St Andrews To North Berwick... By Boat: A Golfing Pilgrimage Inspired By The Greats

Fergus Bisset was invited to take a ferry from Anstruther to North Berwick for a unique and memorable golfing day out.

Playing North Berwick by boat
What a day out!
(Image credit: Ian Fleetham)

The journey from St Andrews in Fife to North Berwick in East Lothian takes about two hours these days, depending on the traffic around Edinburgh. The super-rich can do it faster of course – It’s a helicopter journey of a matter of minutes across the water – roughly 20 miles as the whirlybird flies.

When the early pioneers of professional golf in Fife and East Lothian used to take each other on at their respective stomping grounds, the journey involved a ferry (plus other modes of transport.) Following a grudge match against the Parks in 1875, Young and Old Tom Morris were offered a ride in a sailing boat back from North Berwick to St Andrews after a telegram confirmed Young Tom’s wife had gone into labour. The sea route was the quickest way, although unfortunately not quick enough for Tommy to see his wife and child before they both died during the birth. A tragic tale.

Believe it or not, it’s still possible to take a day ferry from Fife to East Lothian – I wouldn’t be surprised if you didn’t believe it. I had certainly never heard of it, despite living in St Andrews for four years and continuing to visit regularly. But it is in fact true.

On the 6th of June I travelled across the Forth with my good St Andrews-based pals Fiona and Ian Fleetham (together with our golf clubs) via Sula Boat Trips and their Cross Forth Ferry. From Anstruther to North Berwick in just 45 minutes!

We reached Anstruther in time for the 9.15 crossing. We still couldn’t quite believe it was happening though, particularly when nobody in the harbour seemed to know what we were talking about… “A ferry?” One sailor shouted up to the harbour wall when he was pressed… “To North Berwick?… Well I never.”

Perhaps we had it wrong we wondered, but a quick phone call from Fiona confirmed our boat, Sula III, was on her way into the harbour. At the same time, another passenger arrived and assured us we were in the right place. All good then.

playing north berwick by boat

Ready to sail

(Image credit: Ian Fleetham)

And there she was, the very sturdy and modern looking Sula III was expertly moored at the harbour-side and the gang plank thrown down. We boarded, together with just six others (the boat can seat a good deal more). We stowed our clubs, donned our flat caps and got ready to sail. By that I mean we had a wee dram of whisky.

Our skipper led us through the safety instructions, informed us it would be a nice smooth crossing and we purred off out of the harbour.

golf in North Berwick

North Berwick harbour

(Image credit: Ian Fleetham)

The Forth Crossing from Anstruther to North Berwick only runs about five times a year, depending on the tides. So you need to check the Sula Boat Trips website to plan your journey.

I can tell you – It’s well worth it. The crew said they couldn’t recall anybody boarding with their clubs before, but they absolutely should. It’s only £25 return and it is just a 45-minute bob across the Forth.

On the way you pass the Isle of May in the distance and come close to the Bass Rock. You’ll see an amazing array of birds – guillemots and puffins, cormorants and gannets. On a good day you might see dolphins. It was indeed a smooth crossing for us, and it felt as though we were on a true expedition as we approached the very neat harbour entrance at North Berwick (see pic above)… Scotland is packed with golfing tourists this year but nobody else on that day was travelling to play one of the country’s most historic links by (what felt to us like) a private boat!

Strets of North Berwick

Strolling through North Berwick

(Image credit: Fiona Fleetham)

We arrived by 10am with a tee-time at 12 noon. That meant there was time enough for a coffee outside the excellent Rocketeer restaurant, a leisurely stroll through the picturesque town of North Berwick, a look around the characterful clubhouse at North Berwick Golf Club, the obligatory pint of Tennents Lager and even a cursory shot in the nets before it was our turn to tackle the West Links.

We’ve reviewed the West Links at North Berwick elsewhere on this website but suffice to say, it’s one of the more unique and captivating tracks in Golf Monthly’s Top 100 Ranking. The holes demand creativity and an open mind about where you should be aiming from the tee and on approach. Many of the greens are perplexing to say the least but, at just over 6,400 yards from the white tees, it’s a very fair test and it’s supremely fun to play.

North Berwick

Beautiful conditions at North Berwick

(Image credit: Ian Fleetham)

We had an excellent day for it and the sun came out nicely to provide a little warmth and to light the links and the beautiful surroundings to the course – the beach at North Berwick is stunning and stretches out expansively alongside the links.

It’s not a brute of a course, although as Ian and Fiona will confirm, I found one particular section of rough rather challenging. Thank goodness for the nett double bogey maximum within the World Handicap System… We think I had 12 hacks at it before finally popping it out. But, in the main, the course is highly playable for golfers with a degree of competency. That meant pace of play was reasonable, despite a few fourballs ahead of us.

Fergus

A rare one that actually went in

(Image credit: Ian Fleetham)

Finishing just before 4pm, our wonderfully leisurely and indulgent day could continue – the return ferry to Anstruther sails at 6.15. The sun was out on the clubhouse terrace and we enjoyed scampi in brioche buns and a long chat with the club staff and other visitors about the amazing golfing history associated with the West Links. It’s also a great spot to watch others finish on the driveable par-4 18th.

All too soon though, the club steward suggested we ought to stroll back to the harbour as if we missed the ferry, the next one wasn’t for two weeks! We agreed we probably should try to make it.

north berwick

Fergus, Ian and Fiona enjoy a celebratory can on the way home

(Image credit: Fiona Fleetham)

On board Sula III again, we re-joined the same group to compare notes. They had visited family, toured the town, been to Tantallon Castle… But only we had played golf!

The ferry was back to Anstruther by 7pm and we were in St Andrews by 7.20… Plenty of time to head to The Dunvegan to brag about our unusual and really quite special golfing day out. People didn’t even seem too bored so I reckon we might have won over a few converts. Golfing at North Berwick by boat is most definitely one to put on your to-do list.

Fergus is a golf obsessive and 1-handicapper. Growing up in the North East of Scotland, golf runs through his veins and it was concentrated by his time at St Andrews university studying history. He went on to earn a post graduate diploma from the London School of Journalism. Fergus has worked for Golf Monthly since 2004 and has written two books on the game; "Great Golf Debates" together with Jezz Ellwood of Golf Monthly and "The Ultimate Golf Book" together with Neil Tappin (also of Golf Monthly)... Fergus once shanked a ball from just over Granny Clark's Wynd on the 18th of the Old Course that struck the St Andrews Golf Club and rebounded into the Valley of Sin, from where he saved par. Who says there's no golfing god?