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.

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.



Witches’ knickers …

… and other monochromes, from a walk between Portmahomack and Tarbat Ness lighthouse.  To get here, head for Inverness, cross the Kessock and Cromarty Bridges, follow the A9 north, by-passing Invergordon, until a turning right is signposted Fearn and beyond.  We are here because of golf, a ‘research’ trip for Golf in the Wild – Going Home – golf doesn’t get much wilder than this.

It is also a fine place to stay regardless of the golf: Known in Gaelic as ‘Port MoCholmaig’ or St Colman’s Port, Portmahomack can trace its roots back to 800 AD. Today, this pretty fishing village is well-known locally for its picturesque setting. The only village on the east coast of Scotland that faces due west, Portmahomack can enjoy spectacular sunsets. And because it is situated in an area of the Highlands renowned for its low rainfall, the village doesn’t suffer with those pesky West Coast midges! – http://www.portmahomack.org/

A remarkably flat landscape for much of the road towards the tip of the peninsular, it was purpose-built for aerodromes.  More than seventy years after the end of World War II, there is much evidence of the decaying infrastructure that supported RAF Tain.  It is also prime farmland, more reminiscent of the Great Plains than a land steeped in ancient Pictish history.  There are the inevitable too-yellow fields of oil seed rape but also, acres given over to potato crops, much of which ends up in crackly packets of Walkers Crisps.

Once you reach the coastal village Portmahomack, the landscape roughens up such that the golf course is anything but flat which makes for a thoroughly entertaining 10-hole layout at the top of the village. Golf was first played here in 1894 and the current club established in 1909.

Portmahomack even has its own Carnegie Hall which, by happy coincidence, was playing host to Lizabett Russo on the night we arrived.

These photos ignore the golf as I am honour-bound to occasionally entertain the Good Wife/part-time caddie with walks that don’t include greens and fairways:

Witches’ knickers

A shed

Wide open spaces

Oil seed rape.

Tarbat Ness Lighthouse.

Tarbat Ness Lighthouse.

Going back

When I want to go back, I head for the sea.  For all our modern advances, our relationship with sand and water is unchanged in my lifetime.  These images could have been taken any time in the last sixty years. There is a quality of light in the sky as you approach the sea which is apparent long before you arrive at the coast. It is this I remember from long ago summer holidays, summers when the sands were too hot to walk on barefoot. I am still drawn by that light:

I must go down to the seas again, for the call of the running tide
Is a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied;
And all I ask is a windy day with the white clouds flying,
And the flung spray and the blown spume, and the sea-gulls crying.

Alnmouth beach

Alnmouth beach

Alnmouth beach

Behind the dunes is the wonderful Alnmouth Village Golf Course, the oldest 9-hole course in England. On this day the fairways were brown and hard meaning the ball would run forever.  By comparison, the greens were islands of lush green.  I was frustrated not to be playing – in my head, sand sea and golf are inseparable.

Alnmouth Village golf course

The call of the wild …

The roads are still salty, on most days they are uncomfortably wet and the air is still piercingly cold but, there is no resisting the call of the wild and the open road.  Against better judgement I ventured out on two wheels on several occasions in March and was never disappointed.  The still image is from a ride out to Carrshield and the video from a late afternoon ride to Allendale Golf Club – Home of Golf in the Wild.  This is now accessible from the club’s website just in case visitors have difficulty finding the course – follow satnavs to NE47 9DH and you will be taken to High Studdon Farm.

Different high road ...

“The course is tucked away in the hills of an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and must therefore be discreet. The road south out of Allendale winds down the Allen Valley along the B6295 towards Allenheads, following the course of the East Allen River. A mile or so south of the town, as the road breaks free from overhanging trees, a sharp left turn is signposted to the club. The track is rutted, rabbits run for cover and depending on the time of year, will wear a layer of rich agricultural muck. The track climbs 167 feet in a third of a mile which is more or less the difference between the high and low ground on the course; it helps to be fit. The clubhouse sits at 1077 feet above sea level on the west facing side of Green Hill which peaks at 1374 feet – it is not entirely inaccurate to say the course is situated on the side of a mountain. A wind turbine installed in 2010 marks your arrival. On a plain 9-metre tower with dark coloured blades, it blends into the agricultural landscape in a manner reminiscent of the iconic multi-bladed windpumps of America’s central plains.”

Accidental selfie ...

An accidental selfie, captured by the GoPro – I am wearing a backpack, just in case you were wondering 🙂

Merry Christmas

This will probably be my last post until after Christmas Day so a very Merry Christmas to all my followers, many thanks for taking the time to like and comment on my ever random thoughts throughout the year and all the best for 2016.

Our plan had been to be lazy on Christmas Day and eat at the Boatside Inn, just over Warden Bridge.  Sadly, especially for the owners, the building was flooded in the recent storms and will not open again until the New Year. Consequently we are eating at home and chef will be catering for five, possibly seven – my normal limit is two 🙂

This year’s Christmas card reflects my passion for hitting small balls with unsuitable sticks in wild places – hopefully the snow provides a sufficiently seasonal touch.  This is the second at Allendale, a place you can now fly over at Aerial Golf Caddy.  When you have a spare moment between the main course and the pudding, take a look; you may begin to understand my obsession with the place (two of the best ‘flights’ are at the 3rd and 12th, both par 3s).

Christmas card ...


Gairloch surprise

This week I am on a virtual golfing journey to Gairloch, dragging up notes, memories and stories about the village and its course from a trip in August this year and many others from years before.  It occurs to me that many followers of this blog will have no idea where Gairloch is located.  I recommend keying the postcode IV21 2BE into Google Earth, popping down into Street View and taking a look at ground level – this beautifully positioned course is clearly visible from the A832; the best view on Street View is from the church, opposite the club and beach car park.

Gairloch is one of the few places I have stayed for any length of time in northwest Scotland, most times I have been on road trips, just passing through.  Consequently I know the course and the surrounding area quite well and for once it is more about what to leave out of the book rather than what to include.  During my research I have been assisted by photographs supplied by the Department of Special Collections at University of St Andrews Library who have provided copies of postcards from their James Valentine & Co archive.  This view of the course taken in 1934 has not really changed that much in eighty years; the golfers are still overlooked by the distant church and the elevated tee appears to be following the same line as the current par five 526 yard eighth, Traigh Mor.

Gairloch Golf Course 1934At first glance, I thought I was looking at the scan of a black and white glass positive but then I noticed a hint of blue in the sky.  Imagine my surprise when I pushed up the saturation to +80 in Photoshop:

Gairloch Golf Course 1934Unfortunately I had not seen this 1934 photograph before I last visited Gairloch otherwise I would have tried to replicate the view.  This is the closest I came on a walk along the beach and around the headland to the harbour.  The church is just visible along with the relatively new clubhouse:

Gairloch Golf Course 2012This final picture is perhaps a better representation of the joys of playing golf at Gairloch.  Taken above the sixth par 3 tee box, Westward Ho!, this is a tight tee shot with punishing rough to the left, trees to the right and a glorious distracting view towards the Isles on the horizon.  It is an imaginative layout squeezed into a relatively small acreage.  I must return.

Gairloch Golf Course 2012

Kyle of Lochalsh Golf Course

I am indebted to the Department of Special Collections at University of St Andrews Library for providing copies of postcards from their James Valentine & Co archive.  I had asked for anything they could find for a variety of golf courses in northwest Scotland and, out of the blue on Wednesday, I received an email containing five superb old photographs.  This view of Kyle of Lochalsh golf course is one of my favourites, perhaps because it is the most poignant:

Kyle of Lochalsh Golf Course 1931

The major archive of monochrome topographical views by James Valentine & Co. is held by the University of St Andrews Library. For further details of this collection please contact the Library, or refer to http://www.st-andrews.ac.uk/specialcollections”

The course is sited north of the town on the Plock of Kyle with wide ranging views towards Skye, and the isles of Raasay and Scalpay on its eastern shore.  The small uninhabited island in the foreground is Eilean a’ Mhal which, like many of the small islands, is in the care of the National Trust for Scotland.  Just to the south is Eilean Bàn which, with its decommissioned lighthouse, provides a convenient ‘stepping stone’ for the Skye Bridge as it makes the final leap towards the mainland.  The postcard dates from 1931 when Skye remained a disconnected island and the ferry still ran between the slipways at Kyle of Lochalsh and Kyleakin.  Much has changed in the intervening years.  The postcard clearly shows the but ‘n’ ben style white clubhouse and the neat fairways amongst the rocky outcrops, so much more punishing than mere sand.  The modern OS map still tantalises golfers with a golf course symbol but when I last walked across the Plock of Kyle in March 2009, this was the state of the clubhouse seventy eight years later:

The clubhouse 2009I don’t know when the course was abandoned but the evidence of former glories can still be found amongst the undergrowth and there was even a scruffy white flag attached to a bent stick planted on what was once a much tended green; not a flag of surrender but a symbol of sheer bloody-minded optimism, hopefully there is already a restoration committee making plans.

Kyle of Lochalsh Golf Course 2009Footnote:  With reference to an earlier post, the 70 foot Eilean Bàn lighthouse is another Stevenson creation.  It was built in 1857 and designed by David (1815-81) and Thomas (1818-87) Stevenson, father of Robert Louis Stevenson.  In the picture below the lighthouse is just visible beneath the right arch; elegant the bridge may be but I do wish it wasn’t there.  I don’t suppose the islanders agree.

Skye Bridge sunset

Pulpit and Pin

This is the gloriously unsettling view up the first at Lochcarron.  Is there a more worrying opener anywhere in the land.  How do the locals cope after too many whisky chasers the night before.

To the left is the unprotected A896 which heads north to Gairloch via Shieldaig, Torridon and Kinlochewe; admittedly single track for large sections and hardly the M6, it is nevertheless alarmingly close at approximately 18 yards to the left of the tee and a few feet from the edge of the fairway.  A few paces to the right is the soft marshy edge of the loch.  At its widest point beyond the church, the fairway is just 21.7 yards from out of bounds to water hazard (courtesy of Google Earth).

The first par 3, Jimmy’s Seat, is 210 yards from tee to green but 126 yards out a burn cuts across the fairway so you need to drive a minimum of 150 straight yards just to be sure of clearing the water.  And there is more; the burn arrives under the road parallel with the green and meanders along its bush lined left edge before looping round into the loch.  Finally, the green is elevated so coming up short is not an option for a shot in regulation.  Going for the green is out of the question, my limited armoury simply doesn’t include the required golf shot.

I stood on the tee utterly perplexed.  This felt more like target practice, archery at a distance far greater than the gents’ competition maximum of 90 metres. Short of the green, seemingly beyond the burn to the right, there is an inviting light patch of turf so I lined up in that direction, determined to play the ‘sensible’ shot.  I came up too short on the edge of the pebbled burn, punched the ball onto dry land, chipped again to the green and two putted for five.  A hacker’s double bogey, ending the hole with the same ball I had started with felt like a minor triumph.  The thing that baffles me is that this is stroke index 9 whereas the par 3 stroke index 1 played across the road (beware high sided vehicles) seems child’s play by comparison.

Don’t be put off by the description of the first, it is a wonderful setting for golf and on the July evening I played, completely bereft of the dreaded midge.  The first three holes hug the shoreline, the fourth Stroke Index 1 plays across the A road whilst the rest circumnavigate the old church.

This seems an odd setting for a course established in 1908 and even today it has its repercussions, the course closing when a funeral is being conducted in the graveyard, not the occasion for a wild slice into the head bent bible-black mourners.  Similarly, competitions are played on Saturdays to avoid expletives echoing across green and shore to enhance the sermon; this may not be true.  Playing golf on Sunday in parts of Scotland is still considered a sinful pastime but this doctrine is fundamentally flawed, assuming that golf is somehow a pleasurable activity rather than a parallel and complementary religion.  We suffer for our sins at pulpit and pin.

At just 1782 yards (nine holes) and only three par 4s it might not appeal to everyone but they would be missing something unusual and interesting; just keep an eye out for the traffic.

Great Golf Holes of the North – Allendale’s 17th

Today, July 18th 2012, the Newcastle Journal has published number three in a series of Great Golf Holes of the North, this time the 17th at Allendale, my home club.  The fine words were by Norman Harris and the picture is mine.

Just occasionally events fall into place.  Despite our awful summer, the weather briefly brightened, the view down the valley cleared, one of our members (Andy Morgan) turned up on cue and chipped a ball onto the green, the camera was already on station 5 meters up a pole, the wireless shutter triggered, the ball was caught in mid-flight (I promise it wasn’t added afterwards, just slightly enlarged) and it all fell into place.  Norman was eventually persuaded that this was the best view of the hole and with some ‘post-production’ figures added to the tee, everyone was content.

Then it appears in newsprint and the detail that provides the atmosphere has gone, the contrast has disappeared and there is no depth to the picture.  So, to set the record straight, here is the original – still not as good as the high resolution version (WordPress compression does it no favours) but still a marked improvement on the newsprint version.  Click on the picture to see a slightly enlarged version.

Postscript:  It turns out the Journal also fiddled with one of the paragraphs.  This is what Norman Harris actually said:

Intriguingly, there was once an issue with this 17th hole. When the course was established in 1992 the nine holes were played twice from the same tees. Then came the idea of having alternative tees on the second nine.

A number of players thought that a retrograde step – though possibly  this resistance was all down to the new 17th seeming to be just too difficult. Not least by the ladies, who opted to play their tee shot from the drop area.  Now, they face up to the challenge of clearing the canyon, regardless of the possible consequences.