The first golf courses and golf clubs in Scotland
The first golf courses
The first golf courses, or at least the first dozen or so golf courses for which there is written evidence, are all, unsurprisingly, in Scotland, except for Royal Blackheath, in England, which we will come on to later.
It is also evident that golf was played in Scotland for many decades, perhaps even centuries, before the first written references to the game.
As such we may never know where the first golf course was actually located.
However, here is a summary of the dates of the early known writings of golf courses in Scotland.
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It is important to distinguish between the first golf courses and the first golf clubs, these are entirely different questions.
The first recorded writings on golf courses are, in most cases, several centuries earlier than the first written evidence of golf clubs.
We begin by looking at the first golf courses. If you wish, you can skip straight to the section on the first golf clubs, by clicking here.
The Evidence of the First Golf Courses
The first written mention of golf clubs being purchased is in 1502, when King James IV of Scotland purchased a set of golf clubs from a Perth bow-maker.
Perth was at this time the capital city of Scotland, so it is likely that he played on a course in Perth. It is thought to have been at North Inch, where there are written records of a course being in existence in 1599.
It was this date of 1599 that John Gardiner, James Bowman, Laurence Chalmers and Laurence Cuthbert confessed to playing golf at North Inch at the time of preaching on the Sabbath.
The Session rebuked them, and admonished them to “resort to hearing of the Word diligently on the Sabbath in time coming”, which they promised to do.
It was also in 1502 that James IV revoked the long standing ban on the playing of golf, mainly because the threat of war with England had receded.
Therefore, as the first recorded purchaser of golf clubs, James IV is also the officially the first recorded golfer in the world.
James IV also spent a considerable amount of time at Stirling Castle, and is recorded as purchasing a dozen balls in 1505, possibly to play in his Royal Park, close to where Stirling Golf Club was later formed in 1869.
So Perth is the first golf course that we have definitive written evidence, which does not necessarily mean that it was the first golf course.
The first written record of a commoner playing golf was in 1527 when Sir Robert Maule, Sheriff of Angus, played golf on the Barry Links at Carnoustie.
There is a reference in the Registrum of Panmure of his liking for hawking and hunting.
“Lykewakes he exercisit the gowf, and ofttimes past to Barry Links, quhan the wadsie was for drink…. This was the yeer (sic) of God 1527, or there abouts”.
Carnoustie Links as it is today
Courtesy of Carnoustie Golf Club
Following on from this there are references to golf being played at the following dates and places:
James Melville is recorded as being taught from the age of six years ‘to use the glubb for goff‘, by Reverend William Gray, thereby providing evidence of golf being played at Montrose at about 1562.
He would go on to become a notable student at St Andrew’s University between 1569-1574 and, later, to become the Moderator of the Church of Scotland in 1589. He died a prisoner in Berwick in 1614 opposing the re-introduction of bishops to Scotland by King Charles I.
The first golf club at Montrose was founded on 1st January 1810 as the Montrose Golf Club, and is reputed to be the 9th oldest golf club in the world.
In 1845 Prince Albert bestowed Royal Patronage on the Club, and the name was changed to the Royal Albert Golf Club, making it the third oldest Royal Club.
Montrose Links as they look today
Courtesy of The Royal Montrose Golf Club
It is claimed that Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots, (1542-1587), played golf at Musselburgh in 1567. This claim is recorded in a charge that the Earl of Moray put before the Westminster Commissioners in the ‘Articles’ in 1568. He accused Mary of playing golf and mail at Seton House only a few days after the murder of her husband, Lord Darnley, a fact that was used as evidence of her complicity in his demise.
1574 St Andrews
The earliest reference to golf being played at St Andrews is in 1574 when there is a record of golfing ‘club and balls’ in the diaries of James Melville, who was also recorded as playing golf at the age of 6 at Montrose, above. While at St Andrews, he was provided with he ‘necessars for archerie and golf’.
There is also an indierct reference to golf at St Andrews when King James IV, who lifted the ban on golf in 1502 and bought a set of clubs in Perth, is also recording as buying clubs in 1506 when he was probably in St Andrews. The Lord High Treasurer noted and compared the prices of clubs and balls at each venue.
There is another indirect reference to golf In 1552, when Archbishop John Hamilton of St Andrews was given a charter to establish a rabbit warren on the north part of the links. The Charter confirmed the rights of the local populace “to play at golf’ on the links at St Andrews.
in 1619, there is a record of £10 being spent for golfing equipment for the young Earl of Sutherland
“for bowes, arrows, golff clubbes, and balls with necessars for his Lordship’s exercise”.
Sir Robert Gordon of Gordonstoun, tutor to th Earl of Sutherland, wrote, In 1628, the ‘Genealogy of the Earls of Sutherland’, in which he enthused that the links at Dornoch were:
“the fairest and lairgist links (or grein fields) of any part of Scotland and They do far surpasse the fields off Montrois or Saint Andrews”
Royal Dornock is now recognised by most golf enthusiasts as one of the finest in the world. If you have not played its fantastic links you need to seriously consider the trip. It is well worth the effort.
Royal Dornoch golf links
Courtesy of Royal Dornoch Golf Club
1619 Leith Links
There is written tradition that the Bishop of Galloway was playing golf on Leith Links in 1619 when he suffered a deadly premonition of two men attacking him. So he threw down his ‘arma campestria’ (golf clubs), took to his bed and died.
However, the first mention of golf in relation to Leith dates from a reported dispute in 1554 between ‘the cordiners’ (cobblers/shoemakers) of the Cannongate and the ‘cordiners and gouff ball makers of North Leith’,
The earliest reference in Scotland to golf holes is believed to be in Aberdeen in 1625, when a local Aberdeen record discusses some military exercises ‘in the principal parts of the links betwixt the first hole and the Quenis hole.’
However, golf was on the list of ‘unlawful amusements’ in the Aberdeen Council records in 1565 and again in 1613 when John Allan, a bookbinder, with another John Allan, a cutler, was fined £3 on 13th April 1613 for “setting ane goiff ball in the kirk yeard and striking the same against the kirk”.
1711 Brunstfield Links
The poet, Alan Ramsay, published ‘Elegy on Maggy Johnston who died Anno 1711’ which told of great number of people who mourned the passing of Maggy Johnston, keeper of a Houff (tavern) at Bruntsfield, with the well known rhyming couplet:-
‘Whan we were weary’d at the Gouff,
Then Maggy Johnston’s was our Houff;’
Here is the full Elegy:
AULD Reekie, mourn in sable hue,
Let forth o’ tears dreep like May-dew:
To braw tippeny bid adieu,
Which we wi’ greed
Bended as fast as she could brew,
But, ah! she’s dead.
To tell the truth now, Maggie dang,
O’ customers she had a bang;
For lairds and souters a’ did gang
To drink bedeen;
The barn and yard was aft sae thrang,
We took the green;
And there by dizzens we lay down;
Syne sweetly ca’d the healths aroun’,
To bonny lasses, black or brown,
As we lo’ed best:
In bumpers we dull cares did drown,
And took our rest.
» read more of the full Elegy
When in our pouch we fand some clinks,
And took a turn o’er Bruntsfield Links,
Aften in Maggie’s, at high-jinks,
We guzzled scuds,
Till we could scarce, wi’ hale-out drinks,
Cast aff our duds.
We drank and drew, and filled again,
O wow, but we were blythe and fain!
When ony had their count mistane,
O it was nice!
To hear us a’ cry, ‘Pike ye’r bane
And spell ye’r dice.’
Fu’ close we used to drink and rant
Until we did baith glower and guant,
… and yesk, and maunt,
Right swash I trow;
Then of auld stories we did cant
When we were fou.
Whan we were wearied at the gowff,
Then Maggie Johnston’s was our howff;
Now a’ our gamesters may sit dowff,
Wi’ hearts like lead;
Death wi’ his rung rax’d her a yowff,
And sae she’s dead.
Maun we be forced thy skill to tine,
For which we will right sair rapine?
Or hast thou left to bairns o’ thine
The pawky knack
O’ brewing ale a’maist like wine,
That gar’d us crack.
Sae brawly did a pease-scone toast
Biz i’ the queff, and fley and frost:
There we got fou wi’ little cost,
And meikle speed;
Now, wae worth Death! our sport’s a’ lost,
Since Maggie’s dead.
Ae summer nicht I was sae fou,
Amang the rigs I gaed to spue,
Syne down on a green bawk, I trow,
I took a nap,
And soucht a’ night balillilow,
As sound’s a tap.
And when the dawn begoud to glow,
I hirsled up my dizzy pow,
Frae ’mang the corn, like wirricow,
Wi’ banes sae sair,
And kenn’d nae mair than if a ewe
How I cam’ there.
Some said it was the pith o’ broom
That she stow’d in her masking-loom,
Which in our heads raised sic a foum;
Or some wild seed,
Which aft the chappin-stoup did toom,
But filled our head.
But now since it’s sae that we must
Not in the best ale put our trust,
But whan we’re auld return to dust,
Why should we tak’ it in disgust
That Maggie’s dead?
O’ warldly comforts she was rife,
And lived a lang and hearty life,
Right free o’ care, or toil, or strife,
Till she was stale,
And kenn’d to be a canny wife,
At brewing ale.
Then fareweel, Maggie, douce and fell,
O’ brewers a’ thou boor the bell:
Let a’ thy gossips yelp and yell,
And, without feid,
Guess whether ye’re in heaven or hell.
They’re sure ye’re dead.
In 1721, James Arbuckle, a student at Glasgow University, wrote a poem about the River Clyde, which was titled ‘Glotta’ on a reprint in 1810. In it, he incidentally records several details about golf on Glasgow Green, the clubs and the game.
Here is the pertinent verse, as it is an extremely long poem, and it’s entirety would serve no purpose here.
In Winter too, when hoary Frosts o’erspread,
The verdant Turf, and naked lay the Mead,
The vig’rous Youth commence the sportive War,
And arm’d with Lead, their jointed Clubs prepare;
The Timber Curve to Leathern Orbs apply,
Compact, Elastic, to pervade the Sky:
These to the distant Hole they drive;
They claim the Stakes who thither first arrive.
Designed and Created by a Golfer, for Golfers
The Establishment of the First Golf Clubs
Whether or not these first golf courses had, what we would now know as golf clubs, is unknown, as the first recorded evidence of golf clubs is not until 1735.
These first golf clubs, in Scotland, are listed in chronological order, as follows:-.
1735 The Royal Burgess Golf Society
The earliest written record of a formal golf club in Scotland is in 1735, when there is the first known record of the minutes of the Royal Burgess Golf Society.
So Royal Burgess is the first Scottish golf club for which we have written evidence.
In these minutes three existing members agree to admit fifteen new members and new blood into the society. They record that most of the old members had either died or lost interest.
So it is clear that the society had been in existence for many years before this minute.
Royal Burgess Golfing Society of Edinburgh, Coat of Arms
Courtesy of The Royal Burgess Golfing Society
So it is clear that the society had been in existence for many years before this minute.
As such. the Royal Burgess Golfing Society, founded in 1735, is the oldest recorded golfing society in the world and one of only 10 “Royal” golf clubs in Scotland.
At that time, they played their golf on Bruntsfield Links, nearer the centre of Edinburgh, and drank their ale in the Golf Tavern, they lived for the enjoyment of the moment and were somewhat unconcerned about recording their activities for posterity.
From about 1787, the Society was known as the Edinburgh Burgess Golfing Society until, by Royal Edict, dated 30 September 1929, His Majesty King George V commanded that the name be changed to The Royal Burgess Golfing Society of Edinburgh.
The members moved from Bruntsfield to Musselburgh in 1874, where they shared a course with The Honourable Company, Bruntsfield Links Golfing Society and the Royal Musselburgh Golf Club. However, golf had become so popular that by the 1880’s Musselburgh was overcrowded.
Barnton was chosen as the new home in 1894, partly because there was a local railway station which allowed members easy access from the city centre some six miles away. Before finalising the purchase the Council invited Old Tom Morris, “Nestor of the Royal and Ancient Game”, to travel over from St. Andrews to pass judgement on the suitability of the land. Tom Morris went over the ground and declared to the Council’s satisfaction “that the turf was so good that there would be no need to lay greens.”
The Royal Burgess Golf Club – fourth hole
Courtesy of The Royal Burgess Golfing Society
1744 The Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers
The first Golf Rules were drafted in 1744 by the Gentlemen Golfers of Edinburgh who, in time, would become the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers, better known these days as Muirfield Golf Club.
At that time they played at Leith Links, which had five holes, each over 400 yards in length.
This would have been a very demanding course for that time, with the holes measuring 414, 461, 426, 495 and 435 yards respectively. Given the type of clubs they had then they would all have seemed very long indeed.
The rules were drafted for the first ever recorded golf competition. The City of Edinburgh donated a silver golf club, to be played for annually.
Eleven players took part in this first golf competition and it was won by John Rattray, who is therefore the first ever recorded winner of a golf competition.
He also became the “Captain of Golf”, so can be considered the first ever known golf club captain.
The first golf rules are reproduced here, complete with original spelling..
Articles & Laws in Playing at Golf.
1. You must Tee your Ball within a Club’s length of the Hole.
2. Your Tee must be upon the Ground.
3. You are not to change the Ball which you Strike off the Tee.
4. You are not to remove Stones, Bones or any Break Club, for the sake of playing your Ball, Except upon the fair Green and that only / within a Club’s length of your Ball.
5. If your Ball comes among watter, or any wattery filth, you are at liberty to take out your Ball & bringing it behind the hazard and Teeing it, you may play it with any Club and allow your Adversary a Stroke for so getting out your Ball.
6. If your Balls be found any where touching one another, You are to lift the first Ball, till you play the last.
7. At Holling, you are to play your Ball honestly for the Hole, and not to play upon your Adversary’s Ball, not lying in your way to the Hole.
8. If you should lose your Ball, by it’s being taken up, or any other way, you are to go back to the Spot, where you struck last, & drop another Ball, And allow your adversary a Stroke for the misfortune.
9. No man at Holling his Ball, is to be allowed, to mark his way to the Hole with his Club, or anything else.
10. If a Ball be stopp’d by any Person, Horse, Dog or anything else, The Ball so stop’d must be play’d where it lyes.
11. If you draw your Club in Order to Strike, & proceed so far in the Stroke as to be bringing down your Club; If then, your Club shall break, in any way, it is to be Accounted a Stroke.
12. He whose Ball lyes farthest from the Hole is obliged to play first.
13. Neither Trench, Ditch or Dyke, made for the preservation of the Links, nor the Scholar’s Holes, or the Soldier’s Lines, Shall be accounted a Hazard; But the Ball is to be taken out teed /and play’d with any Iron Club.
By 1830, the popularity of the game and subsequent overcrowding at Leith Links, led some Company Members to begin playing on a new lay-out within the horse-racing course at Musselburgh Links along the coast from Leith. After a few years of financial mismanagement leading to the sale of the original clubhouse, and several early portraits to pay off debts, the Club’s last tie with Leith was severed when the Company moved to Musselburgh in July 1836.
Without a clubhouse the Members stored their clubs in rooms under the race-course grandstand. This was hardly suitable and, in 1868, the Club built a clubhouse, and started to charge members an annual subscription. The Musselburgh course was now shared by four clubs and once again, overcrowding led the Club to move.
In 1891 they purchased The Howes, another old horse-racing track on the Archerfield Estate at Dirleton leading cynics to claim that all The Honourable Company had done was move ‘from one race-course to another.’ The course, called Muirfield, was designed by Old Tom Morris and, within a year it hosted the Open Championship.
Muirfield as it is today, home of the The Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers
Courtesy of The Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers
1754 The Royal and Ancient Golf Club, St Andrews.
In 1754, twenty two “Noblemen and Gentlemen, being admirers of the ancient and healthful exercise of the Golf” banded together to present a silver golf club to be played for annually over the St Andrews links.
This was open to all golfers, as was the first golf competition at Leith, and used the same rules, with very little change.
The competition was won by Baillie William Landale, who, by winning, became the first Captain of the R&A.
Even though the tradition of Captain being the winner of the silver golf club disappeared many years ago, the R&A still maintain a fictitious competition for their new Captain to enter and win. He is the only competitor and drives off the first tee on the Old Course. The caddie who collects the ball is presented with a sovereign.
This is called “driving-in” and is a tradition that most other golf clubs now replicate for their newly elected Captains.
Horace Hutchinson, the first English Captain of the Royal and Ancient Golf club, in 1908.
Here is shown “buying back” his “Driving-in” ball with a sovereign coin, from the caddy who collected the ball, following his “Driving-In” ceremony, and according to the custom.
Hutchinson was a prolific writer, not only about golf, and won the Amateur Chempionship twice, in 1886 and 1887.
From “Fifty Years of Golf”, by Horace Hutchinson, 1919
One of the first references to golf at St Andrews was that of King James IV buying clubs in 1504 at St Andrews while staying at Falkland Palace, which is nearby.
In 1552 a charter was given to Archbishop John Hamilton to establish a rabbit warren on the St Andrews links. At the same time, the charter confirmed the rights of the locals to play golf on the links.
So we know that golf has been played at St Andrews since at least 1504 and probably eons before that.
The establishment of 18 holes as a standard golf course
In the early days, every golf course consisted of a different number of holes. Leith had only five holes, North Inch at Perth had six holes, while Montrose had twenty-five holes.
St Andrews had twelve holes, ten of which were played twice, so making twenty-two holes to complete a round.
In 1764, William St Clair had the temerity to cover the 22 holes at St Andrews in 121 strokes. This was considered contemptuous treatment of the links and so it was decided to amalgamate the first four holes into two, which gave a course of 18 holes.
Previous to this, many golf courses had already adopted the 18 holes standard, but it was not until 1858 that the R&A stipulated that “one round of the links or 18 holes is reckoned a match”.
Establishment of St Andrews as the “Home of Golf”
In 1834 St Andrews won the right for supremacy, over the Honourable Company, in the right to be considered the most influential golf club.
Murray Belshes, soon to be Captain of the St Andrews Society, approached King William IV, asking him to agree to be their patron.
The King not only agreed but allowed the society to rename itself as the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews.
King William IV, who agreed to become patron of the St Andrews Society, and thereafter allowed them to be rename themselves as the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews.
From The Royal Collection, Image in the Public Domain
This was at a time when the Honourable Company had left Leith Links, but had not yet established themselves at Musselburgh, and were therefore in no position to challenge the R&A’s claim that St Andrews was the “home of golf”.
From that time onwards, the authority of the R&A has been undisputed and St Andrews has become the most revered golf course in the world.
In 1897, the Royal & Ancient were given sole control over the Rules of Golf Committee, a function that they have administered ever since for all areas of the world, except for the USA and Mexico.
One of the unusual facts about the R&A is that although it is one of the oldest golf clubs in the world they do not own their own course.
The courses at St Andrews are managed by The St Andrews Links Trust, which now manages seven courses at St Andrews. These are the Old Course, Castle Course, New Course, Jubilee, Eden, Strathtyrum and Balgove.
Other oldest references to the First Golf Clubs
The next oldest references to the first golf clubs are: –
1761 Bruntsfield Links Golfing Society
1766 Royal Blackheath Golf Club (The first English club)
1774 Royal Musselburgh Golf Club
1780 Royal Aberdeen Golf Club
1786 Crail Golfing Society
1787 Glasgow Golf Club
1791 Burntisland Golf Club
Neil Laird has complied an excellent and very informative record of Scottish golf history, which is well worth reading, and gives detailed information of these first golf clubs.
Next – Discover the oldest golf courses outside of Scotland