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Highland Highlights

Our intrepid foursome discover Scotland on a golf trip, a road trip and a cultural adventure all rolled into one

What do a couple of colleagues who share a passion for golf, adventure and Scotland do to unwind and recharge from the hectic pace of professional life? Why, we head out for a Scottish golf adventure of course!

So, we set out to play great courses, see Scotland, and experience the rich culture and gracious people.

The Long and Winding Road

Once we clear customs in Glasgow, we pack our gear into our Enterprise 7-passenger van, sans the third-row seat to neatly fit our foursome’s gear. We head due north as we escape the city, winding our way up to the wondrous Loch Lomond area.  

From there we head west and then south, twisting and turning around the lochs, on what is literally the “Long and Winding Road” – the one made famous by The Beatles tune. Later we learn that Paul McCartney still owns several contiguous farms in the area and spends a good deal of time here on the Mull of Kintyre – not surprisingly, another McCartney number.

We arrive at the Ugadale Lodge in time for dinner in the pub and a good night’s sleep. As we settle in for the evening, exhausted from a full day’s travel from the States, our talk turns to the adventures to come.

Round One: Machrihanish Dunes

What do you get when you cross rugged windswept hills and Scottish links? Machrihanish Dunes! Nestled along the northern shore of Kintyre, running along the coast, with dramatic views of the Atlantic, the only dirt they moved was to make way for the tee boxes and the greens.

The rest of the course was left as Mother Nature intended, with the fairways rolled but not flattened. Off the fairways was the fescue, and I mean real fescue. Somehow the caddies knew exactly where to find our errant shots, even though the grass was thick as a brick and knee deep too. With the wind whipping off the sea, my trusty 3-wood kept me in the fairway – most of the time.

So remote, but accessible was this remarkable course, that as we were leaving, we actually got stuck behind a herd of cattle on a single lane road, as the neighboring farmer and his trusty dog worked them from one field to another. This was truly the antidote for too much civilization.

Round Two: (Old) Machrihanish

What a classic! Old Tom Morris designed and built this links course back in the 1870s, when golf was expanding to the west of Scotland.

It has quite the history, going back to a time when ladies weren’t permitted. But, we were told, they would sneak on to the course when the men weren’t looking. Hole number one claims to be the “Best Opening Hole of Golf in the World,” and it probably was in its day, as the tee shot needs to carry the inlet on this dog leg left. Unlike the Dunes, the fairways were wider and flatter, a bit more forgiving.

But here were plenty of blind shots, offering plenty of opportunity for our caddies to save the day. Hearing their stories as we played this simple, yet historic course took us back to a time of ancient golf, when sheep kept the fairways closely cut. This course broadened our historic perspective, and our golf  experience.

Across Scotland

As we depart Campbeltown, we’re heading north and east, cutting across the center of Scotland up to Aberdeen. This was easy driving and sightseeing all in one. Up around Loch Lomond, through the Trossachs and Cairngorms National Parks. There were breathtaking scenic views: Hills and valleys, sheep dotting the slopes, highland cows grazing, and lochs at every turn.

Round Three: Trump International

A long and winding driveway culminates at MacLeod House. This castle-like structure is a former royal hunting lodge that’s been renovated and appointed for modern day royalty. From the moment we arrived, the staff went above and beyond. With only 16 rooms, the five-star lodging was indeed a first-class boutique experience that exceeded every imaginable expectation.

The course was majestic. Nestled among the mountainous dunes along the dramatic North Sea shore, you feel like you’re playing in the land of giants. Each hole seemed to be in its own valley, with inspiring vistas and no two holes alike. The caddies were excellent; they knew the course and gave great counsel. We all agreed, hands down, this was the most exciting course we had played.

Finishing off on the par-five 18th hole, high-fiving each other on an exciting round of golf, and behold!  There he was – a tuxedo-clad waiter, silver tray in hand with four drams of highland single malt. What a way to finish, toasting each other on our magnificent experience, with a superb local whisky.

Speaking of whisky, that evening after dinner, we ventured into the Clavis Whisky Bar inside MacLeod House, with its amiable atmosphere and more than 200 single malts on hand. As we sat sipping our whisky, the bartender shared the history of many of the whiskies we’d never heard of before, each one with its own story.

Off to St. Andrews

No, we didn’t get to play the Old Course, but we did walk around No. 1 and 18, and crossed that iconic stone bridge.  We stopped and pondered it all; the ancient and royal course, the history, the lore – and here we were, where it all had started.

Round 4: Fairmont St. Andrews

Just a few miles south, along the sweeping shoreline is The Torrance Course. The cloudless sky, great vistas of the sea – and gusting winds of 30 and 40 mph – made for quite the adventure. Left to right, and right to left winds, every shot requiring adjustments. The sun was out in all its glory, and so were we.

Re-opened in July 2009 following an extensive refurbishment, the championship course offered tons of risk/reward opportunities.  With deep revetted bunkers (I can attest to that!) and undulating greens, it was both beautiful and dramatic. And the wind was definitely a big factor that enhanced the drama.

Sterling Castle and Braveheart

As we departed St. Andrews on our way to Edinburgh, we couldn’t resist a brief visit at Sterling. This classic castle overlooks the River Forth and the battlefield that made William Wallace famous. Across the field in the distance stands his Braveheart Monument. As we pondered his fight for independence, we were reminded of our own patriotism, of our Ulster-Scot ancestors and their enduring passion for freedom they brought to America.

The Royal Mile

In addition to golf and sightseeing, we wanted to experience Scotland, its history, and culture – and night life. What better way than the Royal Mile in Edinburgh: The Castle, St. Giles Cathedral, cobblestone streets and bagpipes, pubs and restaurants of every kind,   and the people.

We were now ensconced in the Radisson Blu, right in the center of everything. This was our home base for the next four days of adventure, driving out in the mornings, returning late in the day.

Round 5: Gleneagles

A glorious playground set in an iconic country estate beneath the beautiful Ochil Hills. In addition to three top courses, the PGA, the Kings and the Queens course, Gleneagles features a superb complex of hotels, meeting and conference facilities capable of handling a wide range of events from small groups to large gatherings.

Originally, we were going to play the PGA course, but after some friendly advice we determined that it was a bit over our heads. Not quite the course for us bogey golfers. The Kings course closed for maintenance, so we settled on the Queens course. Of all the rounds we played, this course reminded more of the courses back home: Wider tree-lined fairways, not much fescue, bunkers here and there. And no two holes alike.

Just as we finished 14, the threatening rain finally arrived – and this was the only rain of our entire trip.  However we became inspired, and decided that to march on in the rain was indeed the Scottish thing to do. This wasn’t a drizzle; it was real rain.  But we proudly carried on, as did our caddies, who were game – if we were. After finishing on 18, the rain stopped, and we retreated to the large and finely appointed clubhouse to enjoy the warmth of a whisky and a real meal.

The Highland Games

It was Saturday, and we decided to skip golf that day. Instead, we headed to the highland games at Ceres, just shy of St. Andrews. We drove north to Ceres, to the oldest running “free” highland games in Scotland. Free, as in no charge. Oldest, as in running every year since 1317, (except in time of war, of course). These games commemorate Scottish independence earned by Robert the Bruce.

Ceres turns out to be this little hamlet surrounded by fields and pastures. The games were held in the village center with a large stream running by it. The whole field was no larger than a football field, with a chalked lined running and biking track within it. There was no technology or infrastructure here to speak of.

No more than a couple thousand spectators looked on, some sitting on the grass, some on lawn chairs, many standing. No bleachers here.  You could see this wonderful community coming together, year after year, celebrating 700 years of history.

There were several events going on at once. Caber toss or wrestling over there, highland dance over there, a bicycle race circling everything – all simultaneously. Everything was open to all comers, men and women and kids, and the competitors always exhibited the highest level of sportsmanship, graciously congratulating each other’s effort.

Small food trucks, ale tents, rides for the kids – this was a community event and we felt right at home.

The Trip of a Lifetime

We spent our last evening together back in Edinburgh, enjoying one more great meal and a couple whiskies too. We had covered nearly 890 miles, driving ourselves around Scotland. Sure, we could have gone on a traditional golf tour, leaving the driving to others.  

But, for us this trip was about an adventure, one that allowed us to take advantage of the surprises, the serendipity, and the joy of the journey on the road less traveled.

All four of us agreed, that indeed, this was the trip of a lifetime. We escaped the hectic day in and day out of business responsibilities. We enjoyed each other’s company as we traveled from here to there, played great rounds of golf, enjoyed splendid weather and unique cultural experiences. The people were marvelous and they all shared their wonderful spirit of hospitality and graciousness.

The best of golf, and an adventure of a lifetime too!