With another Royal Wedding on the cards, David J Whyte takes a golf-romantic's trek along Royal Deeside, hide-away of the British monarchy for over 150 years. Any excuse really!
The Royal Deeside Golf Trail effectively starts in the city of Aberdeen. Also known as the Granite City, its sparkling, chiseled outline rises up like a fairy fortress as you approach from the south. The material used to build the city came out of one very large hole, Rubislaw Quarry not far from the city centre. On the day the local newspaper reported that the quarry was to close it proclaimed that oil had been discovered in the North Sea. Aberdeen’s kinda lucky that way!
So is the valley just to the west of the city! Deeside was once a rather remote, neglected glen languishing in obscurity until it was ‘discovered’ by an earlier couple of love-struck royals, Queen Victoria and her consort, Prince Albert. The couple were so impressed with the rugged terrain, refreshing air and the peaceful pace of life that, before the locals had time to put up the bunting, they’d moved in. Consecutive royal families have been retreating here ever since, each year staying through September and much of October.
I started my own little royal tour of this regal hide-away in a not-so-shabby establishment, the Marcliffe Hotel & Spa, Aberdeen’s premier 5-star hotel. The Marcliffe is a golfers retreat owned by Stewart Spence, a keen player himself. His staff are sure to keep you right as to where to play and visit. There are several notable courses surrounding or in Aberdeen such as Royal Aberdeen, host to the Walker Cup for 2011, Cruden Bay, Murcar or Hazelhead, a city course designed by Dr Alastair McKenzie before he lit out for America to draft the plans for Augusta National.
On this trip however I was venturing west into undiscovered golf country! I say undiscovered because the first course I intended to play I couldn’t find. I’d heard how respectable Deeside Golf Club was but for the life of me I just couldn’t figure how to get there. Maybe the members kept it that way, obscured and un-signposted, tucked away in some hidden neuk, keeping it all to themselves.
“It’s worth playing,” the doorman at the Marcliffe assured me in a rather rough but not unpleasant Aberdeen brogue as he issued bullet-proof instructions on how to find it. “It’s simple! When you get passed the Beildside Inn, you’ll see Golf Road on your left - follow it down and you’re there!” How could I have missed it! Well, it is a rather minor road – little more than an alley. At 9.30 in the morning with no traffic on my tail, I snailed along the A93 and sure enough, there it was, the eye-of-a-needle leading to a golfing Shangri La.
If elusive, it’s certainly one of the more exclusive clubs surrounding the Granite City with a healthy, well-healed membership, many connected with Aberdeen’s evergreen oil industry. Deeside’s clubhouse is sumptuous, so much so I wondered why it wasn’t called Royal Deeside Golf Club! According to the plaque and pictures inside, Prince Andrew himself had opened the clubhouse back in 2004. They surely must have had put a word in then! Maybe the clubhouse reminded him as it did me of an oil company’s head office. Inside is a veritable Southfork of comfort and refinement, one of the ritziest Scottish clubhouses I’ve been in.
The golf courses are none too shabby either. Deeside Golf Club offers 27 parkland holes running down to and alongside the River Dee. The newer 18-hole Par 70 Haughton course starts with a Par-3 drop down to river level and from there on it zigzags, fairly spacious and easy on the driver, just the kind of course I like for an opening round. The greens are tricky though, mostly raised and not easy to hold. The adjacent 9-hole Blairs course is tree-lined, much tighter and testing off the tee. This is the original course established in 1904 and a delight - if you can strike a straight drive.
Scotland’s Castle Trail
Suitably satiated and eager for more, I took up the Trail again albeit with a slight diversion. The Aberdeen & Grampian region is awash with castles and fortified houses, no less than 13 in the immediate area, all open to the public and well worth a visit. Aberdeen & Grampian’s Castle Trail will lead you to front doors of most of them. Only 2 or 3 miles west of Deeside Golf Club is Crathes Castle and Gardens, worthy to have a gander at its formal and fecundate gardens. Only three minutes further on is Drum Castle, its old keep dating from 1290 and one of the three oldest towers in Scotland. But the most delightful by far is the inimitable outline of Craigivar Castle. It’s a slight detour north along winding country roads but it’s a pleasant drive. Built by William Forbes in 1626, Craigivar is real Disney stuff, a fairy-tale keep overlooking a glorious glen, probably the best example of Scottish Baronial castle architecture.
Getting back to the Royal Deeside Trail, the respectable holiday town of Banchory has a gorgeous pink tinge to its granite. Banchory Golf Club is tastefully sandwiched between town and river, short yet entertaining, mainly capering across a flat valley floor. It opens on slightly higher ground before dropping down to river level at the 3rd and it’s here interest increases. There are a couple of odd-ball holes such as the Par 3, 16th which climbs back out of the valley and up to clubhouse but otherwise Banchory is plush, pleasant, fairly relaxing parkland that will suit players of all persuasions. The clubhouse makes good mileage out of the fact that European Tour player Paul Laurie spent his assistant-pro days here before making it onto the tour and eventually winning the Open Championship at Carnoustie in 1999.
The River Dee is one of Scotland’s premier angling rivers with no less than 6000 fish caught in 2008 making it the most successful fishing river in Scotland and netting a sizeable chunk of the country’s angling industry. If you’d rather just catch a glimpse of a salmon, at the Bridge of Feugh just a minute south of Banchory there is a rocky channel where these beautiful creatures boldly leap out of the fast flowing falls during their winter or spring run.
Just on the other side of Banchory is another 27-hole facility – Inchmarlo Golf Centre complete with driving range, restaurant, holiday cottages and 27 exceptional holes. The Laird’s Course is the one to go for, an unusual undulating heathland for this part of the world but an excellent addition. This is a relatively new course but it’s well settled in and a fine test.
Aboyne Golf Club
The A93 delves deeper into a promisingly picturesque landscape of silver birches, Scots pines and heather-clad hills. Aboyne Golf Club was basking in warm, early autumn sunshine when I arrived, the course and its tree-lined fairways moving towards their full autumnal glory. On such a day it was chock-a-block with visitors, which is understandable as soon as you sample this fine inland track.
Aboyne is a course of two halves! The front nine is a beautiful tree-lined parkland, lush avenues lined with decorative cherry trees or short, maturing pines. At the 10th by Aboyne Loch, the course turns hill-wards and becomes more varied and interesting. The view west includes the dark outline of Clachnaben and the distant peak of Lochnagar. Homeward, for the last four holes at least, you step back onto parkland but there’s no let-up in variety and fun as you make the run back to the clubhouse. Aboyne is a course I’d gladly play again.
As I continued west, the surrounding terrain grew subtly wilder and more elevated. You had the feeling that Aboyne might have been the last outpost of genteel civilization. But this is magnificent, revitalising country and as it grew less tame I liked it all the better. Pull over where you can and walk down to the river, shallower now as it nears it source. The River Dee is crossed by numerous attractive bridges such as that at Cambus O’ May. The Old Brig O’ Dee between Ballater and Braemar is another worth stopping for. Take sandwiches!
The town of Ballater is slightly unusual. With a resident population of only 1500, it has more restaurants per capita than any other town in the UK. Thousands of visitors come here to visit Royal Deeside and most especially Balmoral Castle just three or four miles along the road. The castle and grounds are closed for most of September & October while the Royal family are in residence but through the rest of the year there’s plenty to see and do such as guided tours around the grounds & gardens, monuments and cairns not to mention luxury land-rover safaris, fishing and painting holidays. There is in fact a 9-hole course on the estate but it’s used for staff and Royal family members only. Loch Nagar Distillery is another good place to visit, only a short drive up the hill. They offer a guided tour of the distillery for a small fee, which includes a discount voucher for a bottle of malt whisky and a wee dram of the finest Royal Lochnagar Single Malt, so not such a bad deal!
Ballater Golf Club
Once again, set by the banks of the Dee, Ballater Golf Club is relatively flat and easy to walk but it’s a keen test never the less. You can’t venture too far off the short stuff as the rough here is lush and the gorse worse still. Comprising of a mix of heathland and parkland terrain, the course is backed by some lovely mountain scenery with the occasional peek at the River Dee. All in all, I think Ballater might be the best playing course in Deeside. It doesn’t look demanding at tee box level but appearances can be deceiving. It starts with a relatively easy Par 5 reachable in two but then quickly turns the screws on to remind you, it’s not to be taken lightly. The Par 3, 5th is one of its best holes on the course with a formidable bunker to the front right of the green. Most of the Par 3’s are good in fact. The Par 4’s are quite demanding as well, long enough and often tight. At the end of the round, I was rather impressed with this course and look forward to taking it on again which is always a good sign.
With only another few miles left to the final hamlet of Braemar, I was running out of Royal Deeside. The magic of Highland life is still much in evidence especially in the village of Braemar. The River Clunie rumbles through the village with its gorgeous old granite cottages glowered upon by brawny, high heather-clad hills. It’s generally quite quiet here apart from the odd tour bus full of old age pensioners out for a run – in the bus. But come September the place is awash with kilts and screeching with bagpipes. The highlight on the social calendar, indeed one of Scotland’s most important annual events is the Braemar Royal Highland Gathering. Taking place on the first Saturday in September this is the best-attended, most exciting Highland Games in Scotland. The Royals schedule their annual autumn break at Balmoral to coincide with the games. Every year the Queen and most of the royal family members roll up to watch the kilted caber-tossers and massed pipe bands marching round the track like clockwork soldiers puffing into their Dudelsäckes, (German for bagpipes).
On the other side of the village, straddling the Clunie River is Braemar Golf Club, at 1200 ft above sea level, the highest 18-holes in the UK. It certainly feels like the golf course at the Top of the World. The surrounding hills are big and bold and in a trice the weather can change. I got talking to a couple who come here every year. “We got caught in a blizzard last summer. One minute it was sunny, the next we were literally covered in snow,” the wife told me. “Five minutes later the sun came out again and we were back in shirt sleeves.”
The course is at the mercy of its great surrounding glen but equally it enjoys its shelter. Roe Deer are almost always in evidence grazing on the sweet grass. Despite its diminutive size, the course packs some great punches, as exciting as any. The 2nd is a memorable hole playing 369 yards along the riverside to a raised green, which stands at least 35-feet above the fairway. Behind it is the amazing backdrop of Glenshee and Glen Clunie. Prince Andrew who is keen on a game when he’s at Balmoral also frequents this club. The clubhouse fare, by the way is particularly good.
I didn’t want to leave Braemar. It’s a very relaxing little spot in the depths of the Cairngorms National Park. Robert Louis Stevenson worked on ‘Treasure Island’ while staying in here. Braemar and its golf course are indeed little treasures. If you want to see more of the area, travel twelve miles beyond Braemar to the Linn of Dee, a beauty spot where the infantile Dee rushes through narrow chasms and rocky pools. The scenery on the drive up is splendid.
Royal Deeside is one of the most charming, yet undiscovered golfing stretches in Scotland. No doubt if Prince William and his new wife-to-be head here next year, the regal glen will get a bit busier. Who knows; they might choose Deeside for their honeymoon!
Where to Stay
The Marcliffe Hotel and Spa North Deeside Road, Pitfodels, Aberdeen, AB15 9YA, Scotland, Tel: 01224 861000 Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Web: www.marcliffe.com
The Glen Lui Hotel Invercauld Road, Ballater, Aberdeenshire, AB35 5RP Tel: 013397) 55402 Email: email@example.com Web: www.glen-lui-hotel.co.uk