ISLE OF COLONSAY GOLF CLUB
“Golf as it was first played”.
The Colonsay Golf Cure for world-weariness:
Hebridean coastal majesty, for the eyes
Waves, the skylark and the lapwing, for the ears
Cool, clear water from the Cold Well Burn, for the palate
The sea in the westerly breeze, for the nose
And the grip of a hefty driver, for the hands.
If you would like to enjoy a golfing experience similar to that enjoyed by the very first golfers in Scotland (therefore, the world), then this course is for you. Colonsay Golf Course may not be the grandest in the world, but it’s certainly one of the most beautiful.
The 18-hole course is situated on indigenous machair, shortish grass growing in sandy soil, typical of the finest Scottish links golf courses. When you arrive at the first tee, you will be struck by the beauty of the course’s setting. Two beautiful, sandy Hebridean bays form the western fringe of the course: the first is called Traigh an Tobair Fhuair (“Bay of the Cold Well”). The second is called Port Lobh (which, unfortunately, means “Malodorous Bay”). Two burns traverse the course from east to west. From many points on the course, you can glimpse the sands of Ardskenish peninsular to the southwest. The course is fringed to the northeast by the rugged, craggy Beinn nan Caorach (“Hill of the Sheep”). 20 miles out in the Atlantic Ocean (next stop, Canada), in most weathers, you can spot Dubh Hearteach lighthouse. The panorama is completed by Dun Ghallain, a cairned headland where a mediaeval fort once stood.
To help you to visualise the course, think about the Masters course at Augusta, where every blade of grass appears to be meticulously manicured; then, picture the polar opposite! Colonsay’s unique course is completely natural, having been designed by the Supreme Architect of Golf. The greens are mown and rolled during the season by local golfers, with some help from the sheep and some hindrance from the rabbits. In the winter, they are joined by the cattle of nearby Machrins Farm. As a consequence, you may have the unusual task of having to clear some livestock from your line of fire before playing your shot. Fear not, though: local rules allow preferred lies on all fairways and a free drop for balls disappearing into rabbit-holes or taken by the ravens. More good news: there are no bunkers! In keeping with the “primeval golf” theme, however, you will come across the occasional sheep-scrape in the sandy ground, which some believe to be the origin of the modern bunker. At all times, if irked by the ruggedness of the course, you can find comfort in remembering that you’ll not find a lower green-fee anywhere. You could also ponder the following verse, seen on a plaque on a memorial bench at Glencruitten Golf Course, in Oban:
“Getting somewhat crabbit?
Scoring over par?
Have a look around you:
See how lucky you are!”
Colonsay Golf Course is reputedly over 200 years old, having first been played on in 1775. It remained unchanged for nearly two centuries. In the late 19th Century, the Misses McNeill, who ran the Hotel at the time, used to arrange for the greens to be mown and the tees maintained. In 1909, local author Murdoch McNeill, wrote that Machrins was the best-known locality on the island: “that stretch of undulating machair that holds such a fascination for the golfer”.
After the First World War, the holes were named by David Todd and fellow-visitors, collectively known as The Colonsay Thiefs, who sound like they might be suitable candidates for the Draught Export Golfing Society (DREGS). Machrins Farm, at that time the thatched home of Mrs McPhee, was used as the clubhouse. The course was mapped by JS Williamson, of Troon, in 1935. Having been home to a small military base during the Second World War, the course wasn’t re-opened until 1978. The airstrip, formerly an integral part of the course, was tarmacked in 2006, necessitating some modifications to the course layout.
Lots of top golfers have graced the links at Machrins, including our First Minister, Alec Salmond. The only time the course is really full is on the third Saturday in August, the date of The Colonsay Open (possibly) International All-Comers Golf Championship. Weather-permitting, this is always a memorable day. Informality is the order of the day: some wear wellies, others carry rapidly-emptying hip-flasks. The “Nearest the Hole” competition often becomes the “Nearest the Green” Competition. As in all Colonsay golf, judges play alongside mechanics, ministers play alongside builders, women play alongside men and the young play alongside the less so. At the ceilidh in the evening, there are prizes for pretty much everything but Pitchmark Repair of the Day.
One of the very best things about this golf course is the fact that, not only will you never be held up by a slow group in front, or pressurised by a fast group behind; but also, what’s more, you will mostly have the entire course completely to yourself/ves.
No Name Yards (approx) Par No. Name Yards (approx) Par
1. Road Hole 312 4 10 Port Lobh 136 3
2. Westward Ho! 317 4 11 Sand Dunes 260 4
3. The Burn 271 4 12. Dubh Heartach 324 4
4. Moor and Fen 265 4 13. Dun Ghallain 161 3
5. Machrins 199 3 14. The Rushes 376 5
6. Vikings’ Grave 301 4 15. Ardharcan 160 3
7. The Fank 391 5 16. Muckle Carry 341 5
8. Ardskenish 238 4 17. Air Adhart 124 3
9. Reekin’ Kelp 206 3 18. Kilchattan 370 5
OUT 2,500 35 IN 2,252 35
Total 4,752 70
The course measures 4,752 yards and comprises four par 5s, eight par 4s and six par 3s. Yardage-wise, the four par 5s, measuring between 341 and 391 yards, should be par 4s; however, they have been accorded par 5 status by dint of the degree of difficulty involved. The seventh hole, The Fank, demands that you avoid an out-of-bounds airstrip, a large area of potentially fatal rough, a ball-eating burn, a fank (sheepfold) and a tight out-of-bounds fence at the back of the green. The 14th, ominously named The Rushes, involves negotiating a large area of “tatty-bye” rough that is every bit as ball-hungry as the burn. The 16th, Muckle Carry, is birdie-able but the last of the par 5s, the 18th (Kilchattan) has caused many an eleventh-hour scoring collapse.
The par 4s measure between 238 and 317 yards; on the whole, they demand a good drive, followed by anything from a 5-iron to a wedge (depending on the wind) into smallish greens. The first five par 4s (Road Hole, Westward Ho, The Burn, Moor & Fen and Vikings’ Grave) are fairly hazard-free, as long as you can keep your ball out of the burn at the third. The eighth hole, Ardskenish, is nearly driveable, on dry ground and with favorable wind conditions. The next par 4, the 11th, is called Sand Dunes and it is the eponymous topographical feature, on the left, which presents the main hazard, along with the airstrip on the right. The last of the par 4s, Dubh Heartach, is seen by many as the finest hole on the course: your drive will seek to avoid the rushes and rocks on the left, and the numerous rabbit-holes on your right; having safely negotiated these, you are faced with an approach shot to an elevated green, beyond which the Atlantic Ocean stretches to the horizon.
Your heart may have lifted on hearing that there are as many as 6 par 3s. However, beware: only in one case (the 16th, Air Adhart, 120 yards) is the green easily hittable. Indeed, a hole-in-one has been recorded here: Colin Titterton, the late husband of islander Netta, aced it on 5th October 1986, thus earning a glittering prize from the Johnny Walker International Hole-In-One Awards..
On the other hand, Machrins, the 199 yard fifth hole, can demand anything from a driver to a 6 iron, depending on wind conditions. The ninth and tenth holes (Reeking Kelp and Port Lobh) again feature the burn as a hazard. Dun Ghallain, the 136 yard par 3 out on the eponymous peninsula, often involves crosswinds and it takes a fine tee-shot to get on in one. Adharcan, the 160-yard 15th, also often involves crosswinds and the green is not easy to hit.
To play a round of golf at The Old Course in St Andrews or at The Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers’ course at Muirfield will cost you £130 and £190, respectively. The green fees at a typical course in Scotland are between £20 and £50 per round. At Colonsay Golf Club, you will have to part with £20, but it’s important to point out that this sum will be your annual joining fee! Day tickets are priced at £5.
You can pay either at the Hotel or in the General Store, where you’ll be issued with a tag to display on your bag (and to brag about back at your home club). You can also pay at the Honesty Box at the first tee. You can neatly foreshorten your round by playing holes one to six, then the fifteenth to the eighteenth.