014. It is a place loved by the 1999 Open Champion, who describes it as being “as fine a links course as you could wish to play.”

Esteemed golf journalist, Alistair Tait is another fan of the course. “Quite why it lives in the shadow of Royal Aberdeen and Cruden Bay is beyond me. It is the equal of both, if not better.”

High praise indeed. It is certainly worth testing yourself against its challenges.

  1.  Trump International

The Trump Links occupies the most stunning stretch of dunes-land that you will ever see. Having enlisted Martin Hawtree of the R&A to design the layout, the International does make the most of the impressive landscape that it was built on, though it has yet to fully embed into a traditional links course. It looks great, but the quality of the course has yet to match the stunning visuals.

However, despite the serene surroundings, do not visit here expecting a walk in the park – this is a brutal and challenging golf course suited to lower handicaps. Long gorse, strong cross-winds, strategically placed bunkers and fast greens all combine to ensure there is no easy shot on the course and we thoroughly recommend you choose your tee boxes carefully, putting vanity aside.

It needs time to mature. Until it does, simply put, it is not quite on the level of Kingsbarns or Castle Stuart, which are superior, but it is certainly still worth playing if the opportunity arose.

  1. Boat of Garten

If ever a course represented true value for money, it is Boat of Garten. A thoroughly enjoyable James Braid design situated in the spectacular Cairngorms National Park in the Highlands. Not simply a “resort” or “holiday” layout, it is testing and intriguing enough to stir the senses of any player who visits.

The fairways at Boat of Garten are woven through an attractive mix of trees and heather, which ensures a tangible sense of tranquility; the perfect course for an evening’s round in summer.

Though short on the scorecard, it is a course that needs to be strategically navigated around, with the beautiful shrubbery that frames the holes potentially becoming a ghastly threat to a wayward tee shot.

If you are seeking a reprieve from the seaside, Boat of Garten is a joyous experience.

     10. Old, Moray Golf Club

There are two courses at Moray Golf Club. The New, designed by legendary Open Champion Henry Cotton, was opened for play in 1979, and is a fine layout, but it is the Old that is the main draw for visitors. A proper, traditional links course that boasts some excellent holes and stunning scenery, the Old at Moray is one of Old Tom Morris’ most underrated courses.

Uniquely, when playing at Moray there is a chance that you will hear the distinctive noise from military aircraft, with the RAF’s airbase at Lossiemouth being nearby. Lovers of planes will no doubt be thrilled.

Lovers of golf will also find satisfaction in the rolling and rugged fairways of Moray, with a solid all-round course ensuring for a fine test for all standards of visiting players. It is visually stunning, and features some standout holes, most notably the 18th that finishes just below the elevated clubhouse. Picturesque.

In terms of monetary value and enjoyment, a day at Moray Golf Club represents a pretty great 36 holes of Highland links.

Please request a quote if you are interested in playing any of these courses as part of your golf 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.