Northern delights: Royal Dornoch and Castle Stuart

A look at two uniquely memorable links courses in northern Scotland

Royal Dornoch Golf Club Championship Course Pictures
Royal Dornoch Golf Club Championship Course Pictures
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Continuing our build-up to the next Top-100 course ranking, we consider two uniquely memorable courses in northern Scotland: The exceptional links at Royal Dornoch and Castle Stuart.

Northern delights: Royal Dornoch and Castle Stuart

There’s something therapeutic and invigorating about heading north in this country. The further one goes, the more one feels the escapism from the hassles and stress of everyday life: traffic thins out, the people become steadily more relaxed and the landscape increasingly other-worldly.

But, the beauty of living on a small island is that it doesn’t take long to reach this promised land. From London, it’s just over an hour’s flight to Britain’s most northerly city, Inverness, and from there it’s a short drive to some of the very best things the north of Britain has to offer: mountains, castles, lochs, distilleries and, of course… golf.

Scotland is blessed to have a number of golfing towns; places where the sport is part of the very fabric of life. Dornoch is one such place. Most days (summer or winter) you’ll see people walking through town with golf bags on their backs or hear conversation of a recent round on a street corner. With one of the world’s best courses on their doorstep, there’s little wonder why golf plays such a significant part in the days of Dornoch residents.

Royal Dornoch Golf Club Championship Course Review Royal Dornoch Golf Club Pictures

The earliest confirmed evidence of golf in Dornoch dates from 1616 meaning 2016 marked 400 years of the sport in the town. The Golf Club was founded more recently, in 1877, and in 1886 the members invited Old Tom Morris to travel north to Dornoch to lay out a more formal course over the links. He was responsible for creating Dornoch’s famous plateau greens with their perplexing upturned saucer shaping.

The course as it plays today is largely the result of a remodelling by George Duncan that took place after the Second World War when new holes were constructed out towards Embo, now the loop from the 6th to the 11th. But, that is not to say Dornoch is a course from a bygone age. The club is constantly looking at ways to improve the layout and to keep the test relevant to the modern game. As an example, they are currently buidling a new green for the 7th hole which will offer great views across the course - It's scheduled to be ready for play in 2021.

Owing to the quality of the course and the club’s progressive approach, Royal Dornoch has played host to a number of championships over the years, including The Amateur Championship of 1985, won by Northern Ireland’s Garth McGimpsey. From August 7-9 this summer, the club will welcome the R&A’s Boys Home Internationals.

Tom Watson, an honorary member of the club and regular visitor, described the links at Dornoch as “One of the great courses of the five continents.” Is such praise justified? In a word, yes. This is a captivating and beautiful place that will leave an indelible imprint on your memory. The first eight holes follow the ridge of dunes skirting the inland perimeter of the course. All of these are tremendously memorable but the two par 3s stand out. Both the 2nd and 6th are devilishly difficult short holes where missing left or right of the putting surface can spell disaster.

Royal Dornoch Golf Club Championship Course Pictures

The 9th turns to trace the coastline back towards the town. It’s a testing run of holes, from the long par-4 11th, to the bunkerless 14th “Foxy” with its rascally plateau green, to the dog-leg 17th where you must decide whether to play short from the tee leaving a long shot in, or to fire over the marker pole into the unknown. Dornoch offers a true and complete test of golf, examining a player’s ball-striking, short game and strategy. It’s quite simply, a brilliant golf course.

The incredibly friendly welcome one receives in the clubhouse at Dornoch adds to the experience at this great northern links. This is a proper town club and there’s no stuffiness or pretension to be found amongst the incredible history and memorabilia on display. It’s one of the country’s great golfing hubs where true lovers of the game meet to share tales of their experiences on the links – a must-visit.

Back through Inverness and down the Moray Firth a short way, Castle Stuart Golf Links has quickly earned a reputation as one of the finest new courses anywhere in the world.

The work of entrepreneurial golf designer Mark Parsinen and renowned course architect Gil Hanse, the layout played host to three consecutive Scottish Opens between 2011 and 2013 and then again in 2016.

As soon as you arrive at the striking art-deco inspired white, circular-fronted clubhouse, you get a sense of the pure quality of the place. The service is of the very highest level and facilities are top-class, from the superb practice ground to the opulent locker rooms that show off the panoramic vistas.

Clubs often wax lyrical about the views across their course and sometimes it’s a little unjustified. This is certainly not the case at Castle Stuart. Looking out over the glistening Moray Firth to the Black Isle and inland, past the Kessock Bridge to distant mountains often still flecked with snow, there can be few settings for golf more awe-inspiring than this.

The Kessock Bridge is seen in the distance from the 17th green. (Photo by David Cannon/Getty Images)

Set over an incredible stretch of coastline, the links at Castle Stuart is incredibly natural and the holes make fabulous use of the terrain. Hanse and Parsinen have utilised what nature has provided and tweaked it subtly to produce a course that is ostensibly simple yet far more complex when you examine it closely.

It’s a highly playable track and one that’s accessible to golfers of all standards. It’s relatively forgiving from the tee, but a great emphasis is on placement of the drive. Finding the correct areas from where to approach the sloping, challenging green complexes is key. The 3rd, for example, is a short par-4 that can be driveable with a favourable wind. But, if you go for it and miss the green, you’re left with a devil’s own job of finding the putting surface, despite your proximity to it. The correct strategic approach is to play short and right from the tee and approach the green from that angle, but the temptation of “going for it” coaxes many into a reckless shot with the driver: a very clever design.

There’s an elevation change of some 50 feet at Castle Stuart between the holes that run along the shoreline and those that are played over the tops of the dunes. It makes for some dramatic shots – The approach to the testing 7th where the pin seems to be perching precariously on the edge of the ridge with not an awful lot behind it. Then the tee shot from the 10th where you fire down to sea level from atop the dunes.

Castle Stuart Golf Links Course Review

On the holes down by the Firth, one feels a long way from the real world. Playing the short par-3 11th to a green right on the sea’s edge, you might want to stop to see if you can spy a dolphin or a seal in the water behind; often you will. Although this course is relatively new, there’s a feeling of permanence to be found on the fairways, the greens are exceptional, and every section of the course is maintained impeccably. It’s a fabulous track in a wonderful setting complete with off-course facilities of the very highest order – a rather special place.

Royal Dornoch and Castle Stuart deliver two very different northern Scottish seaside golfing experiences. Separated by less than 25 miles as the crow flies, Dornoch showcases history, natural beauty and the inclusiveness of Scotland’s national game, Castle Stuart provides a skilful modern-take on the great Scottish links, a masterpiece of design and construction. Each unique, each hugely memorable and each simply fantastic, all golfers should experience these Northern Delights.

Royal Dornoch GC W:

Castle Stuart Golf Links W:

Five more Highland gems

Heading north from Inverness, there are plenty more golfing treasures to be found:

Dornoch Struie The other course at Royal Dornoch, the Struie is a great layout in its own right. The current layout is the result of work by Donald Steel and his team in the 1990s. Set down by the Dornoch Firth, it’s a beautiful and natural course with a great variety of holes and excellent greens. W:

Brora The club at Brora was founded in 1891 and the course showcases the expertise of legendary golfer and course architect James Braid. The five-time Open Champion laid out the course in 1923 and it has hardly altered since then. It’s a superb, lesser-known links offering excellent holes that retain a touch of wildness and invoke memories of golf as it used to be. W:

Golspie With views to the sea on one side and inland to Ben Bhraggie, this is a stunning setting in which to play golf. Although this Braid design lies on the coast, the course is made up of an interesting blend of links, heath and parkland holes. Each one offers a new vista and a distinctive challenge. W:

Tain Deigned in 1890 by Old Tom Morris, Tain is a great example of the natural Scottish links. Sheltered by its position on the south side of the Dornoch Firth and protected by gorse, burns and deep rough it’s a challenging proposition. But, on a pleasant day with the call of oystercatchers on a gentle breeze there are few more serene spots to swing a club in the British Isles. W:

Fortrose and Rosemarkie

Fortrose & Rosemarkie can be found on the northern side of the Moray Firth, along the striking “Black Isle.” The course is a unique and tricky links played over a narrow spit of land (the Chanonry peninsula) jutting into the Firth. Another James Braid layout, this is a course full of character and subtlety: A classic example of unadulterated links golf. W:

Fergus Bisset
Contributing Editor

Fergus is a golf obsessive and 1-handicapper. Growing up in the North East of Scotland, golf runs through his veins and his passion for the sport was bolstered during 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?