By George Fuller
Veteran golf writer and photographer George Fuller visited Scotland for twelve nights in July 2009 on assignment for Virtuoso Life Magazine. This story of his journey, which began in St Andrews and concluded in Turnberry by way of the Scottish Highlands, was published in the January / February 2010 issue.
The view from atop Calton Hill, a steep rise overlooking the heart of Edinburgh, is a panoramic summary of a proper visit to Scotland. To the west is majestic Edinburgh Castle, once the home of Scottish kings and queens, and the lovingly restored buildings of Old Town. To the east is the Palace of Holyroodhouse, an imposing structure where British royals stay. And off to the north is the Firth of Forth, a major artery of shipping and commerce across which is the revered home of golf, St Andrews. Part history lesson, part golf vacation, and all thoroughly exhilarating – that’s Scotland.
I had visited Scotland several times before, always to play golf. Classic guy stuff: Play many of the best courses, try a considerable number of single malts, tour some grand castles, and even try haggis – once.
But this trip was different. Though ostensibly my brother and I were there to attend the 2009 British Open at Turnberry Resort – a journey arranged by tour operator PerryGolf – we ventured across the pond ten days early to spend some time in Edinburgh and then travel north and west before ending our journey on the Ayrshire coast. And though we played our fair share of golf, our experience went well beyond fairways, castles, and whisky. It was a trip I knew my wife – with her love of great food, spas, and fine hotels – would have thoroughly enjoyed.
It was Dave’s first trip to the Auld Country, so Edinburgh seemed the perfect place to start, particularly in the summer, when the year’s best weather brings a host of concerts, events, and festivals, including the internationally renowned Festival Fringe. Though nearly half a million people live there today, it’s easy to imagine what Scotland’s capital was like 500 years ago, as so many of its historic buildings are preserved, and every alley reveals a colorful story of the past.
From our elegant base at The Balmoral hotel, we set off in all directions and saw as much as we could every day. A short walk from the lobby one morning took us to the Scott Monument, a weathered Gothic tower that pays homage to the great Scottish novelist Sir Walter Scott. As we roamed the city’s commercial center, the same vibrant music was playing seemingly from every shop. I popped inside one store filled with tartans, cashmere, and postcards to find out what it was.
“The Red Hot Chilli Pipers,” the salesclerk told me.
“The Red Hot Chili Peppers?” I asked, thinking of the L.A.-based rock band.
But no, the Pipers are a Scottish band whose infectious bagpipe rock was so irresistible I bought their CD Bagrock to the Masses. Putting a rock spin on such traditional pipe-and-drum tunes as “Auld Lang Syne,” The Red Hot Chilli Pipers perfectly symbolize the blending of old and new Scotland: We respect our past, the music says, but we’re damn well going to rock the future.
That afternoon, we crossed the North Bridge and walked the Royal Mile, which follows High Street from Edinburgh Castle down to the Palace of Holyroodhouse. It’s a fascinating walk un-escorted, but during summer months, free tours – guided mainly by college students – make a walk through Old Town both informational and hysterical.
We followed one such tour past the Old Town Weaving Company and the Scotch Whisky Heritage Centre to the steps of Saint Giles’ Cathedral, where our guide told colorful tales of witch trials and dank dungeons. Despite the somber material, with a wink of the eye and a well-told tale, all the country’s historical brutality and strife became the stuff of gallows humor, and we joined in laughing as we learned.
“Is storytelling in your blood?” I asked our young guide, for that’s another thing we noticed about the Scots: They all seem to be master storytellers.
“Aye,” he said. “We have so much to tell.”
Three days was not enough in Edinburgh, but we had a large territory to cover and a golf tournament to attend, so we headed north across the Forth Road Bridge to St Andrews.
Dave and I arrived at the home of golf on a Sunday afternoon. After checking into the Old Course Hotel and admiring the views of the golf course, the “Royal & Ancient” clubhouse, and The Auld Grey Toon (as St Andrews has been dubbed) from our top-floor suite, we headed to the storied bar at the Dunvegan Hotel for a late-afternoon Guinness.
Strolling out the back door of the hotel, we saw not golfers, but families with picnics and dogs digging in the sand traps all across the Old Course. And then we remembered: The course is closed on Sunday, and the grounds are used by the community as parkland. That’s one of the great things about golf in Scotland: It is a game of the people, and there are few private clubs.
Of course, bright and early Monday morning we were on the first tee at the Old Course (view video), ready to test our skills against her infamous gorse, deep and notoriously difficult pot bunkers, and large, undulating greens. Just for the record, I’ll note that my 83 that day was something I am very proud of – and Dave’s less-than-stellar performance gave him valuable insight. “Golf,” he said, stewing as we walked off 18. “Were all the other four-letter words taken?” Luckily, we discovered the Jigger Inn, an authentic roadhouse attached to the Old Course Hotel that serves great fish-and-chips and a healthy selection of ales, so Dave’s woes were soon soothed.
Later, we went up to the hotel’s Road Hole Bar, which famously carries every Scotch made in Scotland – that’s more than 200 varieties for those of you counting. We stood on the roof patio sipping peaty whisky and puffing Cuban cigars (yes, Scotland imports them) late into the summer night, watching golfers come up the finishing holes until almost 11:30 pm, when it got too dark to play.
Aberdeen and Inverness
Aberdeen is a city full of architectural wonders from Scotland’s past, such as Saint Machar’s Cathedral, built in 1131 on the site of an original Celtic church and beautifully preserved today.
The Marcliffe Hotel and Spa is close to Aberdeen’s Old Town and its charming buildings and cobblestoned streets, although it was not necessary to stray far from our room at dinnertime, as The Marcliffe’s restaurant is considered the best in the city. The night we were there, I tried a delicious asparagus soup followed by perfectly prepared Scottish lamb paired with a glass of Burgundy. Dave tried the Scottish beef and was equally happy.
Remarkable castles dot the countryside surrounding Aberdeen, from the sixteenth-century Crathes Castle and Gardens to nearby Fyvie Castle, an impressive example of Scottish Baronial architecture, where we saw an important collection of arms and armor.
The drive west from Aberdeen to Inverness took us through the rolling green hills of the Grampian Highlands and led us alongside the Malt Whisky Trail, a collection of nine distilleries, including such well-known brands as Cardhu and The Glenlivet. We made stop at the Glenfiddich Distillery, with its colorful gardens, frequent factory tours, and gift shop loaded with bottles to ship home, but with a long drive in front of us still, we declined too much tasting.
Inverness, the bustling capital city of the Highlands, was a highlight. We stayed at Rocpool Reserve, a thoroughly hip 11-room hideaway with a central location, the popular Chez Roux restaurant, and a staff that made us feel like we were part of the family. Chef Albert Roux’s outstanding menu featured classic French country dishes, such as the roast pork with prunes and apples over mashed potatoes I tried our first night in town.
From Rocpool, we walked down to the River Ness, which flows through the city into the Moray Firth, sampled several local brews at Castle Tavern (next to Inverness Castle), and chatted one evening with an enthusiastic young man outside a bar who took pains to describe exactly what the world can thank Scotland for.
“Much of what you Yanks call the American spirit came directly from Scotland,” he said. “The idea that all men are equal; that the people are always more powerful than the rulers they create; the right to free speech; and that a man can make of himself what he chooses.”
We took one day of our Inverness itinerary to drive up to Dornoch, where one of the real treats of Scottish golf is located: Royal Dornoch Golf Club (view video). With its rumpled fairways and seaside location, this linksland course is guaranteed to jump into your top-five list.
Gleneagles & Turnberry
From Inverness we drove down to one of the world’s great golf resorts. First opened in 1924, Gleneagles has long been a favored getaway for European travelers. This majestic country estate, set on 850 acres, is perhaps best known as a golf destination – preparations are already under way to host the 2014 Ryder Cup matches on the resort’s Jack Nicklaus-created PGA Centenary Course – but there is plenty more to do. Guests can play tennis, ride horses, hike the surrounding countryside, attend falconry and gun-dogging courses, try lawn bowling, and drive a Range Rover on one of the off-road courses (there are even mini Rovers for kids). The resort’s high-end shopping arcade, with designer names such as Dunhill London,
Escada, and Hawick Cashmere, features a sign above the entrance: Retail Therapy Starts Here.
The meals were a real treat at Gleneagles. One evening we went casual at the Mediterranean-themed Deseo; the next night we ate a grand five-course meal in The Strathearn’s splendid conservatory.
The final leg of our Scottish odyssey took us south to the Ayrshire coast, where new owners recently spent $73 million to update and renovate the historic Turnberry Resort. Even longtime Turnberry devotees will agree the resort looks better than ever.
The hotel’s check-in area and main lobby bar, previously dark and distinguished, are now open with natural light and a panoramic view of the coastline and Ailsa Craig just offshore. Renovated guest rooms have been completely modernized with rich woods, flat-screen televisions, and marble floors in the bathrooms.
There’s a fun new sports bar on the main lobby level called Duel in the Sun (after the famous Sunday performances of Tom Watson and Jack Nicklaus in the 1977 Open Championship held on the resort’s
Ailsa Course), where we played a few games of pool. And in the new Ailsa Bar & Lounge we relaxed and had drinks and Scottish small plates.
Dave and I had arrived in time to watch the weekend rounds of the British Open and “Old Tom” Watson’s near win, and on Monday, when the players and fans had mostly departed, PerryGolf arranged for us to play the tournament course – from the demanding tournament tees, more than 7,200 yards. (View video of the Ailsa Course.)
We decided in advance that the score didn’t matter, and although we lost more than a few balls in the deep fescue grasses, it was a round we will never forget.
As we walked up the 18th fairway that day with the soft colors of the sunset beginning to paint the sky, I noticed the flag of Scotland waving in the breeze high above the hotel. In the distance I could hear the sound of bagpipes – was it bagpipe rock? – and the drumbeat of time marching in a proud land.
Field Report: Scottish Highlights
Virtuoso’s top travel advisors recently embarked on an insider’s tour of Scotland. We asked them for their firsthand impressions
“The Scottish countryside truly is an outdoor sporting destination, with hunting, horseback riding, falconry, off-road driving, and more – a nice complement to city activities in Edinburgh or London.”
“The food, the history, and the people’s spirit and outdoor enthusiasm are all captivating.”“I thought I knew everything about single malt whisky – was I wrong! And Scotland is not just about golf.”
“Scotland’s not an add-on of a few days to England: It is most certainly a destination in its own right.”“A wonderful family destination. Castles, history, great sports for the whole family … multigenerational travel at its best.”
“When in Edinburgh, a visit to the Parliament is a must. It gives a sense of the new history of an old country.”“Golf is a given, of course, but also indulge in spa treatments (Gleneagles’ spa is especially impressive) and cooking classes.”
“After a three-night stay in Edinburgh, plan on ten days to see the countryside, play golf, and visit the National Trust properties – a membership is required.”
“Visit Stirling Castle, where the hero of Braveheart fought, and the Royal Yacht Britannia for a look into the private lives of royalty.”
© Reprinted with permission of Virtuoso Life Magazine & George Fuller.