Although both soda and water mix well with whisky, it’s just possible that golf goes better than either of them with Scotland’s favourite export. Courses and distilleries are fairly well scattered throughout the country but there is a happy blend of both up in the north-east of the country in an area known as Speyside.
The Spey, the fastest-flowing river in Scotland, hurtles down from the Cairngorms, through spectacular scenery before entering the Moray Firth. Along the way it passes the highest concentration of distilleries in Scotland and flows close to a few of the finest golf courses in the world.
As if that’s not enough, the Spey is also one of the greatest fishing rivers in the world. Nearly 10,000 salmon and about half as many sea trout are caught by rod and line on the Spey every year. And so a round of golf in the morning followed by a spot of fishing in the afternoon and a wee dram or two of scotch in the evening is the dream Speyside scenario. Here, though, we’ll concentrate on golf.
Situated on the edge of town bearing the same name and sandwiched between the river and the steam railway, Boat of Garten can trace its illustrious history back to 1898 when the original six holes were laid out over pure heathland. Two holes were added in 1910 but the most important year is 1930 when extra land became available and the legendary James Braid submitted his design. Since it was opened in 1932, the 18-hole course has been tweaked a little but the remarkable individuality of the holes is still unmistakeably present in the delightful design that threads through the silver birch, heather and gorse.
All the holes are christened, some with names that are almost unpronounceable to everyone other than a native Scot. A feature of the course for which Braid can’t take any credit is the spectacular mountain backdrop provided by the Cairngorms. Another natural asset is the abundant wildlife, of which the hares and deer are a particular feature.
Keeping out of trouble on the Old Course at Moray is tricky as the wind invariably whistles in from the adjacent Moray Firth. Gorse threatens throughout and the revetted bunkers look almost appealing by comparison.
Despite all the inevitable grief that you’ll encounter along the way, this truly thrilling course designed by Old Tom Morris himself is absolutely stunning. From the moment you tee off until you putt out on the elevated final green in front of the clubhouse, you can’t fail but fall under the magical spell of this glorious links.
Although you can’t ignore the roar of the jets screaming into Lossiemouth air base, the noise doesn’t put you off putting on the perfectly true greens. Apart from making it an appealing venue to play against a too talkative opponent, there is a genuine upside because the green fees are even lower than the jets and offer what is possibly the best bargain in Scotland.
As part of their centenary celebrations in 2006, Elgin staged the fastest ever round played over their scenic parkland course timed at 14 minutes and 50 seconds. However, the record wasn’t established by one man or woman sprinting solo around the 6449-yard course but by a veritable army of members who staged a sort of relay race.
Frankly, because it’s such a lovely course, it’s not one to rush round. The opening hole, which is 454 yards off the back tees and 437 off the regular tees, is a pretty accurate indication of what’s to follow as there are no fewer than eight par fours over 400 yards.
The holes – both long and short – are neatly separated by lines of trees that help create a cosy feel. Lush fairways, first-class greens and glorious distant views all contribute to a genuinely exceptional golfing experience. It’s no surprise that Elgin has hosted the prestigious Northern Open three times.
Two of Scotland’s greatest course architects have combined their enormous talents to create the gloriously pretty and hugely enjoyable Forres. James Braid designed the original nine and the almost equally famous Willie Park expanded the course to 18 in 1912.
As you survey the opening 300-yard par four, you might mistakenly imagine that you’re in for an easy time. Although a little under 6300 yards, the course defences include plenty of bunkers, substantial trees and tricky greens.
After the first four holes – which are all relatively short and undulating par fours – the course levels out somewhat and the principal requirement is to keep the ball away from the menacing trees either side of the fairway.
Built on sandy soil and with splendid views over Findhorn Bay and the Moray Firth., the course never floods and there’s only one serious water hazard and that comes at the intriguing 16th.
Grantown-on-Spey Golf Club is a short walk from the picturesque Scottish highland town from which it gets its name. Its history goes back to 1890 when the club rented pastureland ‘for the purposes of golf’ for one shilling a year. Clearly not given to extravagance, it then paid Mr Brown, a professional golfer, £4.50 to design the course.
With wonderful views of the distant Cairngorms, the course splits into three equal sections. The first six holes are over fairly flat and open parkland. It then tightens considerably over the second six, which pass through hilly woodland. And the closing stretch is over undulating parkland.
The undisputed signature hole is the 9th, a 275-yard downhill par four that is blessed with a spectacular backdrop of pine trees and the beautiful Cromdale Hills.
The superb food in the clubhouse restaurant is as good as you will find in a golf club.
WHY WE LIKE IT
Leaving the weather to one side for the moment, there really is nowhere better to golf than Scotland. And along the Spey there is a remarkable string of outstanding courses in one of the most scenic parts of what is an incredibly beautiful country. So what do you do if it rains? Well, there are dozens of distilleries in the area and, although it might not be advisable to visit them all, you should take in at least a couple.