Golf guide to the Highlands and Aberdeenshire
A brief insight into the Highlands and Aberdeen, home to some of Scotland's best links courses.
The Highlands arguably encapsulate the perception of what Scotland looks like. Towering mountain landscapes, rugged fields, and sheep. Lots of sheep. However, there is a lot more to the north of the country than you would initially believe.
Attractive cities in Aberdeen and Inverness can be explored, as can sites of cultural and historical significance strewn throughout the region. Plus (just to add some icing to the cake), you will find some of the finest golf courses in the world.
Starting in Aberdeen, Scotland’s third city, one of the finest links courses in the country is right on its doorstep. The Balgownie Links at Royal Aberdeen was showcased last summer when it hosted the Scottish Open on the European Tour, with many witnessing the quality for the first time that aficionados have known for some time. Five-time Open Champion, Tom Watson believes that the front nine of the Balgownie is among the best in the world, with the course rolling through stunning dunes. It’s hard to disagree with that.
Adjacent to Royal Aberdeen is the lesser-known (but undeniably impressive) Murcar Links. The two courses are literally a stone’s throw apart. The course is a fine complement to its revered neighbor, having hosted the inaugural Paul Lawrie Invitational in 2015 and firmly places Aberdeen as a strong golfing destination.
Featuring some of the most impressive architecture in the country, Aberdeen was transformed economically by the discovery of oil in the North Sea four decades ago. The Union Terrace Gardens are the heart of the place, making the center of the city one of the most attractive in the United Kingdom.
Leaving the city, just along the coast is the much-publicized and spectacular Trump International Golf Links. The development of the site was highly controversial, as you would expect with Mr. Trump being involved, but the result is unquestionably spectacular. Taking full advantage of a stunning coastline, the Championship course was designed by Martin Hawtree and threads through natural dunes and features a challenge for all standards of player. While it will certainly improve as time moves on and the holes embed more naturally into the terrain, the course has proven popular with locals and tourists alike.
If Trump International is a modern classic, then Cruden Bay is a traditional masterpiece. It has become a must-play course for many. It always enjoyed a positive reputation, but increased popularity has seen it become something of a cult-classic.
With quirks and stunning scenery, the Aberdeenshire links is a wonderful examination of seaside golf and provides one of the best-value experiences in Scotland. It's no wonder the course is frequently ranked inside the top 100 courses in the world by a number of leading publications.
There are many other courses in the area that could also be considered jewels in the crown of Scottish golf. Fraserburgh and Peterhead are wonderful links courses, with the latter being a favorite of Butch Harmon. There is a lot to enjoy in the north east – and before you leave – don’t forget to visit the Glen Garioch distillery. Providing an interesting lesson on the history and development of whisky, it is certainly worth stopping by.
Travelling west from Aberdeenshire into the Highlands you will come across fantastic scenery, sites of historical interest, and golf courses, lots of golf courses. There are numerous attractions in the Highlands, the best known is undoubtedly Loch Ness, which is among the most tranquil and beautiful spots that you will find anywhere in the world.
Apart from the obligatory ‘Nessie Hunting’, for those who enjoy studying military history, visit the battlefield of Culloden, which was the site of the last pitched battle to take place in Britain. Nearby, you can discover the impressive 18th-century Fort George, still actively used as a barracks by the army. Dolphins can be frequently spotted in the water from its battlements.
In terms of the golf courses on offer, the first real highlight comes before you even reach the city of Inverness. Driving along the A96, you will discover the highly-regarded Nairn Golf Club, which has played host to a number of big events, mostly notable the Walker Cup in 1999. With some of the finest putting surfaces in Scotland, and an enjoyable mix of holes, Nairn is a subtle and engaging links course, perhaps lacking the spectacular visuals of a course like Cruden Bay, but a pure examination of seaside golf.
Continuing west towards the stunning Highland capital of Inverness, you will come across one of the finest courses to have been built anywhere this century.
In the same mold as Kingsbarns near St Andrews, Castle Stuart is a modern classic. Designed by Gil Hanse, this brilliant layout opened for play in 2009 to rave reviews. It offers stunning views across the Moray Firth towards the Kessock Bridge and provides a varied and enjoyable mix of holes. It subsequently hosted three Scottish Opens in 2011, 2012 and 2013, showcasing the qualities of this entertaining and highly playable course. It has something for everyone. Effectively combining modern design philosophies with the tradition of links golf, Castle Stuart is a must-visit layout for anyone in the Highlands. Better than Kingsbarns? Quite possibly.
Despite the tremendous courses that have already been mentioned, the highlight remains Royal Dornoch. It is, for many, the definitive Scottish links course. With the legendary architect Donald Ross having grown up in the area and been influenced by the Championship Course, many lovers of Pinehurst in North Carolina often view travelling to Dornoch as something of a pilgrimage. For any golfer – it is a special place to visit.
Frequently ranked among the world’s finest courses, it is about as quintessential a links experience that you will find anywhere outside of St Andrews. Rugged, natural and isolated, there is a purity to Dornoch that has charmed so many visiting golfers from afar.
While the Championship Course at Dornoch garners all the headlines, there is something wonderful nearby to be discovered. If there was ever a course befitting the label of 'Hidden Gem' then it truly is Brora Golf Club. Situated very close to Dornoch, about 20 miles north, this James Braid classic needs to be experienced by as many golfers as possible.
Uniquely, the course is partially inhabited by a small assortment of farm animals, ensuring that your round will be witnessed by a captivated audience. Situated in a spectacularly beautiful location, with some brilliant holes, Brora is an understated masterpiece.
Senior Golf Vacation Specialist - UK & Ireland
Senior Golf Vacation Specialist, I help golfers find their ideal golfing getaway