WHEN GOLF was first conceived, participants arrived at the course on foot or horseback, or, if the company was honourable enough, by carriage. For this reason, it remained for centuries a parochial, largely Scottish pursuit. In the 18th and 19th centuries, however, all of British culture was transformed by an industrial capacity that among other things launched a transportation revolution.
Trains would change golf forever.
In particular, completion of the Forth Rail Bridge, in 1890, widely exposed the bounty of Scottish links courses for the first time — to the rest of newly mobile Britain and ultimately the world, which still marvels.
The advent of train travel did something else marvelous: It spurred the development of “new” Scottish links built specifically to accommodate the rail-enabled.
Golf may not have been formulated with trains in mind but the idea and practice of “golf by rail” shaped and grew the game during the late 19th century, its first true boom period, an age we now drape with garlands like “ancient”, “timeless” and “classic”. The railway made the game what it was, what it remains today in the minds of many. Without this transformation, the romantic golfing image of golf we so idealize (the one we still travel to Scotland to find) might never have materialized.
Indeed, the very idea of golf travel was born in this time. By 1890, the railways had cozied up to several superb links in the Scottish lowlands. It only made sense: Rail connected population centers, which lay mainly along the coast, close to sea level where terrain was flattest and bed construction easiest. Just a short walk from these new “centre city” train stations lay the common lands, the links where, for example, in East Lothian, clubs like North Berwick, Muirfield and Gullane already resided. Today they remain as practical to play by train as they did in the 19th century — which is to say, perfectly practical for golfers with a sense of history and adventure.
The Forth Rail Bridge, the world’s first steel span, made this travel scenario a practical reality in Fife, revealing the birthplace of golf to the game’s myriad new zealots.
“As the train neared St. Andrews and I noted the gradually increasing numbers of the faithful,” wrote A.W. Tillinghast on his first trip to “that Mecca for golfers”, in 1895, “I marveled that the popularity of the ancient game had continued, unabated throughout the centuries.”
The new line Tillinghast had taken north out of Edinburgh served those faithful and never more ably than along Fife’s coastal route which connected the links of Leven, Lundin, Elie, Crail and St. Andrews like pearls along a double-railed chain, to borrow and adapt a phrase. This development may appear divinely inspired, but it was merely a logical-but-happy byproduct of the new transportation revolution (a phenomenon that, in Fife, proved all too fleeting). Soon thereafter the Firth of Tay separating St. Andrews from the Tayside and Grampian regions had its own rail bridge and even more trains sped north — past Scotscraig, Monifieth and Montrose to the superb links at Royal Aberdeen and neighboring Murcar.
Again, rail travel didn’t merely expose great courses to the wider world; it played a role in creating them. The opening of a coastal railway from Dundee to Arbroath, in 1838, led to a complete restructuring and formalization of Carnoustie, in 1867, by Old Tom Morris. Cruden Bay’s creation was commissioned outright by The Great North of Scotland Railway Company; it opened pretty much coincidentally with the branch line from Ellon to Boddam in 1897. In other words, Cruden Bay was developed specifically — as were the courses (and hotels) at Turnberry, Gleneagles and St. Andrews (the New Course opened in 1896) — to attract this growing number of rail-riding golfers on holiday.
Recreating such a trip, connecting these dots by rail in a 21st century context, isn’t just feasible; it’s a beguiling window on the Victorian world that spawned and fostered the game we Americans travel abroad to seek. We make these pilgrimages to Scotland, after all, not to play the game as it is today, but to step back in time.
Not too long ago, one 21st century type resolved to experience links golf as it was, as it was intended, as Old Tom Morris and Mungo Park might have done it.
On a train.
THE TRAIN COMPONENT, I’m obliged to admit, had been Trevor’s idea. He and I went to college together, in London during the mid-1980s, and he’s the one who suggested departing out of Leuchars — the station serving St. Andrews — with nothing but our clubs and heading north for “a wee gowfing holiday” at Carnoustie, “bonnie Aberdeen”, Murcar, and maybe Cruden Bay. Trev’s originally from Sussex but since moving several years ago to Anstruther, just south of St. Andrews, he’s taken to peppering his normally pommy diction with hints of his new local dialect. It’s a bit precious frankly.
However, when the source of that dialect — and the point of departure for said wee gowfing holiday — is the East Coast of Scotland, I can forgive the contrivance.
“I’m in, ye daft Sassenach,” I confirmed over the phone. “But let’s take a full week, start in East Lothian and play our way north.”
“On the train!”
Golf by train — I can see your eyebrows arching with skepticism, for we Americans have a difficult time imagining the golfing exercise without our beloved automobiles. Of course, we cherish our lush, emerald-green fairways, too, and our golf carts, beer girls and mulligans. We love our moderate winds and intelligible accents, our yardage markers, preferred lies and the reasonable prospect of procuring a decent clubhouse salad. Yet we forsake all these things, quite willingly, when we play golf in Scotland. Why not the rental car?
I flew into Manchester and neatly connected to Edinburgh, accentuating each flight with a bacon sandwich, thereby meeting by 10 a.m. the U.K.’s strict daily-minimum requirement for animal fat and brown sauce. So fortified, I cabbed it to the train station, booked my passage east and left the driving to someone else.
There are few sensations like sitting on a British train with one’s golf clubs in tow. Their metallic rattle, their unmistakable appearance lay one’s intentions utterly bare to co-passengers and rail employees alike who, in Scotland especially, tend to acknowledge these intentions with approving nods. The rattle and roll of a moving train is a potent sleep aid. I begin to nod off but a golf course appears outside my window — green against a gray sky, flags at full attention — and I’m awake again.
“Mind the wind,” warns the uniformed ticket-puncher, cracking a wry smile as we creep our way through the Edinburgh suburbs. My fellow travelers could tell I had a game somewhere; only he knows my destination is North Berwick.
The prelude to golf-by-rail immersion isn’t so important. One could go whole hog by flying into London, catching a sleeper from King’s Cross and waking, in the words of inveterate golf-by-rail enthusiast Henry Longhurst, “in a new world of hillsides, burns, a dashing river and air like champagne.” Or one could simply book a connecting flight to Edinburgh, as I did. It really doesn’t matter.
What’s vital is that one inaugurates a golf-by-rail journey with the esteemed links of East Lothian, which were built to be and remain some of the finest, most train-accessible courses in the world.
WHILE GOLF REMAINS the primary draw, the nuts and bolts of a golf-by-rail experience are what make the exercise so very unique and satisfying: the requisite planning and schedule-making ahead of time, the anticipation of disembarkation, the checking of superfluous luggage with a station porter, and the jaunty half-mile walk through town to the first tee at, say, North Berwick GC, home to the original Redan and more rock walls in the line of play than one ever thought possible.
North Berwick is indeed perfectly accessible from the station, while Gullane, Muirfield and the relatively new Archerfield (36 holes recently built on the site of an ancient links) are all situated but a short cab ride from Drem Station, making them convenient day-trips from hotels in Edinburgh. More handy still are the smaller hotels nearer the courses — Dirleton’s Open Arms, for example; Greywalls and The Golf Inn Hotel in Gullane town; or North Berwick’s grand Marine Hotel. Aberlady’s Kilspindie House in particular prides itself in catering to traveling golfers, providing proximate lodging, quite superb dining and transportation to and from various clubhouses.
One should immerse oneself in this sort of planning before setting out to golf Scotland by rail. Tickets, maps and schedules are available widely online. Reservations can typically be made up to three months in advance but sold-out trains are rare in Scotland. It’s enough to know the train you need is scheduled; tickets can be purchased at the station or on board.
A sound option: The Freedom of Scotland Pass, or its various cousins which offer similarly affordable, flexible packages — four days travel within eight days, or eight days travel within 15 days, etc. Be sure to map out a general golf itinerary and secure tee times first, then match departures and arrivals accordingly.
A word here about Scottish taxis and ride-share services: Unlike trains and tee time ledgers, taxis don’t run on a schedule — but they do queue at larger stations and are easily hired in the most remote locales. Go online and snag the names/numbers of local cab companies in your various destinations — or rely on Uber or Lyft. Either way, a quick ring from the train some 10minutes from your destination and, as the Scots like to say, you’re laughing.
When it comes to economy, cab/Uber fare plus train tickets will beat car rental every time. What’s more, you can’t put a price tag on the luxury of lingering in the wonderful bar at North Berwick well past the point of automotive responsibility.
Trevor and I planned our East Lothian itinerary around a game at revered Muirfield (where a letter to the Club Secretary requesting tee times, made available in small numbers on Tuesdays or Thursdays, is required) but don’t be surprised or disappointed if the club can’t accommodate you. The No. 1 and No. 2 courses at Gullane are spectacular (perhaps the hilliest links tracks in Britain), North Berwick is sheer delight, and do try to wedge in a round at The Glen GC, also in North Berwick — it’s one of the region’s best kept secrets.
In other words, plenty to keep you busy before reboarding the train at Drem, settling down with a good book, and heading north over the Forth Rail Bridge into the Kingdom of Fife.
WHEN THE MILLENNIUM turned several years back and the BBC formulated its inevitable list of “Top 100 Britons”, from the previous 1,000 years, Sir Benjamin Baker was prominent among the honorees. He built the Aswan Dam and was key in realizing London’s labyrinthine Metropolitan Railway. But it was Baker’s design of the gloriously cantilevered Forth Rail Bridge — considered among the greatest engineering achievements of the 19th century — that cemented his professional reputation.
Dr. Richard Beeching didn’t make the BBC list. Not even close. Indeed, Beeching was chairman of the newly formed British Railway Board in 1961, and his name still elicits stern Presbyterian scowls across Scotland today. Beeching was the bureaucratic face behind a countrywide dismantling of local rail service during the late 1960s. For a century or more the trains had connected nearly every British hamlet and village. When the full force of “Dr. Beeching’s Axe” was felt, some 2,128 stations would be closed in the name of cost-cutting – a development that eliminated more than 67,000 jobs and devastated local train service.
The Axe cut deeply in the Kingdom of Fife, the very region whose golfing prospects were so positively affected by Baker’s bridge. Abandoned was the coastal route serving Crail, Elie, Lundin and Leven. Not even hallowed St. Andrews was spared; the railway now bypasses the Old Grey Toon altogether.
It’s difficult to countenance this travesty of rail justice even today, nearly 60 years on. Renowned British golf commentator Henry Longhurst surely couldn’t: In 1966, upon learning of Beeching’s plans, the game’s portly oracle of wit, wisdom and whimsy penned a now-famous plea in the London Times entitled, “You can’t let them do it, Barbara,” urging then Labor Minister of Transport Barbara Castle to save golf’s ground zero from the Axe. To no avail. The rail that had first come to St. Andrews in 1852 — the tracks that prompted the quick issuance of Rule XX in the Royal & Ancient Rules of 1857 (“Should a ball betwixt the rails, the player shall have the option of playing it, or lifting it and dropping it behind him, losing a stroke”); the line that had so closely hugged the 14th, 15th and 16th holes on the Old Course that conductors knew not to whistle when players stood over the ball — is now a foot path.
Beeching was clearly a man of little sentiment, but Trevor and I didn’t let his dubious priorities spoil our trip, and neither should you. It’s but a short Uber ride to St. Andrews from the nearest station, at Leuchars, just a few miles west over the Eden Estuary, and many hotels will pick you up with advanced notice. Once situated in Toon, the cream of the Links Trust courses — the Old, New, Jubilee and Eden — all lie within walking distance, while the Trust’s new Castle Course, the newly renovated Dukes course, plus relatively new links at St. Andrews Bay and Kingsbarns, plus the old and new courses at Crail, remain another reasonable cab ride/hotel shuttle away.
That said, having arrived in Northeast Fife by train, the region’s various rail remnants are hard to miss. Golfers, for example, no longer launch Road Hole drives over working “railway sheds”. Since 1969, when train service to St. Andrews was discontinued, they have played over “abandoned” railway sheds that today serve as decidedly less romantic warehousing for the Old Course Hotel. More tangibly affected (perhaps for the better) was the Eden Course, which remains criss-crossed with a lattice of now-redundant tracks.
BY THE TIME we had arrived in St. Andrews our twosome had grown by half. Dr. Pete, my personal physician, valet and food-taster, had joined us two holes into our rain-soaked round on the Old Course, having arrived from Maine only that morning (and a bit late) via Dublin and Glasgow, bedecked in the latest Gortex fashions and bearing gifts.
“Viagra?” Trevor spluttered, highly circumspect, upon receiving his “medical” benefaction. “Erm, you shouldn’t have.”
“Aren’t we staying at your place tonight, Trevor?”
“Consider it a hostess gift.”
Having followed our 18 on the Old Course with 18 more that afternoon on the Old Course at Crail, we marked our last night in St. Andrews with a grueling pub crawl through the boisterous streets of this ancient university town. That last modifier is often overlooked. St. Andrews isn’t just the Home of Golf. It’s home to The University of St. Andrews, the oldest university in Scotland and third oldest in the English-speaking world. Few of the UK’s many golfing hotbeds boast this particular synergy
of peerless golfing and kick-ass partying amenities. To wit, think about the number of pubs you’d expect to find in a typical British town of 15,000 souls. For an American, that number is quite high already. Triple it, add the vivacity and eye candy you’d expect from any burg sporting 8,500 college students, and you begin to get the idea.
And so we arrived at Leuchars Station the next morning doubly pleased with our preferred mode of travel. Nothing like a train ride to sleep off any lingering legacies of the Dunvegan, Lafferty’s, The Cellar Bar, Broons and The Raisin. We crashed hard, all three, as we crossed over the Firth of Tay. Try doing that in a rental car.
U.S. golfers tend to fixate on St. Andrews, with good reason. The game began there. However, it did not begin and end there.
Life goes on in Fife without its coastal route, and so does our rail journey — to the north, where Beeching’s Axe did less egregious damage and another stirring coastal route survives.
Brawny Carnoustie rests less than an hour north of Leuchars, the links coming into view just as the train begins its station approach. We arrived there that morning at 10:30 a.m. and teed off (dead into a 4-club wind) at 10:55 p.m. The station and 1st tee are that close.
This hyper-convenient rail link was key in returning Carnoustie to the British Open Rota, in 1999, but the new Carnoustie Hotel, Golf Resort & Spa — completed just prior to the event — was equally pivotal, as it provided a facility modern and large enough to accommodate competitors, media and other tournament bigwigs. In between Open Championships (its most recent gig was 2018), the facility’s one-source design scheme (clubhouse, rooms, restaurants and bars all housed under one roof) deftly serves pilgrims drawn by a golf course the equal of any in Scotland.
Folks may not realize it, but there’s a second course at Carnoustie — the charming Burnside where Ben Hogan qualified for his famous Open victory in 1953 — and a third, the short but character-laden Buddon Links. With the fine, full-figured links of Panmure and Monifieth just a cab ride away, Carnoustie is another golf-by-rail destination on the order of North Berwick. As it happened, we made it a mere weigh station, for there are several more must-plays just up the line.
IF THE SCHEDULE PERMITS, work in a game at Stonehaven, a quirky cliff-side links with breathtaking North Sea views and a 1st tee located half a mile (all downhill) from the station. Otherwise, press on to Royal Aberdeen, until recently the most underrated links in Britain. The 2005 Senior British Open telecast proved a powerful agent of change in this regard. The Balgownie Course at Royal Aberdeen is out of this world, and now everyone knows it.
While this event did expose the brilliant Balgownie to a large television audience for the first time, broadcast coverage featured only the inward nine. Television often features only the final nine holes of competition on Saturday and Sunday. But here’s the thing: The outward nine at Aberdeen plays amid towering dunes that could only be termed “Ballybunionesque”. It is stunning, fabulous, magnificent… Choose your preferred term of exaltation; none would overstate the case. So, if your only exposure to Aberdeen was the aforementioned 2005 telecast, you honestly don’t know the half of it. See the place for yourself.
The actual turn here, that moment of transition from outward to inward nine, is among the most sublime in all of golf. Of course, one is situated as far from the clubhouse as one can be; this is a proper out-and-back links. Yet as one stands on the Balgownie’s 10th tee, off to the right one spies a dune-flanked putting surface connected to an equally spectacular linksland fairway that screws away into the distance, spilling fairway over massive humps and hummocks like water
down a mountain stream.
That would be Murcar, the Balgownie’s estimable neighbor. It’s a moment that crystallizes for a visitor the extent of Scotland’s links bounty. There are great golf experiences literally everywhere one turns. Only nine more holes at Royal Aberdeen remain, but an afternoon tee time at Murcar softens the blow.
Both Murcar and Royal Aberdeen are 10 minutes by cab from the centre city train station. At one time these venues had served as two more rail-accessible links in chain. Yet because the purpose-built spur to Cruden Bay is no longer in use, they are, for our intents and purposes, the end of the line.
It had been a wonderful trip, golfing Scotland by rail. But the exercise does leave one a bit misty eyed, for gone are the days when one could start in North Berwick and golf the entire East Coast of Scotland by train, all the way to Cruden Bay — a litany of links that surely comprised the Greatest Golf-by-Rail Itinerary on Earth. Today, with coastal Fife, St. Andrews, Cruden Bay and others detached from the practical mix, that’s no longer possible in the strictest sense.
All that remains?
Only the Greatest Golf-by-Rail Itinerary on Earth, for those with the steel and invention to attempt it.
Yet one suspects that, if we had taken a drive to Cruden Bay, we would have encountered scenes similar to those we found on the coastal road south of St. Andrews: vestiges of a bygone Age of Rail, only 35 years gone in some places but already overgrown or coldly reclaimed for alternate, modern use. What to make of the abandoned railway bridge just beyond the entrance to Kingsbarns, which now sits idle, somewhat decrepit, overgrown and out of place in a farmer’s field? It’s a bit heartbreaking, in the civic sense — as is the old train station at Crail, once a dignified civic institution today converted to a garden center.
The railway used to split the neighboring links at Lundin and Leven right down the middle, but no more. Today on the 12th at Leven (a par-5 still called “Railway”), a line of gorse protects one side of the fairway; it bends gently and unerringly to the right as it follows the former railway bed with man-made precision.
It’s sad and bit eerie to take in these relics of the not-so-distant past, perhaps less so for Americans who so worship the automobile (and largely decry the federal subsidy of Amtrak). For the British, however, these reminders must surely represent a gut punch. Human beings never lose their fascination for those things they invent, and so Our Cousins remain utterly captivated by trains and golf, two innovations that came of age at the same time and whose fortunes, even when they’ve diverged, remain forever intertwined.