Golf in the Wild – Going Home – Reay

Chapter 2:  There is a wild beauty to this place which is quite different from the west. After the high uplands of Sutherland, Caithness is a gentler, flatter and a largely treeless landscape, where landmarks stand out like exclamation marks on the horizon. The golf course at Reay (pronounced Ray) owes its existence and survival to the occupants of Sandside House to the west and the Dounreay atomic energy site to the east. Both are visible from various parts of the course.
Thomas Pilkington, the St Helens glass manufacturer, acquired Sandside House and some of the surrounding estates in the late 1800s for use as a shooting and fishing retreat. Like many landed families of the nineteenth century, the Pilkington clan, relatives, friends and accompanying servants would up sticks from smoky Lancashire and spend the summer sporting in the far north. The contrast between industrialised St Helens and the wilds of Reay could not have been more pronounced. When not shooting, contemplating salmon or installing an early version of double glazing, Thomas’s thoughts turned to golf. Looking east from the upper, condensation-free windows of Sandside House, he would see the perfect location for his very own course …

Chapter 2 -Reay

Golf in the Wild – Going Home – The Road East

CHAPTER 1: Elizabeth Sparkes is buried in the small graveyard at Balnakeil, but I cannot find her. Somewhere, she is lying among the old stones, eternally listening to the sea. She is so far from home and days from her sisters: Mary, Anne, Julia and Harriet. She has no hope of escape, eternally at rest in bad company.
In the same graveyard, Donald McMurdo is easier to find; his tomb is immediately visible, built into a niche in the south wall. A serial murderer and henchman for Clan Mackay, his speciality was to throw his victims down the blowhole at nearby Smoo Cave. Such was his reputation, that the local clergy would not countenance his burial at Balnakeil but were persuaded, by a compromise and maybe the greasing of palms, to bury him half in and half out of the sacred ground. The result is that his memory is better preserved than those of the good souls that surround him. He would no doubt have been proud of his epitaph: Donald McMurdo here lies low – Was ill to his friend, and worse to his foe.

The Road East – Durness to Reay

Golf in the Wild – Going Home is available to purchase from Amazon and from this website.

Printed versions of the first book, Golf in the Wild, have sold out, but can be read on Kindle.

A different sort of golfer …

…  a different sort of biker.  Durness is the place where Golf in the Wild ends and its sequel, Golf in the Wild – Going Home, begins.  The image of the 8th green shows a ball adjacent to the pin – it will not have arrived in regulation.  The approach has the characteristics of an infinity pool – just fairway and water.  It takes confidence to go for the invisible green, anything long seemingly destined for the briny sea.

The view from the 8th/17th green takes in many highlights of the course: the dunes and the edge of Balnakeil Bay; sturdy Balnakeil House – available for rent to the well-heeled and grubby – it has six bathrooms; the graveyard where lies the Clan MacKay henchman, Donald McMurdo – was ill to his friend and worse to his foe; the 18th tee, which provides such a glorious finish across a rocky inlet and the Clubhouse which resembles a coastguard station, forever keeping watch for those in peril on the course.

The view from the 8th green, looking east

The image does not sparkle, it was not one of those days – hazy sunshine turned dreich, but I was grateful for the benign conditions; when the winds blow strong across the Parph from Cape Wrath, this will be an inhospitable place for golf and much else besides.

It was taken in August 2012 and, sad to relate, I have never played the course since, despite becoming a country member for a couple of years when the club’s finances were stretched. Their secretary, Lucy Mackay, has always been very supportive of Golf in the Wild.  That is not to say I have never returned to Balnakeil and Durness – I have been several times, most recently in 2021 by motorcycle.

The NCA Motorcycle Club at Balnakeil Bay – May 2021

My standard line is that I have yet to fathom how to carry golf clubs on my BMW GS, but as I proved on Barra, dependence on my own clubs is entirely illusory, indeed, my game seemed to benefit from using a mixed set of hire clubs.  With this in mind, I am planning more extreme wild golf by motorcycle – in 2023 the intention is to ride to the Lofoten Islands in Norway and play golf under the midnight sun on Lofoten Links.  I have travelled there by car, sea, ship and aeroplane which only leaves the motorcycle to complete the set.  On my last trip I travelled with my eldest son by train from Oslo to Bodø and then took a short flight to Svolvær.  It was the beginning of March and snow was still thick on the ground – the Lofoten Islands are well within the Arctic Circle such that Lofoten Links will only open from 5th of May until 15th of October in 2023.

The road to Lofoten Links – March 2020

 

Near Lofoten Links – March 2020

Why post this now? It is all part of the process of making it happen – a commitment to myself, and now, to others. It is about not losing face.

Barra

As mentioned in the previous post, this year’s motorcycle adventures have included a trip to the Isle of Barra in the Outer Hebrides.  The initial incentive was to play wild golf on its one and only golf course, but the travel by motorcycle turned the journey into something special and memorable.  Some many days later, I have finally finished the video of the trip.

The Isle of Barra Golf Club has been built on rough and rocky terrain. It is not suitable for the plough and even less so the mower, instead, the course relies on grazing cattle who lack the necessary close-cutting skills of sheep. Unlike the ovine, the bovine are untidy eaters. They also take relief across the course, forcing the golfer to do similar. At least, when we played, they kept to the high ground where they surveyed our every move from atop Cnoc an Fhithich.

Would I honestly recommend going to Barra to play golf, maybe not. Instead, go to Barra for Barra, it is a wonderful destination with scenery as remarkable as anywhere else in the world … oh, and while you are there, don’t miss the opportunity to have a unique golfing experience.

The full golfing story will be told in the next edition of Golf Quarterly.

Where have I been …

… all over the place. It’s not that I think anyone has missed me, it’s just that my WordPress licence is up for renewal and I have not posted since the end of May.

Ten years ago, when I seriously returned to motorised two wheels, for the first time in decades, I never imagined it would come to this. A year that started with a wet ride down to the Triumph factory has continued with many day trips and some longer ‘adventures’ – Orkney and Shetland in June; Newhaven in August and the Outer Hebrides in September. All told, I have accumulated just short of 10,000 miles, the majority on the BMW R1250 GS, the only bike I, and my backside, could contemplate covering 376 miles in one day trip.(Newhaven to Hexham).

All this goes some way to explaining my lack of posts on WordPress – days in the saddle, hours on the golf course and too little time at home with the Good Wife. So, there are no motorcycle pictures in this post, just a selection from this week’s escape to north Northumberland where we are enjoying a lazy seven days together. We should do this more often:

The Gate at Bamburgh Castle.

Illuminated sheep at Bamburgh Castle, celebrating the return of the Lindisfarne Gospels to the north east.

Beadnell Bay and Newton Links – the estuary is fed by Brunton Burn, Tughall Burn and Long Nanny.

Watery dog walking – Beadnell Bay

The Coastguard look-out hut and Bass Rock, North Berwick.

Monday is washing day – North Berwick

Norham Castle, high above the banks of the Tweed – painted by J. M. W. Turner on many occasions.

Heatherslaw Light Railway – sadly, no steam running today..

And for those who need a motorcycle fix, this is the video of my Orkney and Shetland adventure – you will need patience to see it through to the end:

 

The Wild Golf Podcast

This image was taken on the beach by my dad – probably Bournemouth, with the family box Brownie. Like my memories from the time, it is aptly out of focus. I remember the feel of the jersey bib shorts, the bucket which was soft rubber and a vague sense of my mother’s touch. It is probably 1954.

The relationship was not always close, especially in my teenage years. Prone to be judgemental, I wonder what my mother would have made of my elevation to ‘celebrity’, the star of a podcast. He/she has got too big for his/her own boots; it is sure to end in tears; he/she likes the sound of his/her own voice. Well, actually mum, I am not sure I do – there is too much the hint of nowhere man and middle England. It betrays a sense of not really belonging anywhere and it doesn’t go down well in all quarters. All that apart, I am also not sure she would have entirely seen the funny side of publicising our strained relationship. I am sad she is no longer around to pass judgement – we are not amused, or just maybe, we are.

Wild Golf
Welcome to the Wild Golf Podcast with Michael McDonald. We will inspire you to join a community of adventure golfers who step outside the conventional golf box and experience the beauty of the game, and life, in profound ways.
 
 

 

 

The Wrens of the Curragh

The printed page has its limitations.  Chapter 7 of Golf in the Wild – Going Home tells the story of the Wrens of the Curragh – an outcast community of 19th-century Irish women who lived rough, brutally hard lives on the plains of Kildare. The name comes from the shelters they lived in, hollowed out “nests” in the ground which they covered with layers of furze. Their number included unmarried mothers, free-thinkers, alcoholics, prostitutes, vagrants, ex-convicts and harvest workers:

Edward Prince of Wales, as he was at the time, was reportedly introduced to the game in 1859 by his Governor, General Robert Bruce, an R&A member since 1834. Inspired by an exhibition match at Musselburgh, in 1861 his military association with the Grenadier Guards would take him to Curragh in Ireland where the recently opened golf course was immediately adjacent to the Camp. It is not documented if the future King found time for golf during his ten-week visit, but his extramural activities became infamous. A sexual novice, his fellow Guards arranged an introduction to Nellie Clifden, a local ‘actress’ and possibly a Wren of the Curragh who ‘knew her way round the Camp in the dark’. The resulting affair soon became public knowledge as the Guards’ tongues wagged and Nellie became known as the ‘Princess of Wales’. The scandal enraged his parents, Queen Victoria and her husband, Prince Albert, and steps were immediately taken to end the liaison. Prince Albert would die a few months later, a demise that Victoria blamed entirely on the anguish caused by Edward’s indiscretions – “I never can or shall look at him [Edward] without a shudder.” The older generation should never interfere with youthful passion – the ghosts of forbidden fruit can haunt an entire life. If anything is to be learned from this story, it is this – when tempted by sins of the flesh, play more golf.

The chapter heading quote is from Hunting the Wren by the Irish folk band Lankum – it first appeared on their album, The Live Long Day released on 25th October 2019. The ‘wren’ is a direct reference to the Wrens of the Curragh.

The wren is a small bird, how pretty she sings. She bested the eagle when she hid in its wings

It was this track and their anarchic appearance that inspired this section of the book – there is simply no substitute for seeing and hearing this remarkable performance:

 

Bike miles …

Nearly 300 this week, so spring must be around the corner. Mileage was more or less evenly spread between the BMW GS and the Triumph Scrambler, the former clocking up 131 in one trip to get serviced at Carlisle and then home via Hawick – by no means the quickest route, but the diversion into the Scottish Borders includes the near empty sweeping bends of the A7.

In among the images of my own bikes there is the enormous BMW R18 and a new BMW GS, made ugly by too many splashes of yellow – both taken at the BMW showroom while waiting for my bike to be serviced and shod with some new Metzelers. Well, you have to fill the time somehow …

The Scrambler north of Brown Rigg

The Road from Sundaysight

The GS with Rubers Law in the distance

BMW R1250 GS – the 2022 version of my bike spoiled buy the yellow touches (looks better in mono;-))

The BMW R18 – magnificent but not my style of bike

Under threatening skies to Bellingham, but stayed dry.

The Scrambler at Hesleyside

Lambs

It has been a good few years since we have seen lambs in the field adjacent to our house. We live high above the Tyne Valley and there has been a recent tendency to move the mothers and their off-spring to lower ground.

Thankfully, it has not happened this year, at least not yet. These newborns arrived within the last 24 hours and will have spent their first night in freezing temperatures, waking to a hard frost.  According to the shepherd, they don’t suffer in the frost, it is rain and harsh winds that gets to them. The forecast looks much the same for the next few days, so these first arrivals should be ok.

Breakfast time

This one has a single – so no competition with brothers and sisers

The Shepherd and his sheep

The Shepherd and his sheep

 

Rain and wind …

And nothing much else this week. Some days I was reduced to photographing the neighbours i.e. the sheep. It was so bad today, they deserted the higher ground and have probably found shelter near the trees. Other days, I was either in Hexham or walking near Fourstones. Golf and motorcycling seem a distant prospect. On a positive note, the first 100 books (Golf in the Wild – Going Home) have been sold or shipped to retailers.

The lovers at Hexham Pant on Valentine’sDay

Parallel lines – the crossings near Fourstones Papermill Co. Ltd.

In spate – the Tyne at Haydon Bridge.

After the storm – a thorough wash and blow dry.

Nun shall pass – Hexham Abbey.

Bulrushes – between Warden and Fourstones.

An awful day (today, Sunday 20/2) – the field is saturated, the sheep are in hiding and I have not ventured beyond the front door.