Southerners seriously, it’s golf and whiskey in Scotland for us!
by Patsy R Brumfield
Some folks love the castles and craggy terrain. But in Scotland, we also love the golf and whiskey.
My son Will Bardwell, and I recently brought Mississippi to the Highlands and elsewhere, a trip many folks have told me they’d love to take. Now I know why.
Our eight-day adventure was exceptional and we learned a lot about local travel along the way, even after many months of research and planning.
First advice: Do not, I repeat, Do not travel through London’s Heathrow Airport. For the sake of brevity and my blood pressure, let me say the lost luggage and missed flight were completely unnecessary. And the cattle-queue just to enter the UK was ridiculous and chaotic. America’s TSA is a well-oiled machine compared to this fiasco. Fly New York to Ireland and then Scotland or other departure sites directly to Scotland.
Whew! Now, that’s out of the way, we can talk about the good stuff.
I’m not sure how this all got started, but a few years ago, Will took me to The Masters, which was a fabulous, iconic golf experience. So, in 2015 we committed to going to Scotland in 2016 where he would choose the golf venues, I’d walk the courses and we’d drink a wee bit of Scotch along the way. After some months, it all started to come together, and sure enough, we left Jackson, Mississippi, with boundless excitement and a bit of relief from the typically oppressive mid-July weather.
Our ultimate goal: The Open at Royal Troon, the crown jewel for golf travels, on the Firth of Clyde, the country’s southwest coast.
Scotland is a very sparsely populated country, some 5.3 million people in a space about twice the size of Mississippi. Most of its people live in four cities, Glasgow, Edinburgh, Aberdeen and Inverness, and you’ll quickly notice outside those cities that the rural areas are mostly large, active farmlands and forests. As point of reference, take your left hand and make a fist, then do your best to raise your pinky and ring finger. That’s roughly the shape of Scotland sitting atop England.
And so we began our Scottish adventure on the far right of your left hand about where the first knuckle lies – in Aberdeenshire at renowned Crude Bay on the country’s northeast coast. What a lovely village and a wild landscape fit for any “Wuthering Heights” fan. Of course, it rained and the wind tossed us about, but we were equipped and prepared, so that was pretty invigorating.
George, Will’s caddie, was a real delight and told all kinds of wonderful stories about the history of the legendary course, especially about the Viking graves and his involvement in a remake of the Vikings vs Scots battle on the golf course. Who won? I asked him. “I was keepin’ score – the Scots won!” he responded gleefully.
We stayed at the charming Kilmarnock Arms Hotel, which offered wonderful local food and the most impressive whiskey menu we saw throughout the trip. Before our round of golf, we hiked up to the imposing ruins of Stains Castle, reportedly an inspiration for Bram Stoker’s “Dracula,” situated broodingly on the cliffs overlooking the bay.
Cruden Bay gets credit for introducing us to the local breakfast sausage, called black pudding or (careful) blood pudding. It’s a crisp, savory patty-style sausage with its main ingredient pig blood. OK, we Southerners eat a lot of weird things too. But this is very tasty, so now I’m scouring the immediate universe for pig blood to make my own. No, daughter, I am not planning a remake of the horror movie “Carrie.”
Let me also remark, as a gardener, that towering foxgloves and other beautiful flowering plants grow wild along the country roadsides. It’s a lush environment, although never really very hot. For mid-July, highs were in the low 60s. That’s about right, when you realize Scotland is on the same latitude as Alberta, Canada, and Moscow.
We weren’t about the drive ourselves around a country, which drives on the “wrong side” of the road. I’d tried that 10 years ago to the south in England and it took about that many years off my life. For this trip, we mixed hired drivers with buses and trains. All generally pleasant except for one instance, which I’ll get to.
From Cruden Bay, we traveled southeast, sort of into the fold of your thumb, to Carnoustie or “Carnastie” as George called it. What a “long” golf course, as they say. Carnoustie is regularly a site for The Open, but frankly, it was not nearly as impressive as our other venues, which all are seaside. But at Carnoustie, you can’t easily see the North Sea.
Will was proud to par the 16th hole, which golf legend five-time Open winner Tom Watson failed to par each day in 1975, his first Open victory.
We stayed at the Carnoustie Golf Hotel right on the course. If you’ve watched golf there, you can’t miss the multi-story white hotel looming in the background. Its menu and beverage offerings were mediocre, but we were cheered at the sight of the “Jean van de Velde Suite” just down the hall from our room. Van de Velde, a Frenchman, is renowned for his massive “choke,” which notoriously cost him the title in 1998.
At Carnoustie, everything was going well until in late afternoon after we dashed from the course to the train station to make our connection to Nairn, we discovered a rail strike. Panic! After my freak-out at the local library in trying to figure out what we’d do next, Will finally calmed me down with the suggestion we stay in town overnight and catch the 5:55 a.m. train when the strike lifted temporarily. We spent the night in a quirky, blue-collar inn downtown a couple of blocks from the rail station.
In the wee hours of the next morning, my spirits lifted as we boarded the ScotsRail train and enjoyed three hours of peace and scenery north and then west toward our destination, Nairn on the Firth of Moray, pronounced “murry.” Our would-be B&B hosts there, whom we had to stiff because of the strike, were kind enough to pick us up at the station and get us to the golf course with 45 minutes to spare before tee time.
Nairn Golf Course was our most florally beautiful course, a wide variety of green and flowering plants. The golf shop even gave me a guide to the various flowers growing in abundance there.
That’s the second time I was glad to have my waterproof jacket, waterproof pants and waterproof shoes. It was probably our chilliest venue with quite a blustery wind off the water, which we had to our north throughout. We enjoyed it with a nice young man named Ray from Germany as Will’s golf partner. Our caddie David was full of stories about golf and international politics. He’s convinced Scotland will vote to withdraw from the EU – you heard it here first.
From there, our driver conveyed us across three firths, passed an old hotel where Bonnie Prince Charlie spent the night before his loyal Highlanders were slaughtered at Culloden in 1746, passed Inverness at the mouth of the River Ness and up the east coast of the country’s northern finger to Dornoch, home of Will’s most admired course, Royal Dornoch. To say he was excited was an understatement.
We checked in to the Dornoch Castle Hotel on the Dornoch Cathedral green, a really quaint scene of historic shops and winding streets. We walked down to the golf course for a look-around and saw the most beautiful garden behind a tall brick wall.
Fortunately, here’s where our trip slowed down a little. Two nights in Dornoch and then two nights in Glasgow.
We really loved the local-fresh food, town sights and finally a little shopping.
Our golfing experience there was top-notch. Royal Dornoch, right on the scenic Firth of Dornoch, is rated perhaps the 5th best golf course in the world. This 400-year-old course is a beautiful mix of the wild, craggy Cruden Bay and the wide beach beside Nairn. The water was so blue, but I knew it must be very cold despite the locals who seemed to be enjoying themselves there.
Will had his photo taken with the course’s starter, Roddy, aptly attired in his full kilt outfit. Our caddie, a young man named Harry, was delightful and was captured on video as he told Will to watch for me as I took “the low road” to meet up at the course’s half-way house, where refreshments were available. “Uh, your mum’s waivin’,” Harry told Will. Indeed I was.
What a wonderful day although we were rained on as we wrapped up the 17th hole then enjoyed a pint of local beer and steaming cottage pie in the clubhouse.
But wait, the rail strike was still in force.
The good news was the trains were running from Glasgow to Troon. The bad news: Not from Inverness, where we planned to take the train south to Glasgow. A small problem, which we solved via internet by bus connections from Dornoch to Inverness to Perth to Glasgow. We saw a lot of beautiful scenery, soaring Highlands and arrived at our Glasgow hotel in time for dinner with a couple I’d met on my Elvis Cruise this past April.
We vowed to reach Troon as early as possible the next morning, and we did. What a rush to finally be at the stuff of golfing legends, The Open. It was quite a layout with big screens and vendors, plus a massive store to sell us “all things” Open.
Did I say it was raining and the wind was about 25 mph off the firth? But folks, it’s The Open! That’s what we came for. We were ready clothes-wise and emotionally and made snide remarks about the mass of “umbrella sissies.”
Will led the itinerary. We followed a few groups, we walked the entire course. We parked it in the stands at a few key holes, and then at the 18th Hole where the sun shone finally and we added our enthusiasm for each group as the golfers finished. What a delightful trip.
We wrapped up our day over local beer and dinner at a Glasgow pub, where Will ate a bit of haggis. Good for him.
Next time, we may pick a tighter itinerary without so much travel, but for our first golf trip, we had to try it all, didn’t we?
All totaled, I walked 45 miles on golf courses, and I spent eight days with my son.
We came home with lots of golf-course caps, and lots of tales of golf and whiskey.
My daughter says we’re headed to Paris next spring. I’m ready.
All photos provided by Patsy Brumfield