Courses and Castles: Scotland Trip Offers Chances for Both
Ah, a trip to Scotland like no other.
I just saw three months’ worth of planning get thrown into a cocked hat when a bad back prevented me from playing golf on a trip to Scotland. It was sort of like going to the beach and discovering you’re allergic to sand, or arriving at a three-star restaurant only to realize you’ve got indigestion.
Instead of golf each day on the world’s most storied links, I spent each morning waving goodbye to my golfing buddies as they headed out the door. Then, for me, it was another pain pill and some crossword puzzles.
Actually, it wasn’t quite that bad — two visits to a Scottish physiotherapist put me in shape to play a couple of rounds near the end of my trip, and also got me walking to the point where I could visit the third of Scotland’s claims to fame (the second being its distilleries), its beautiful castles. Scotland must have more castles per square mile than any country on earth. It seems as though there is one on every corner.
Our first stop was Tantallon Castle, a few miles outside the seaside town of North Berwick. Tantallon Castle is actually a ruin, having last been occupied in about 1700.
The castle sits on a point of land jutting out into the Firth of Forth, and is a great example of what is called a “curtain wall” castle — a castle that really only has one wall, and is protected on its other three sides by steep cliffs that descend to the sea. Since it does sit on a promontory, the views over the Firth are magnificent. Bass Rock, the Isle of May, Fidra (the model for Stevenson’s “Treasure Island”) and the shores of Fife far across the waters create one of the most spectacular vistas in all of Europe.
After Tantallon, we paid a visit, not exactly to a castle, but to fabled Rosslyn Chapel. This iconic house of worship was built as a Catholic chapel in the mid-15th century, closed a hundred years later at the time of the Reformation, and then reopened after three centuries as a chapel of the Scottish Episcopal Church.
Nearly every square inch of this small but exquisite chapel is filled with the most intricate and beautiful carved stone work I have ever seen. It is an absolute masterpiece. The chapel’s supposed — but probably unfounded — connections to Freemasonry and to the fabled Knights Templar found their way into Dan Brown’s incredibly successful book, “The Da Vinci Code.” Rosslyn Chapel is, in fact, the place where “The Da Vinci Code” reaches its conclusion — a conclusion which bears little resemblance to the chapel’s actual history, but which did help Brown sell about a billion books.
Halfway between North Berwick (site of my first week of missed golf games) and St. Andrews (site of my second) is Falkland Palace, an absolute gem that was a summer home to the royals before Balmoral. Falkland is an exquisite little place, located in one of the prettiest villages in all of Scotland. The palace is surrounded by gardens that are beautiful at any time of year, but are especially gorgeous in May, when the rhododendrons are in bloom. Falkland is my wife, Evelyn’s, favorite place in Scotland, and we always manage a visit there — even when my back is in working order.
North of St. Andrews, up past the city of Dundee, is Glamis Castle. Glamis goes way back in history — Shakespeare set “Macbeth” in Glamis — but it is best known today for having been the childhood home of Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, mother of Queen Elizabeth II, the reigning monarch. The Queen Mother gave birth to Elizabeth’s sister, Margaret, at Glamis, and spent part of each year in residence there until she was nearly 100 years old. A tour of the castle visits rooms where the family spent happy times, and pictures of the Queen Mother — as well as of Elizabeth and Margaret as children — are in evidence everywhere.
Glamis is a beautiful place. The castle is set in the middle of a 14,000-acre estate complete with beautiful gardens and a working farm. It is one of the most visited castles in Scotland, and will surely remain so for as long as the memory of the Queen Mother is revered.
The last two castles I visited — fortunately, and at long last — were castles with golf courses named for them. While these castles went untoured in my haste to make up for lost golfing time, they each play prominent roles in the courses that are their namesakes.
Rowallan Castle is the newest golf course in Scotland. The castle itself dates to the 13th century, but the course doesn’t really open officially until mid-August. The course was designed by native Scot Colin Montgomerie, and is his first original design on Scottish soil. Rowallan Castle is a lovely course, located 20 miles south of the Glasgow Airport. It is built on rolling farmland that surrounds the castle, and finishes with an 18th hole that runs right up to the castle walls, giving the golfer a splendid and inspiring view to finish the round.
Well north of Rowallan Castle, all the way up in Inverness, is Castle Stuart. Castle Stuart was built by the third Earl of Moray, the great-grandson (once removed) of Mary Queen of Scots. The castle was abandoned at the time of Cromwell in the 1650s but “rediscovered” and reclaimed by the Stuart family about a decade ago.
It is the only castle we visited where you can actually stay (though at about $500 per night it was way too pricey for Evelyn and me). The course at Castle Stuart opened a year ago to rave reviews. It has settled in now, and I consider it a masterpiece. Designed by Mark Parsimen and Gil Hanse, Castle Stuart sits on the Moray Firth, about a mile from the Inverness Airport. The course combines natural beauty and artful design in proportions that are very rare in the world of golf.
I said when the course opened that it would one day rank with the very finest courses in the world, and my visit there confirmed that opinion. If I were to travel to Scotland with tickets to play three and only three courses, those courses would be the Old Course at St. Andrews, the West Links at North Berwick, and Castle Stuart.
Having said that, I hope that my next trip to Scotland comes with tickets to play many more than three courses. All those castles were lovely — but I have to admit that the two with the golf courses attached were my favorites.
Dr. John Dempsey is president of Sandhills Community College.
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