Written by David Whitton MSP on 26 January 2011 in Culture
The MSP explains how the game of golf found its way back into his heart

I blame my wife Marilyn. Concerned that I was not taking enough exercise or getting away from the pressures of my then job as a media adviser to Scotland's first minister, the late Donald Dewar, she suggested I take up golf again. So began my now 10-year, lovehate relationship with the game.

While others indulge in a passion for collecting art or music, or study history or geology, my ‘hinterland' is the Balcomie Links Course in Scotland, owned by the Crail Golfing Society. That's where I ‘relax' by playing over the seventh oldest golf course in the world.

But I can do history and geology too, for I can tell you they've been playing golf at Crail since 1786 - two years before the USA elected George Washington as its first president, and three years before the French Revolution. Indeed, some claim that golf was being played on part of a farm at nearby Sauchope even earlier than that.

Being a gentlemen's club, naturally there was a dress code. No lurid pastel-coloured, diamondpatterned sweaters for them, though. Members wore scarlet jackets with yellow buttons, and were fined for non-compliance. But some things don't change. Even in those early days members repaired to the bar at the Golf Inn, but there were fines for not wearing the correct uniform or attending the dinner.

Captain William Ranken, whose portrait adorns the clubhouse lounge, was elected as the first Captain of the Society, but among the other founding members was one Daniel Conolly, landlord of the Golf Inn, who clearly had an interest in making sure his fellow members made full use of his facilities.

One fascinating fact I came across while researching this article was that in 1794, 45 members of the society signed a declaration of loyalty to their sovereign George III, which stated that they "detest all levelling and Republican principles tending to subvert the same, and which can only lead to anarchy and confusion and the destruction of all regular government".

As far as I know, it has never been rescinded. An interesting thought for a Labour politician that even then, politics was being debated in the clubhouse.

The famous Balcomie Links was designed by Scottish golfing legend, Old Tom Morris. He redesigned the first nine holes in 1895, and again five years later when the course was extended to 18 holes. Coincidentally, that was the same year that the Labour Party was formed.

Nothing beats standing on the elevated first tee with the course straight ahead and the beach to your right - although in the recent club championships I was fully kitted in my waterproofs as horizontal rain came at me in a force 10 gale. That's one of the real challenges of Crail. The first five holes hug the coastline and the way you play them depends on which way the wind is blowing. (The golfers reading this will know what I mean.) If anyone wants to take a look at the course, go to the society's website for a virtual tour (www.crailgolfingsociety.co.uk).

Balcomie Links attracts many overseas visitors. Indeed, our club professional was startled one day to find himself face to face with Clint Eastwood, but was able to ‘make his day' by allocating a tee time for him and his colleagues.

As a politician you get to meet people from all walks of life, and golf is no different. Fellow members I've had the pleasure of playing with include ex-service personnel, fishermen, millionaires, students, social workers, trade union officials and my regular playing partner Stuart, who claims I owe him a fortune for all the lessons he's given me. Yet once we are on the first tee, we're united in trying to tame the course. When the round is over, we repair to our own clubhouse bar - although these days, there are no fines for non-compliance.

Despite all the frustrations that golf can bring, there's nothing like walking down the fairway on a beautiful summer's day, sun on your back, having just smashed a drive straight down the middle. So thanks to Marilyn for allowing me to reacquaint myself with the game of golf.

David Whitton is the Labour MSP for Strathkelvin and Bearsden

Tags: David Whitton, Hinterland, Issue 32

Share this page

Add new comment

More from Total Politics