When British golfers consider an autumnal escape, they tend to think of Portugal, or Turkey, where the weather is likely to be a bit warmer than we’ve come to expect in the UK. But I am here to suggest that great golf, and a real sense of adventure, can be found a lot closer to home. As November drew to a close, a short flight to Inverness Airport was refreshingly straightforward, though a spot of turbulence on landing hinted at the sort of wind that makes coastal golf even more interesting!
From Wildtrax, a delightful family business only five minutes from the airport, we ignore the modern end of the fleet and instead hire a classic Land Rover Defender 90, which seems the only suitable vehicle for exploring this rugged landscape. The drive up into Sutherland is spectacular - single track roads through mile upon mile of unspoilt moorland, with the occasional snow-capped Munro for definition. Before long, we are checking into the charming Tongue Hotel, a converted hunting lodge under the gaze of Varrich Castle, whose ruined walls have overlooked the Kyle of Tongue - an idyllic sea loch from where the hotel’s fish delicacies are drawn - for a thousand years.
Though the light is fading outside, the corridor to the hotel restaurant for a delightful dinner is in itself mouthwatering, the walls displaying breathtaking local art from the likes of Katherine Sutherland and Glyn Satterley. After a replenishing sleep, the Defender’s headlights are soon picking their way beneath Lochs Hope and Eriboll, before swinging north following signs for Cape Wrath, the mainland’s north-west extremity.
This strip of the North Coast 500 route is extraordinary, and our inclination is to stop and take photos or breath the fresh air every few miles, but we’ve an appointment at Durness Golf Club, and as we turn off the A838 and skirt past a vast, empty beach, our anticipation is building. The golf exceeds all expectations, perched on wonderful, sandy soil on the edge of the Atlantic, and in the four hours or so that it takes us to play 27 holes - sampling all the various tee angles on this magical nine hole layout - we experience all four seasons.
At the end of each loop, we battle against the thrilling ninth hole, whose carry is across a rocky inlet with crashing waves below, before retiring to the tiny clubhouse, which has everything the golfer needs and nothing more. Durness is relatively modern - one of our hosts is Donald, the President, who has been here since the start, “only” 35 years ago - but the land is ancient and it somehow feels like golf should have been here forever. It is a wrench to leave Durness - with its 650 sheep who share the fairways with the intrepid golfer and help our other partner Ally, the charismatic greenkeeper, to mow the grass - but every inch of the journey has been worthwhile, so we know we will return.
The following morning, the wind that both helped and hindered at Durness is gone, and after a lavish Scottish breakfast, we leave the comfort of Tongue Hotel behind and hit the road again, this time heading east towards Thurso, and Reay Golf Club. Set on a strip of coastal dunes overlooking Sandside Bay and the Orkneys, Reay boasts a fascinating design history. The original 12 hole course opened for play in 1893, but what remains today is a James Braid 18 hole routing from the early thirties, which closed during the second world war but was rescued from obscurity by the locals in 1962.
The course is terrific - the views matched by the firm turf and some extraordinary golf holes - but what really stands out is how embedded Reay is in the local community. Through the back nine, the nearby buildings tell the story of a highland neighbourhood in which golf is central. The local school, the church, the farms and the adjacent bungalows; all of this explains why Reay was resuscitated back in the sixties, and though we are round in about three hours, the small, welcoming clubhouse is busy and it feels like what golf always was in many parts of Scotland - just an integral part of life, without any class barriers or stuffiness. It’s a joy to see.
Back on the road, the A897 tracks the Strath of Kildonan south and then turns east, headed for Helmsdale where the wide open space of this highland interior gives way to a mind-blowing coastal road. The miles seem to pass in an intoxicating flash, and we are soon in the parish of Dornoch, whose quiet streets lined with dark stone houses seem strangely unassuming for such a destination of golfing pilgrimage.
The light is slowly failing as we swing into historic Royal Golf Hotel, but the proximity of this famous hostelry to the first tee of Royal Dornoch’s Championship course means that mundane acts like unpacking can wait, so we walk instead down Golf Road, which cuts through the first carry, behind the opening tee of the Club’s second course, “The Struie”, and down to the enormous sandy beach. Dornoch has that same sense of golfing legend that is reserved for the likes of St Andrews and Pinehurst, but here it is present under the gaze of the mountains to the west, with the ocean gently lapping in from the east.
The Championship Course is regularly featured in the top handful of courses on the planet, the fine links turf and timeless design drawing plaudits and visitors from the four corners of the golfing world, but seldom can such magnificence be found in such a relaxed town. Dornoch has enough history to keep the non-golfer beguiled for weeks, including the smallest cathedral in Scotland - a 13th century masterpiece - but add in the two courses here, the charming clubhouse and the many culinary delights of the Royal Golf Hotel and you have a cocktail whose flavours suit any palate.
From Crenshaw’s Brasserie - named after the great American player turned architect Ben - the view down across the links and out to the red & white banded lighthouse at Tarbat Ness is staggering, but the fine menu distracts us with its freshly caught seafood and local delicacies. The four star rooms are wonderful after a long and energetic day, and the traditional Scottish breakfast of kippers that awaits is just the fuel for another excursion, up the coast to Brora Golf Club, another star of the Highlands itinerary.
On the way there, our Defender rumbles past Coul Links, a precious slice of linksland that will shortly afterwards gain approval for a new course under the stewardship of Bill Coore, Crenshaw’s long-time design partner, and we marvel at the splendour of a sea of waving marram grass, and try to imagine flags fluttering here and there. For nowhere does golf feel so in harmony with the community and with the natural landscape as in Scotland, and, done well, the Coul Links project has the potential to not only become a world class course in its own right, but to complement all that is already here in such a way that this area becomes unparalleled for the golfing explorer. Though as we pass Golspie’s links on the way to Brora, and factor in not only other well-known places like Skibo Castle but also under the radar tracks such as Portmahomack and Tain, it already feels that way for us round here. It is, in short, a golfing paradise.
Brora does not disappoint, and over three rounds in two days we play it in soft autumnal sunshine and blustery hail, and most states in between. But each of the fifty-four holes is memorable, and we leave - reluctantly - somehow glad that it takes a little effort to come and play here. For if Brora were in a more densely populated area, it would be overrun and slow, and might have yielded to the domestication that dilutes many of the southern links. Instead it remains defiantly rustic, and is all the more wonderful for that, and for the sheep who watch us looping round them with amusement. In the eyes of one or two we sense the same faint sarcasm usually reserved for the caddies up here…
On the journey home, our passage through Inverness Airport once again a reminder of how easy international travel once was, we reflect on this late autumn adventure, and though each of the elements - staggering wilderness, golfing finery, world-class hospitality - are memorable, there is another sense clawing at us as we begin to yearn for the stark simplicity of Durness or the soft white pillows of Tongue Hotel. And it is that - by venturing up here at the end of the golfing season - we have only touched the surface of the Highlands as a destination, and that the winter months will pass oh-so-slowly until we can get back and scratch a little harder at these plentiful playgrounds.
On our way around the coast, we’ve met so many people for whom golf and the great outdoors are central to life, and the list of places we must now go and see is triple the length of what we managed this time around. Golfing secrets - true “hidden gems”, along the path less travelled - but also coffee shops, museums, beaches, ancient inns, cultural monuments. At the end of November in our delightful Defender, we’ve had much of the terrain of the North Coast 500 to ourselves, and made a thousand memories in the process.
And as we retread our steps and head back home, a slice of that spaciousness - that sense of awareness that only travel can bring - somehow clings on, and the Highlands gently tempt us back. We are changed by the expedition, and have barely landed before plans are hatched for a second bite. Luigi’s, Fortrose & Rosemarkie GC, Kylescu Hotel…we’ll be heading your way soon! Roll on 2024…
Tongue Hotel and Royal Dornoch Hotel are just two of the properties owned and operated by Highland Coast Hotels, a group for whom responsible and sustainable tourism is a central tenet of their ethos. For details of their exceptional hostelries throughout the Scottish Highlands, click here.
WildTrax is a company specialising in adventure-ready vehicles for exploring the Scottish wilderness. Alongside the classic Defenders, they also offer Discovery 3, Freelander and Range Rover Explorer models, along with the new Defender. All are kitted out ready for action, and the company also offer a range of other equipment, from fire kits to roof tents. They also love what they do!
For more writing on the golf courses mentioned above, check out Richard Pennell’s @pitchmarks blog, in particular the “Tour Diaries” tab. And visit the individual club websites here: Durness / Reay / Royal Dornoch / Brora.