Author: Callum Taylor, Managing Director, Golf Concierge Scotland Ltd, Edinburgh.
In the far north of Scotland, The Highlands is Scotland’s picture postcard region, offering stunning outdoor leisure opportunities in its mountains, glens, lochs and islands along with stirring history in its Castles, Battlefields and Forts.
The Highlands is regularly overlooked for golf as there are so many courses closer to Scotland’s busy central belt for example in Fife, Ayrshire and East Lothian. However in only 3 hours golfers can drive up the A9 from Edinburgh or fly directly from hubs including London Heathrow, Manchester and Amsterdam to Inverness (the capital of the Highlands).
The off the beaten track locations means Highland golf courses are not your standard conveyor belts for visitor tee times and it’s not unusual to find the courses a lot quieter than you might expect.
The Highland golf “jewel in the crown” course is without doubt Royal Dornoch which can regularly be found ranked inside the World’s Top 10. While studying Golf Management at the University of the Highlands and IsIands I spent 3 years living in a cottage located 150 yards from Royal Dornoch Golf Club. The majority of our time was not spent in lectures or surprisingly not even playing the world famous championship course but more often than not we would be found on the links fairways of nearby Tain, Brora, Golspie and Royal Dornoch’s 2nd course, The Struie. However when we did have the pleasure of gracing Royal Dornoch’s championship fairways the wonderful design elements of Old Tom Morris’s layout and the majestic views set the standards for what a links course should strive to be.
In 2009 Castle Stuart Golf Links opened and immediately gained worldwide attention, hosting 4 Scottish Opens within the next decade and massively raising the profile of The Highlands as a golf destination.
During a trip earlier this October I based myself around the town of Grantown-On-Spey which is an ideal gateway for exploring Highland golf, Speyside whisky and only 30 minutes south of the famous seaside golf town, Nairn.
Where to play:
The Nairn Golf Club
Nairn will host The 2021 Amateur Championship and in preparation saw a major Mackenzie & Ebert re-design completed in 2019. Major works included two entirely new greens lengthening the 1st and 7th holes and a green extension to the signature downhill Par 3 14th hole. The change to this hole named Kopjes has allowed for more pin positions and the view from this tee box down the hill is framed beautifully by the Moray Firth and Black Isle.
Mackenzie & Ebert have made Nairn’s fairway bunkering less severe introducing rough edged bunkers while revetted bunkers have been maintained at the green. What we found was that one year on it’s very hard to tell any earthmoving took place and it’s clear to see even from playing the white tees and not the tournament boxes that Nairn will have more than enough to test the very best amateurs.
On the day we visited it was fantastic to see so many junior players practising on the driving range and 9 hole Cameron course. The facilities are obviously working and producing elite level players. Nairn member Sandy Scott is ranked No.6 in the World Amateur Golf Rankings which earned him a place in this year’s US Open at Winged Foot.
Boat of Garten Golf Club
Known as The “Osprey” Village due to its high population of the bird of prey, Boat of Garten regularly receives praise in golf media and is often referred to as one the UK’s leading undiscovered courses and James Braid’s finest inland design. The views of the Cairngorms are spectacular and tight dog leg holes around mature birch trees create some wonderful golf holes including the narrow 6th and the blind 7thhole.
The fairways at “The Boat” are undulating and bumpy often resulting in your tee shot not running as far as you may think, the key here being accuracy off the tee. Plenty of short to medium length par 4’s keep it interesting for all levels of golfer.
Royal Dornoch Golf Club – Championship Course
Since our last visit changes have been made to Royal Dornoch’s 7th hole. The work completed again by Mackenzie & Ebert has improved this part of the course significantly with the 7th hole now pivoted to the right so the sea is in view for the entire hole. A new infinity style green perches high above the Dornoch Firth with a vista towards Ben Bhraggie and The Duke of Sutherland Monument.
It’s hard to compare Royal Dornoch to any other course in the world as it was really a pioneer in its time and has influenced leading architects and big names in golf including Donald Ross, Tom Watson and developer Mike Keiser. The 14th hole called Foxy has no fairway or greenside bunkers and the members still joke the hardest shot at Dornoch is the 2nd to the 2nd due to the upturned saucer green at this testing Par 3.
Castle Stuart Golf Links
Conveniently located just minutes from Inverness Airport, Castle Stuart Golf Links was designed by Gil Hanse whose past design projects include the likes of Merion, Royal Sydney and Los Angeles North Course.
Castle Stuart is a modern links with generous fairways. The design on 2 levels is very clever and takes advantage of the stunning views over The Moray Firth to Kessock Bridge and the Black Isle.
Fortrose & Rosemarkie Golf Club
Located on a narrow peninsula known as Chanonry Point, Fortrose & Rosemarkie was featured in The Top 5 most fun golf courses in Great Britain & Ireland by National Club Golfer in 2019.
There are lots of classic links holes and golfers can even spot dolphins in the Moray Firth which surrounds the golf course on 3 sides. Fortrose is another James Braid design which should not be missed on any Highland golf tour.
Grantown-on-Spey Golf Club
If golfers want to play a charming highly conditioned heathland course with stunning views of the Cairngorms for under £50 then look no further than Grantown-on-Spey-Golf Club. The signature 9th hole is a risk reward Par 4 of 275 yards called Murdie’s View with a breath-taking backdrop of The Cromdale Hills. Head Professional Lewis Hare offers a warm Highland welcome and when the heather is in full bloom it's hard to leave Grantown without a huge smile on your face.
Nairn Dunbar Golf Club
Nairn Dunbar has always had a reputation for being a championship level course having hosted past Northern Opens on Scotland’s Tartan Tour. Recently the club has attempted to restore dune areas by removing thick gorse and trees allowing natural grasses to flourish and a more traditional links course to be established. 2021 will be a big year for Nairn Dunbar when it plays joint host to the 2021 Amateur Championship along with its big cousin on the other side of town.
Tain Golf Club
Tain was originally laid out by Old Tom Morris and when playing the course you can enjoy some of his original features such as the blind approach to the signature 11th hole called Alps playing straight out to the Dornoch Firth.
The closing two Par 3’s at the 16th and 17th holes make for a memorable finale as The River Tain meanders through this part of the course. Tain is also the hometown to Glenmorangie Distillery which is the ideal post golf activity after enjoying a round at this affordable fun links course.
Brora Golf Club
When touring golfers have already made the pilgrimage to Dornoch, they should really make the effort to travel 15 miles further north past Dunrobin Castle to experience Brora. The course is a traditional 9 out and 9 back layout, with exceptional links turf and fast greens which are famous for their electric fence boundaries to deter grazing sheep! The club has seen its profile raised massively in the last 10 years and continues to attract international golfers who enjoy this magical James Braid design.
Where to stay:
Glen Mhor Hotel & Apartments
An ideal choice for golfers who don’t mind a 3-star standard but who will appreciate a central location on the banks of the River Ness in Inverness city centre. Glen Mhor is constantly being developed and offers a choice of standard or larger Riverside rooms and Apartments, a Whisky Bar and the newly renovated Waterside Restaurant. Within 5 minutes walk golfers can also experience the city’s best restaurants including Rocpool, The Kitchen, The Mustard Seed and The River House.
A quality Bed & Breakfast option, Moyness was the former home of acclaimed early twentieth century Scottish writer, Neil M Gunn. This Victorian villa has a 4-star VisitScotland accreditation and is an ideal option for couples or small groups, located only a few minutes walk from Inverness city centre.
Ness Walk opened in 2019 and offers 5-star service and luxury in a superb location on the River Ness.
Links House, Dornoch
Located a mere 50 yards from Royal Dornoch Golf Club, Links House is a luxurious boutique 15-bedroom property. Basing your golf tour at Links House will allow you to explore the most northerly courses at Dornoch, Brora, Golspie and Tain in style. It’s all about service and warmth at Links House. Facilities include a drawing room bar, outdoor putting green and the Court Room Café, Bar and Brasserie located in Dornoch’s main square.
The Grant Arms Hotel
A popular hotel for tourists who wish to explore Speyside’s wildlife, landscapes and malt whisky. The Grant Arms is a 4-star hotel dating back to 1765 located in the highland town of Grantown-on-Spey. The hotel is only a 5 minute walk to Grantown-on-Spey Golf Club and its central base means golfers are not only just 30 minutes from Nairn but also ideally located to explore the famous Speyside distilleries including Glenlivet, Glenfiddich and Macallan.
Things to do:
A modern museum and visitor centre brings to life Culloden’s powerfully emotive and atmospheric battlefield where the 1745 Jacobite Rising came to a tragic end.
Loch Ness by Jacobite Cruises
Loch Ness contains more water than all the lakes, rivers and reservoirs in the whole of England and Wales combined. Taking a Jacobite cruise is an enjoyable way to explore Loch Ness and Urquhart Castle to learn its history and hear some tales of the world's shyest monster, Nessie!
Completely rebuilt after a devasting fire in 2016, enjoy lots of family activities including Wildlife Viewing, Toddlers Play Area and the Peat Reek Visitor Experience which will be completed in Spring 2021. The Speyside Centre is also an ideal location for private groups to have their own whisky tasting in the Lounge. Other facilities include a café, gift shop and garden centre.
Fort George is one of the most impressive fortifications in Europe located opposite Fortrose & Rosemarkie Golf Club on the south side of the Moray Firth. It was built in the wake of the Battle of Culloden as a secure base for King George II’s army. Fort George took 22 years to complete and has served the British Army for 250 years.
Inspiring Highland forest and spectacular scenery can be round at Rothiemurchus in the heart of the Cairngorms National Park just outside Aviemore.
Cawdor Castle & Gardens
Located 15 minutes south of Nairn, Cawdor Castle is a fairytale medieval castle known for its connection to William Shakespeare's Macbeth.
Speyside Malt Whisky
Speyside is often referred to as “Malt Whisky Country” with over 50 distilleries, the highest concentration of any Scottish region. Fertile farmlands surrounding the area are ideal for growing barley and when combined with Speyside’s natural water sources produce some of the world’s most loved malt whiskies such as Glenfiddich and Glenlivet. Speyside malts have fruity, sweet, spicy and vanilla flavours and if playing any of the region’s courses is the perfect choice of drink in the 19th Hole.