The Orkney Isles are remote, rugged and ultimately rewarding. David J Whyte goes in search of Vikings, and golf's earliest pioneers on Scotland's Dark Isles.
here's a popular saying on these islands; if you scratch its surface, Orkney bleeds archaeology! Such is the passion for all things prehistoric, locals are loath to announce that they've 'found something at the bottom of the garden'. They know that Historic Scotland will be around with brushes, buckets, trowels and tarpaulins to uncover yet another tantalising piece of Orkney’s incredible primeval past.
My son and I are exploring another aspect of these Dark Isles. I've been tasked to take a picture of every golf course in Scotland; there are 560 of them so it could take a while - especially as I like to play them. I've already captured 400 of the better-known tracks but it's the out-of-the-way 'hidden gems' that now attract me, the secluded nuggets covered in golden gorse and purple heather tucked away up some misty glen or at the back of a remote island.
And that's exactly what we find on the Dark Isles of Orkney, an archipelago of 70 assorted islands off the Scottish mainland's northern coast. There are 7 courses on 6 different islands so we had a nice task ahead. The Orkney Isles are perhaps not famous for golf but certainly renowned as a former Viking stronghold and archaeological treasure-trove. Five thousand years ago these islands were the centre of the known universe, for prehistoric man the equivalent of New York, Sydney or Shanghai! Why were these remote islands so important to our predecessors?
I met with Nick Card, director of a dig at the Ness of Brodgar, a site that has set the archaeological world alight. "We need to turn the map of Britain upside down when we consider the Neolithic," says Card. "London may be the cultural hub today but 5,000 years ago it was Orkney." Nick and his team having been scraping away at a massive temple complex that is as big and as important as Stonehenge. Radiocarbon dating shows that it was in use from at least 3200BC to 2300BC. “There’s nothing else like it from the Neolithic period in the British Isles nor indeed that of Northern Europe,” added Nick.
“If they were so advanced,” I asked, “is there was any evidence of prehistoric golf?” Card rose to my bait. “We have discovered some strange objects called carved stone balls. You could be led to believe that they are the prototype of the modern golf ball.”
I’m easily led so I’d like to think so! Joking aside, there is evidence that Orkney was indeed at the forefront of golf in Scotland, perhaps not Neolithic, more Elizabethan! The next morning we were up with the gulls and setting sail for the Island of Westray, the Queen of the Isles and the most fertile of Orkney’s islands & skerries. It's famous for the shortest commercial flight in the world (Westray to Papa Westray - total flight time = 2 minutes, sometimes less depending on the wind) and the longest golf hole in Scotland, at 731 yards, a Par 6 and also a beast into the wind. The 3rd at Westray Golf Club is one of only a handful of Par 6’s in the world and even with an exceptional drive, it's another two hefty blows to get to the green. I took an 8 and found it acceptable.
We stopped at Noltland Castle which overlooks the golf course. It dates from the 16th century, built by Gilbert Balfour of Fife who was connected with the court of Mary, Queen of Scots. An intriguing tale emerged from the neighbouring farmer who was kind enough to show us around his cheesemaking operation. “History tells us,” Jason said, “that Mary, Queen of Scots returned to Scotland from France in 1560 and was passionate about golf. Part of her retinue, the Balfours and other Scots noble families sailed to Westray in the late 1500’s to attend a wedding. They became stranded due to bad weather and what did they do?” the farmer asked with a twinkle in his eye. “They spent their spare time playing golf. And this makes Westray the oldest golf course in the world!”
I enjoyed Jason’s tale of time-honoured golf but our farming friend’s dates were a bit out. There is written evidence of the game being played at least 50 years earlier in the City of Perth with the first recorded purchase of golf clubs from a Perth bow-maker for James IV, Mary’s grandfather in 1502. It is clear that the Scottish nobles of the time had taken to the game and being stranded for weeks at Westray with a fine course on their doorstep, they no doubt would have played the links opposite the castle and albeit in somewhat rougher condition. So, it’s perhaps not ‘the oldest golf course in the world’ but certainly one of the earliest ground in Scotland to be graced with a game of golf.
The next day we were back on the ‘Mainland’ as they call the largest of Orkney’s islands. Orkney Golf Club sits above the principal town of Kirkwall commanding airy prospects and catching most of the wind that these islands capitalise on with world-leading renewable energy projects. The course looks fairly innocuous but Orkney Golf Club is quite challenging, deceptively long on several holes and when the wind blows - as it inevitably does, twice as testing.
The town of Kirkwall surrounds a busy, colourful harbour and is divided by a maze of tight, flagstoned streets and alleys. In the 11th century, this was a Viking stronghold, a strategic outpost for the Norse Western Empire. And there’s gold & silver to prove it! In 1858 a young Orkney lad was chasing a rabbit into a hole. Scraping away at the sandy surface he unearthed a few scattered pieces of silver. Near the Bay of Skaill, the “Skaill Hoard” eventually yielded 115 items of Viking jewellery, including nine brooches, 14 necklets, 27 armlets, an assortment of ingots and silver fragments. One of the twenty-one coins discovered is a dirham minted in Baghdad (present-day Iraq) in AD 945 to 946. The ‘Skaill Hoard’ is now one of the treasures in the collections of the National Museums Scotland in Edinburgh and well worth a visit.
Kirkwall offers gems in the form of excellent restaurants, shops and pubs huddled together in the narrow lanes. Being surrounded by sea, you’d think seafood would be high on the menu but Orkney is actually better known for its beef. The best restaurant we discovered was just out of town; The Forveran, where the locally-sourced steaks are served simply to preserve the wonderful, fresh flavours. Also worth sampling is mutton from North Ronaldsay where the sheep have adapted to eating seaweed giving their meat a distinct flavour.
We were on the road again, this time heading for Stromness Golf Club. En route we discovered more neolithic sites. Skara Brae is another important Neolithic discovery, by far the best preserved of its kind in Europe. This late Stone Age village dates back 5,000 years. It was only inhabited for around 600 years before a severe sandstorm sealed it away then, in 1850 a similar storm revealed a time-capsule to the world complete with storage shelves and beds. Nearby is the Ring of Brodgar erected between 2500 BC and 2000 BC, the last of the great Neolithic monuments built on the Ness.
Also nearby is the 5-star tourist attraction, Orkney Brewery, built in an old school house where visitors sit at desks to enjoy lunch complete with sterling craft beers such as Skull Splitter, Red MacGregor or Dragonhead. I’m sure the pupils at the school were never served such fine ales at break time. On the subject of drink, one of Scotland’s most celebrated whiskies is produced at The Highland Park Distillery just on the outskirts of Kirkwall.
St Andrews, Pebble Beach, Pine Valley - they’re all visually spectacular golf courses. But my heart now has a soft spot for the stunning scenery at Stromness Golf Club. You’ve probably never heard of it! Let me put it this way; during our first round, we had to stop on several occasions to catch our breath and take in the sheer magnificence of this place. Stromness’s course is short; a mere 4,500 yards but you would never think it! This imaginative little test proffers an intriguing design that turns every hole into a puzzle with every puff of wind. We were so taken with the place during our stay we played it three times. The Town of Stromness is equally charming. With it’s narrow lanes and closes leading down to the sea, there are art galleries, shops and restaurants to while away a Scottish summer’s evening.
In spite of such delightful distractions, we were still on a mission to visit all of Orkney’s seven courses. Our flight out to North Ronaldsay ended in disappointment when the pilot turned round to tell us we were heading back to Kirkwall - it was too misty to land on the most northerly of Orkney’s isles. That, of course, means a return trip this summer I’m afraid. Needs must!
Meanwhile, the Island of Sanday is surrounded by beautiful bays and lapped by clear, turquoise waters. The flight to Sanday is short and a chance to appreciate the beauty of these magnificent islands from the air. Sanday’s links are 100% natural, tended by sheep with the greens roughly mowed occasionally by members. These are the conditions golf’s earliest enthusiasts encountered. The greens are protected from the livestock by barbed-wire fences which themselves form a tricky hazard. Putting on these rough and ready greens requires a somewhat firmer stroke than we’re used to on today’s silky smooth surfaces.
Heading south on the ‘mainland’, The Italian Chapel is a testament to peace, built by Italian prisoners during the Second World War. South Ronaldsay Golf Club in St Margaret’s Hope is reckoned to be the most challenging of all the golf courses on these islands. Built by locals with 9-holes and 18 tees, it is raked by the wind with lots of trouble including a burn that somehow appears on most holes. Nearby, The Tomb of Eagles is another Neolithic site well worth visiting - if you can shimmy through the entrance on what appeared to be a ‘tea-tray’ on wheels.
Golf in Scotland, the land of its birth comes in many forms and discovering the more out-of-the-way courses and culture such as we encountered in Orkney is highly recommended. Sometimes it pays to take a road less travelled… you return all the richer for the experience.
David & Ewan travelled with Northlink Ferries from Aberdeen to Kirkwall (www.northlinkferries.co.uk ) and stayed at The Shore Hotel (www.theshore.co.uk). For more information visit www.visitorkney.com