‘Golfing Heaven’ in Scotland’s Outer Hebrides
This article is part of our latest special report on International Golf Homes, about some of the top spots to live and play. It was his love of …
This article is part of our latest special report on International Golf Homes, about some of the top spots to live and play.
It was his love of fishing that would change Gordon Irvine’s life. In 2005, the golf course consultant, who lives in Ayrshire, Scotland, was casting about for a place to tackle for his next trip.
Try the Outer Hebrides — the island chain off Scotland’s west coast — someone told him, casually; the fishing was superb.
On one of the islands, a community golf course was being rehabbed, and within a few years Mr. Irvine was offered a simple barter: the locals on South Uist, the second-largest of the islands, would trade advice on how to restore it in exchange for trout fishing rights.
Standing on the west coast of that island, he surveyed a nine-hole, par-3 course that had been carved out of the grass runways where mail planes had once landed. It was fine, if unremarkable, but then he heard that it was not the original site of the local golfing greens.
“Someone said this famous old golfer had laid that one out, right on top of the old dune system nearby,” Mr. Irvine recalled. He said he became curious when someone mentioned Tom Morris, the prolific 19th-century champion-turned-greenskeeper nicknamed the father of golf.
Mr. Irvine assumed it must be folklore, or a hoax. But as soon as he hiked to the dunes and looked out, he was stunned by what he saw: the well-preserved remnants of a world class, 18-hole course. It had been built in 1891 and named Askernish, after the small settlement in which it sits. Mr. Irvine resolved at that moment to bring Mr. Morris’s masterpiece back to playable perfection.
Tom Morris, a golf champion and later a master of course design, around 1905. Some call him the father of golf.Credit…Print Collector/Getty Images
This isolated spot — a tiny island whose year-round population at the last census just topped 1,700 — might seem an unlikely location for such an important course.
The coast of South Uist is mostly machair, a low-lying grassy plain that’s extremely fertile and appears only in this corner of the British Isles. The 6,300-yard Askernish course was coaxed from that landscape, rather than carved or sculpted, as might be more commonplace now, according to Mr. Irvine. Mr. Morris would prowl a plot, planting flags in the ground wherever he could envisage a hole.
Askernish was particularly precious, Mr. Irvine said, because many of the other courses Mr. Morris designed have been renovated and updated, often destroying his vision in the process.
These greens, though, were abandoned by the 1920s, left almost in suspended animation. Mr. Irvine and other volunteers resolved to restore it using old techniques and minimal machinery.
The 16th hole, now nicknamed Old Tom’s Pulpit, is particularly noteworthy. “It’s the one we felt reflected him more than any other — it has that classic blind shot Old Tom Morris was in favor of,” Mr. Irvine said. “The view from the elevated tee is just breathtaking.”
The course reopened in 2008 and is now operated as a community course, available to anyone. In the winter, the grassland is opened up to local farmers for their animals to graze.
Even in summer, when it’s tended, the greens are rougher and more like those used for hickory golf (a classic variation played with hickory clubs) than today’s manicured lawns. “We do have old sets of clubs available in the clubhouse if people want to play that,” said Mr. Irvine, who still goes regularly to South Uist to fish for trout and to golf.
But it is far from the only course in the region. Other impressive playing grounds pepper the 130-mile-long island chain, both nine- and 18-hole courses.
“Golf in the Outer Hebrides is golfing heaven, an experience like no other in Scotland,” said Roger McStravick, a golfing historian who lives in St. Andrews. “It’s a time capsule, in many ways, back to the 19th century. It’s the best bit of golf escapism in the world.”
There are so many courses here for a reason: It’s all about the unusual history of the Hebrides.
Victorian-era British aristocrats often summered here in the 19th century — the islands are surprisingly warm in season, thanks to the Gulf Stream that flows to them.
“They were an exclusive place to escape to; it’s where the landed gentry would go on holiday,” Mr. McStravick said. “It was their Aspen, their exclusive resort.”
(Its upper-class connections remain — Queen Elizabeth has twice chartered a ship to cruise around here with her family.)
That wealthy niche of Britons was among golf’s most avid proponents, and those who lived here commissioned courses to keep their guests entertained.
Lady Cathcart, for example, whose father-in-law had bought South Uist in the 1830s, hired Mr. Morris to create one of Scotland’s earliest private golf courses.
Elsewhere, her upper-class peers followed suit: Lady Matheson, whose family held sway in Lewis, the northern part of Lewis and Harris, the largest of the islands, financed a course in its largest town, Stornoway. Her budget did not stretch to hiring a talent like Mr. Morris.
With the encouragement of the upper classes — and the convenience of the facilities they funded — golfing culture spread among the working-class locals.
More courses followed, including on Harris. The course there has also been restored as a community resource, and all greens fees are paid by the honor system.
Mr. McStravick said that the champion golfer Nick Faldo had once played the Harris course and had deposited a signed, five-pound note at the end of his round. “The locals thought that wasn’t enough, and he subsequently apologized for such a meager donation — all in good spirits.” A tournament now recalls the incident, Mr. McStravick said. “Known as the Faldo Fiver, it’s played every year, like a trophy.”
The chance to play these links is often cited by those who want to buy property in the islands, according to John Gillies, of Ken MacDonald & Co., a Stornoway-based real estate agency. “Part of the appeal of Askernish is you could phone up in the morning and be able to play that day,” said Mr. Gillies, himself an avid golfer. “There’s an aura about it and it’s worthy of all the accolades it gets. It’s a phenomenal course, like stepping back in time.”
The northerly latitude of the islands are a boon in summer, he added, with games viable until 11 p.m. or so in July; it’s also the reason Askernish hosts its Open every August. (It was canceled in 2020, but returned this summer.)
Demand for property in the Outer Hebrides has surged during the pandemic, as have prices. Mr. Gillies noted that another agency in the islands typically had a roster of about 40 homes available at any time, but its inventory had dwindled to four by midsummer this year. “At some point, with the demand there is, we’re just going to run out of properties,” he said.
Homes here tend to fall into two broad categories, he noted: older, historic cottages and eco-friendly, contemporary architecture with an emphasis on sustainability.
Conventionally, he said, houses here would sell for the price suggested on a surveyor’s home report; in the last six months, successful offers have usually hovered 20 to 30 percent above that number.
Tenancies for crofts, or local farms, used to sell for £15,000 to £20,000 (about $21,000 to $28,000), but one that overlooks the picturesque Luskentyre Bay in Harris was seeking bids of £200,000 or more.
Of course, there are no homes for sale overlooking Askernish, nestled in the dunes. But it’s worth the drive, or ferry ride, to South Uist from any home in the islands, said Mr. McStravick, the golf historian.
“Golf is so much more than a stick and ball game — it’s about escapism,” he said. “And I don’t think there’s anywhere better in Scotland to lose yourself either in the golf, or the scenery.”