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.

When I was small …

and Christmas trees were tall, I was easily spooked by big things.  Taken to the local fire station by my grandfather, I was reduced to tears by the sheer enormity of the engines.  Given the opportunity to climb Portland Lighthouse, the endless stairs sent me scurrying outside.  The railway viaduct near Goostrey in Cheshire towered so high, I would not go near.  In the nearby fields an enormous and strange structure was taking shape and I took exception to it.  In the 1950s, Bernard Lovell’s radio telescope at Jodrell Bank was only partially complete.

Many years later, living in the foothills of the Peak District at Bosley, on clear days, the entire Cheshire Plain was visible from our bedroom window.  And there, at its centre, the Jodrell Bank telescope – no longer something to be feared, no longer a stranger in the landscape, it had come to define it.

Around the same time in the 1950s, many miles further north, a  more threatening structure was emerging from the white heat of technology.

At the outbreak of the Second World War it became apparent that the air defences in the far north of Scotland must be improved, primarily as a consequence of the  British Navy’s safe anchorage at Scapa Flow which was particularly vulnerable to air attack.  As a first step an airfield was constructed at Wick and then later in the war, another at Dounreay.  However, the Dounreay facility, not completed until April 1944, was immediately mothballed. Apart from occasional usage by the Navy as HMS Tern II and later as a camp for displaced Polish servicemen, it remained unused until 1954 when the Government announced that Dounreay was to become the centre for UK fast reactor research and development.  Between 1955 and 1958, the Dounreay Fast Reactor (DFR) sphere mushroomed into the landscape and, like Jodrell Bank, it has come to define it.  Lovell’s creation says ‘here we can reach for the stars’; Dounreay’s says ‘here we can tinker with the tools of Armageddon, tame Einstein’s monster’.

The Caithness Death Star achieved criticality in 1959 and, in 1962, became the first fast reactor in the world to supply electricity to a national grid.  Just fifteen years later it was switched off.  Since then it has been a long slow process of decommissioning, an exercise that will not complete until 2025 with the demolition of the sphere.  Sadly, retention is not practical – according to the Dounreay Heritage Strategy document 2010,SES(09)P007, Issue 2 : The DFR sphere is contaminated throughout and recent core samples from the vault indicate that the concrete has deteriorated more than anticipated and that original construction techniques may have been lax in some areas … despite the most rigorous decontamination efforts, the risk of receiving a significant radiation dose may never go away.

I have some connection with the Dounreay site having been responsible for establishing an Office Systems field trial there between 1988 and 1989, housed in the buildings adjacent to DFR.  This exercise had more to do with my love of travel and wild landscape than the practicalities of running a software trial in this faraway place. It was during one of many site visits that I was given access to the sphere, much smaller on the inside than it appears from without.  Fortunately I had grown more tolerant of ‘big things’ in the intervening years.  Now it is the things I can’t see that worry me, rather than the things I can.

This image from the archive shows Reay’s par 3 7th, Pilkington.  Not quite visible, over the horizon to the left, is the DFR sphere:


An earlier post, Seaside Golf, explores the fall out from this atomic energy site (pun intended).

Seaside Golf

I have a passion for seaside golf, in part explained by this short extract from Golf in the Wild:

Gairloch is pure seaside golf – yes, it is a links course, but it is more than that, it is within sight and sound of a well-used beach. The soundtrack to golf at Gairloch is excitable, shrieking children, the gentle lapping of waves and the barking of frisky dogs taking too much salty air. It is the holidays of my childhood when walks near the beach skirted the local links and very serious ladies and gentlemen in chequered trousers could be seen staring intently at bushes and the long grass as though searching for their lost youth.

There was no playing on the links for us, but there was always the putting green on which to hone my skills, skills I have clearly mislaid since those long-lost summer days. For many years holidays meant Sandbanks on the south coast, west of Bournemouth: familiar territory for my parents raised not so many miles away in Hampshire. In those days Sandbanks was certainly desirable but not the place it has now become – reputedly the fourth most expensive place to live on the planet.

These images are not from Gairloch but Reay on the far north coast of Scotland, taken on a recent ‘research trip’ – the best part about writing travel books on golf.  It is adjacent to the Dounreay atomic energy site, suitably distant from any centres of population and as far as can be imagined from the sands of Bournemouth.  The top half of the original domed reactor is visible from some parts of the course.

The fifth tee ... The 4th green ... The fifth green ... Chimneys ... 9th green ...

In this distant and remote land the beaches are cinerama-wide and post-apocalyptic empty, not a whisper of shrieking children nor barking dogs because something more sinister than ball games is happening on these shores. Reay golf course overlooks Sandside Beach and is visible in all its glory in the last image. Look closely and there are two dots on the sand – the one on the left is a Land Rover, the support vehicle for the one on the right – the Groundhog, scouring the beach for radioactive particles leaked from adjacent Dounreay. Sandside is open to the public, the risk of radioactive contamination being estimated at 1 in 80 million. Having said that, any balls I might have sliced onto the beach would have stayed where they landed – one day they would be perfect for nighttime golf 😉