Brora — A wild and distant links
Check out the pictures from the whole Sutherland tour
Sutherland in the Highlands of Scotland is not one of the best known stretches of links in the country. Isolated, wild and distant many are not aware of this cluster of wonderful courses. Edging the long coastline to the North of Inverness. Royal Dornoch is justly famous and on many golfer’s bucket list. Around it Tain, Golspie and Brora offer a wonderful variety of landscape, scenery and challenge.
Three friends of mine from Dorset visited last week. We played all these links together with Fortrose & Rosemarkie — another unique golfing experience. The full story of the tour would be the shaggiest of mutts. But it is worth reflecting a little on the most northerly on the list, Brora.
A bonnie highland destination
Brora was our base for the tour. The village is home to just over a thousand people and lies 60 miles up the coast from the Highland capital. Like so many far flung places, the distant rural setting belies a more complex human history. In days past coal was mined near here. Further north than any other UK mine. Its stone quarries supplied London bridge and Liverpool Cathedral. And it was even home to Brora Y. A listening station feeding the codebreakers at Bletchley Park during WW2.
Today, the village atmosphere is unspoilt and sleepy. Quaint cottages line the tiny harbour. A handful of shops and a couple of restaurant cluster in the centre. Opening for a few hours each day and longer in the summer. There is one large hotel, The Royal Marine. The hotel also operates a newish building of holiday apartments. Including the two we rented for the week.
A classic links designed by James Braid
Both structures look out over the North Sea. All that lies between them and the beach is the famous links. Time and good green keeping have shaped them. The present layout was “designed” by James Braid in 1923. Indeed the town is home to the James Braid Society. Yet it feels like the wildest and most untouched stretch of golfing land you will ever play.
The whole course lies within a couple of hundred yards of the beach. It is a classic out and back layout. Stand on the first tee and humps, hollows, swales and dunes stretch as far as the eye can see. A couple of deep burns cut across at strategic points. Little wooden holders mark the tees. A handful of rough stones give you a line for the occasional blind shot. Flags flutter in the breeze. All else appear to be as the Lord left it.
In common with many links, there are no trees anywhere on the course. Unlike others, Brora also has almost no bushes or whins. All you can see is grass, sea and sand. The beach runs the whole length of the course and is magnificent at low tide.
There is more ground than you imagine. So the cultivated fairways and greens are surrounded by long swathes of rough links grass. Areas where no maintenance has been carried out for many years. A narrow strip of dunes runs between the course and the sea. A stretch that has been home to Britain’s largest colony of Arctic Terns. The swooping bird that forms the centrepiece of the club logo.
You are not alone
Yet you do not have the links to yourself. In keeping with the old ways, this is common ground. Locals and visitors are free to wander. I once saw an elderly man walk the full length of the course at 6.30am to fetch his morning newspaper. And then walk back home, for a good breakfast I hope.
At Brora there is more. The sheep and cattle of the local crofters wander with almost total freedom. A unique feature is the low charge electric fences which ring every green. Only these 18 precious patches are preserved from the hooves. Elsewhere, you will be relieved to know that a special local rule allows a free drop. Should your ball finish in the droppings which scatter the course.
By the grace of the Duke of Sutherland
Another story lies behind these animals. The present ground for the course was granted to the club by the Duke of Sutherland after WW1. The same aristocrat whose ancestor’s statue — the Mannie on the hill — looms malignant over the whole area.
At the same time he gave over a couple of fields to crofters for their horses. With the condition that their sheep and cattle be allowed to continue grazing the links. The horses are long gone and those fields are now used by the local Clynelish distillery. Today’s beasts are the size of a horse a century ago. But the tradition continues.
As you walk from the clubhouse to the tee you pass over a small cattle grid. The animals roam only within these limits. On the clubhouse side lie a patio and the building itself. Another feature of Brora. From the road, the structure resembles nothing more than the guardhouse of an East German barracks c1961. But stand in the bay windows of the comfortable lounge. And bask the unmatched views over the 18th green and the links beyond.
Uncovering Brora’s secret
That is the secret of Brora. Industry, human progress, social change have passed this way. All left their mark. Yet the traces have been polished and burnished by wind, weather and time. Until they are part of the landscape. So that they are indistinguishable from those places untouched by human hand.
The result is one of the classic seaside links. A proper test of golf. Great holes like the par 3 6th, frightening long par 4’s in the 3rd, 15th and 17th, or the weaving par 5 8th. The Australian champion Peter Thomson and the gifted Ulsterman Ronan Rafferty are members here.
The course stands up to great players. Locals say that Brora and the Old Course are the only places in Britain that five time Open champion Thomson now plays. And it is a magical experience for any lover of the game. Add it to your list.