The great philanthropist and industrialist Andrew Carnegie said of his home in Dornoch, If there is heaven on earth, it is here. Lying on the tranquil Dornoch Firth with views inland to distant purple mountains, golden sands stretching along the shore and a clement, mild climate its easy to see where the sentiment came from.
Carnegies influence on the Royal Burgh was great. His donations included Dornochs library and repairs to the cathedral. Even after his death his beneficence continues the magnificent Skibo Castle, Carnegies home during the 1890s, is the largest private employer in Sutherland.
Many people comment on the remoteness of Dornoch but its just an hours drive from Inverness airport closer than St Andrews is to Edinburgh or St Georges is to Gatwick. But in some ways its a reputation that should be maintained. Dornochs supposed isolation is a key reason why the burgh remains such an unspoiled haven, a Mecca for the ardent golfing traveller.
Flying in to Inverness airport is a joy. Luggage is off before the passengers and theres never a queue at the car-hire desk. On the beautiful and rugged drive north on the A9 its hard to believe that youre on a golfing trip with majestic peaks to your left it feels like the car should be packed with climbing boots and tents rather than FootJoys and golf bags.
Nine miles short of Dornoch is the town of Tain. The course here was designed by Old Tom Morris in 1890 and the par-70 layout is fondly described as his Northern Jewel. Sheltered by its position on the south side of the Dornoch Firth, its often overlooked by visitors who steam straight on to its more famous neighbour. But Tain is a great example of a natural Scottish links. Protected by gorse and heather, burns and deep rough its a challenging proposition but one that can be extremely rewarding. On a pleasant day, with the call of oyster catchers on the gentle breeze, there are few more idyllic spots to swing a club in Britain. When you reach the 11th green the working world seems miles away. Right by the edge of the Firth and surrounded by sand hills, its difficult to drag yourself away to the 12th tee.
Tom Watson, an honorary member of Royal Dornoch, described the layout as one of the great courses of the five continents. Are the plaudits and praise justified? Yes. Theres evidence of golf having been played on the links as early as 1616 and the current course, a product of Tom Morris and John Sutherlands combined efforts, is magnificent. With rolling fairways, raised greens, run-offs and strategically-placed bunkers Dornoch must be negotiated with care and precision. Creative shot-making and the ability to manipulate a low ball are essential. To say the course is tough would be an understatement. At 6,514 yards and with a par of 70, the SSS can often be three or four over par. Dont expect to master the course on the first attempt just forget your score and enjoy the setting.
Dornoch has a population of just 2,500, but its a lively town thats geared towards tourism. Its been compared to an English village and Dornochs centre has been designated a conservation area.
The architecture of the burgh is fascinating, exemplified by the cathedral, with its long and tumultuous history. Built by Bishop Gilbert between 1224 and 1239, its been burnt down on no less than three occasions. In the Jacobite uprising of 1745-46 it was occupied by the Kings men, then by the rebels. Todays congregation is presided over by Rev Susan Brown, the first woman to take charge of a Scottish cathedral.
Just 15 miles north of Dornoch, but still along the A9, is Golspie GC. Although the course here sits on the coast its a different beast to Tain and Dornoch, blending links, heath and parkland over 18 excellent and varied holes with great names like Tinkers Camp and Tattie Pits. Designed by James Braid, Golspie is a great destination for golfers of all abilities. Its relatively short with a par of 68 but its still tricky, and the varying holes mean you have to constantly re-evaluate shot choices.
With views of the sea and inland to Ben Bhraggie the setting, as with all the courses on this trip, is breathtaking. If the golf doesnt meet the desired standard then the scenery most definitely will.
Where to play
T: 01862 892314
Stats: par 70, SSS 71, 6,404 yards
T: 01862 810219
Stats: par 70, SSS 73, 6,514 yards
T: 01408 633266
Stats: par 68, SSS 68, 5,890 yards
Where to stay
The Royal Golf Hotel
T: 01862 810283
Conveniently located right on the 1st tee of Royal Dornoch this hotel has long been a favourite with travelling golfers. Now a part of the Swallow Hotels chain, it offers individually-styled bedrooms, many with views of the course.
Dornoch Castle Hotel
T: 01862 810216
Packed with character and history. With dungeons and tales of haunting a stay in one of the castles 24 en-suite rooms is sure to be an eventful one.
The Eagle Hotel
T: 01862 810008
Only half-a-mile from Dornochs golf course, this hotel offers quality accommodation at a reasonable price. The building is Grade II listed and dates from 1850.