Reader’s Trip Report: Northeastern Scotland

Fraserburgh Golf Club, Scotland, March 13, 2014.

Fraserburgh Golf Club, Scotland, March 13, 2014.

Seth Low, a reader and, not incidentally, a member of the Sunday Morning Group, recently returned from a winter trip to Aberdeen, Scotland. It wasn’t a golf trip, but he hung around for a few extra days and played several courses I like a lot—among them Fraserburgh, shown above. Excerpts from his report:

The non-business portion of my trip started in St. Andrews. I did some local scouting at the Keys Bar, where I ran into Dave, an American expat who has lived in St. Andrews, on and off, for twenty-seven years. He caddies during the golf season and, as far as I could tell, hangs out at the Keys in the off season. 

seth low keys bar

The next day, I took a train to Carnoustie, half an hour to the north. Perhaps because of the time of year, or perhaps because of the weather, I went out solo, no one in front of me or behind me. I muscled an ugly 4-iron into the wind, and then had my first go at hitting from a “winter mat.” Apparently, these are standard in Scotland. I am not a good golfer, but I can generally get the ball headed in the right direction. However, I could not master the mat. My reward for a good drive was inevitably a sculled iron.

seth low winter mat

I found myself hoping I would miss the fairway, to be spared the mat, and when my ball landed close to the rough I kicked it in. It was interesting to find myself in this alternate golf reality, and I spent a good deal of time wondering what it said about me as a golfer (and as a person) that I was more comfortable playing from what most people think of a bad lie.

Fourth green, Carnoustie. The white stuff on the ground (not the ball) is hail.

Fourth green, Carnoustie. The white stuff on the ground (not the ball) is hail.

Next, I headed north, to Fraserburgh, and, once again, went out on my own. I was the beneficiary of a new employee, who told me that mats were unnecessary, despite signs saying otherwise. The course wanders through the shoreline dunes and is truly spectacular.

Fraserburgh Golf Club, thirteenth hole.

Fraserburgh Golf Club, thirteenth hole.

To navigate among the dunes, I had to follow the signs carefully, which wasn’t always easy. If wondered if they were in Doric, a dialect spoken by folks in the area, but it turned out that they had just been beaten up by a long and windy winter.

seth low doric sign

On my last day in Scotland, I headed west from Fraserburgh, at the recommendation of this blog, to play Cullen Golf Club. [Editor’s note: No one who asks me for a Scottish golf recommendation will escape being told about Cullen.] The clubhouse was empty, so I wandered around until a member came in and showed me some clubs I could use. I managed to assemble an almost-full set, consisting of a couple of Wilsons, a couple of irons of an unrecognizable brand, and a Fazer Contender 404 driver:

seth low golf bag

Cullen’s fairways weave across each other, and there is a complex set of bells and “yielding” protocols that the locals know. The course is complicated by a right-of-way that allows walkers to get from the ridge above the course to the beach below. All in all, it was a somewhat hectic scene, and I was happy to be joined by Graeme, a local member, who was out for a Sunday round. Like many in the area, he worked on a fishing boat before getting a job in the oil-and-gas industry. Now he is a cook on an oil rig, where he works two weeks on, two weeks off, four weeks on, four weeks off—leaving plenty of time for golf. I came away with what I hope will be a new addition to my golf lexicon: “hitting into the skink.” I am not sure what it means, but I like the way it sounds.

The first hole, second tee, fifteenth green, sixteenth tee, seventeenth green, and eighteenth hole at Cullen.

The first hole, second tee, fifteenth green, sixteenth tee, seventeenth green, and eighteenth hole at Cullen.

Back-Roads Scotland: Fraserburgh

Fifteenth green, Fraserburgh Golf Club, Scotland. Photo by Ian Stephen.

For the July issue of Golf Digest, which is on sale now, I wrote an article about Donald Trump and his newest golf course, Trump International Golf Links, in Scotland. The course is on the North Sea coast, a two-and-a-half-hour drive north from the Old Course at St. Andrews and about ten miles beyond the port city of Aberdeen. You should definitely play it if you have a chance—it will open July 10—and after you’ve done that you should get back on the A90 and drive another hour north, to the town of Fraserburgh, at the easternmost end of the Moray Firth. It’s the home not only of the Kinnaird Head Lighthouse and the Museum of Scottish Lighthouses, but also of Fraserburgh Golf Club, the seventh oldest in the world.

Fraserburgh foghorn, April, 2012. It was built in 1902. It's not still in use, but the museum keeps it painted.

I played Fraserburgh with two older members: Bill Maitland, who owns a furniture store in town, and Andrew Tait, a member of family of extremely successful fishermen. The morning was cold and the wind was blowing hard, and I wore two pairs of rain gloves, one on top of the other, in the hope of maintaining feeling in my fingers. Tait, in contrast, didn’t wear even one glove, and the explanation was what I guessed: after you’ve spent  a few decades fishing in the North Sea, it takes more than wind to make your hands feel cold on land.

Town of Fraserburgh, viewed from the golf course. April, 2012.

Fraserburgh’s first and eighteenth holes are flat and forgettable, but nearly everything in between is brilliant, beginning with the second, a par 4 that plays up what looks like the surface of the moon, on the flank of a mountainous dune called Corbie Hill:

Second Hole, Fraserburgh Golf Club. Photo by Ian Stephen.

Golf in the region goes back a long way. Local church records show that a parishioner named John Burnett was sent to the “maisters stool” for “playing gouff” on the links of Fraserburgh in 1613. The club was founded a century and a half later, in 1777, and it has the documents to prove it. At lunch after our round, Maitland showed me a copy of the original membership register. “These names are still well known to us,” he said—and by that point they were well known to me, too, because I had seen them on plaques and trophies in clubhouses along the coast:

"These names are still well known to us," Bill Maitland told me.

Fraserburgh’s original members got together for lunch after they played, just as they do nowadays, and they were required to pay their share of the bill whether they showed up or not—an excellent rule that my own gang ought to adopt. After we’d eaten, Tait took me to the wharf to see his family’s three fishing boats. He lives on a farm a few miles down the road and has his own five-hole golf course, which he plays when he’s too busy to get to the club.

Andrew Tait, Fraserburgh wharf, April, 2012. The boat is named for his parents.

Fraserburgh’s eighteenth hole is called Bridge, after a footbridge over some railroad tracks along the western edge of the course. The rail line connected Fraserburgh with Aberdeen and the villages and golf courses in between—a sort of Linksland Express. It closed in 1965, though, and the footbridge was demolished, so Fraserburgh’s eighteenth is now a golf hole with a ghost name. The course is still there, though, and it’s one of many worthy destinations along the coast for links-golf pilgrims who can be persuaded not to turn around after playing Carnoustie.

 

Choosing Teams in Scotland

Cruden Bay Golf Club, Scotland, 2008. That's the green of the fifth hole, a par 5, in the upper right-hand corner.

At five o’clock yesterday afternoon, I stopped by Cruden Bay Golf Club, in northeastern Scotland, on my way back to my hotel. I had played there the day before, and I thought maybe the pro would let me sneak out for five or six holes before dinner. He said OK–but the course was empty, so why stop? Snow began falling as I teed off on 5, but the sun was out again by the time I reached the green. I ended up playing all 18, in a little over two hours, and then ate dinner in the clubhouse, which has huge windows that overlook most of the course.

Spring snow, Cruden Bay, Scotland, April 2012.

This morning, there was snow on my rental car, which is a kind of MG I’d never seen before, and I had to scrape the windshield with one of my golf shoes. I played at 8:00 at Fraserburgh Golf Club, a wonderful links course up the coast from Cruden Bay. The Sunday-morning regulars at Fraserburgh choose teams the way my friends and I usually do at home, by pulling balls out of someone’s hat. The temperature was in the mid-30s, and the wind was blowing hard. The golfers below fortified themselves with quite a lot of Budweiser, which one of them referred to as coffee.

Choosing teams, Fraserburgh Golf Club, Scotland, April 2012.

In the afternoon, I played at Peterhead Golf Club, which is just a few miles south of Fraserburgh. You park in a public lot on the town side of the Ugie River and cross a footbridge to get to the golf club. They manage tee order slightly differently there:

Peterhead Golf Club, Scotland, April 2012.

I played with Peterhead’s pro, Harry Dougal, who has a crushing handshake and sometimes carries his golf bag like a briefcase. He lost his wife in a car accident eight years ago. He said that swallows nest in the club’s rain shelters–that green shed in the photo is one of them–and return (from South Africa) on the same day every year.

Harry Dougal, Peterhead Golf Club.

Snow fell hard a couple of holes before I took the photograph above, but it didn’t last very long. I brought four pairs of rain gloves on this trip, and I’ve worn them every round, for warmth. I’ve wiped my nose on them so often that they’re all sort of shiny and stiff. At Fraserburgh, I played with a semi-retired furniture-store owner and a semi-retired fisherman. The fisherman didn’t wear gloves of any kind, because a fisherman’s hands, by comparison with fishing, are never cold.