The farther north you travel in Scotland, the fewer people you see and the wilder and more magnificent the scenery becomes. But even in the remotest parts there is golf.
Dornoch is a delightfully genteel town on the east coast not far from the very top of the country.
Royal Dornoch Golf Club: A truly outstanding links
Although popular with well heeled Edinburgh bankers and businessmen, far fewer golfers make the trek to play Royal Dornoch Golf Club than the course deserves. Those who do are richly rewarded with a truly outstanding links.
Stretched out along a lovely length of coast, there's just enough width for two parallel fairways squeezed between a gorse-covered ridge on the inland side and high dunes on the seaward side. Clever use has been made of the higher ground on the left of the outward nine to provide lofty tees. Old Tom Morris and later John Sutherland evidently knew what they were doing. The deep-rivetted bunkers add considerably to the aesthetic appeal of Royal Dornoch, which, because the tees are elevated, are clearly visible from where you take aim. Avoiding them, however, is another matter.
Reluctantly leaving Dornoch behind, I began a circular tour of the Highlands by heading west to the pretty little town of Bonar (rhymes with honor) Bridge.
Bonar Bridge, Ardgay Golf Club: A mini-Gleneagles
Sniffy golfers who won't slip into their spikes for anything less than 18 holes will miss out on a truly delightful nine-holer. Bonar Bridge, Ardgay Golf Club , to give it its full name, has been described as a mini-Gleneagles, and, with a little imagination, you can see why.
With Scots pines lining the fairways, purple heather adding color and rolling hills providing plenty of elevation, it's much more intimate but not dissimilar to this year's Ryder Cup venue. And the beautiful views over Loch Migdale helped it secure the coveted title of the most picturesque nine-hole course in Scotland.
Driving north through Lairg, I turn left onto the A838. Although the overwhelming majority of "A" roads in Great Britain are significant highways, this isn't. It's a single-track road with frequent passing places. As with golf, observing the etiquette is essential and you must you pull in to let oncoming vehicles through. Judging which passing place you can reach before pulling in is as tricky as club selection. Pull in too soon and you have a longer wait than necessary; pull in too late and -- arrrghhh! Nearly everyone is frightfully polite and there's much waving, smiles and thank-yous.
Durness Golf Club: Extraordinary course spectacular views
After about 90 minutes of jaw-dropping glorious wilderness, you eventually arrive at something that approximates to civilization on the most northwesterly tip of mainland Britain. And it's here you will find Durness Golf Club .
The fact it's blessed with nine joyous holes hardly matters. What is absolutely unforgettable about this extraordinary course are the spectacular views. Out to sea, over the dazzling white-sand beach, up to the mountains, across Balnakeil Bay -- every which way you look, there's incredible beauty.
If you're hoping for manicured fairways and immaculate greens, you'll be disappointed. This is an unapologetically natural golf course where condition isn't relevant. It's fun, steep in places and hugely enjoyable. Once played, never forgotten.
Carrying on clockwise across the roof of Britain we pass waterfalls, estuaries, lochs and miles of rugged coastline. If it's possible to overdose on majestic scenery, it could happen here. About two-thirds of the way along the top, we turn right, cut off the northeast corner of Scotland and head back to the east coast.
Brora Golf Club: No ordinary course
Emerging at Helmsdale, we turn south for Brora Golf Club . The cattle grid you cross to reach the first tee suggests this is no ordinary course. Laid out by the legendary James Braid 90 years ago and hardly altered since, Brora is a classic nine-out, nine-back design with the beach on the right on the way out and crofters' land on the right as you come home.
The crofters' land gives the clue to the presence of the cattle grid. No fewer than 48 crofters own property adjacent to the golf club and enjoy the right to graze either five sheep or one cow and follower (calf) on the course itself. Thankfully, not all take up their entitlement but some do and sheep and cattle wander around, mostly in the rough. For reasons that are pretty obvious, the former are regarded as less of a nuisance than the latter. Incidentally, there is no relief from animal excrement so just play it as it lies.
In truth, the animals are less of a nuisance than you might imagine. It would be nice to think they don't venture onto the greens because they're imbued them with a genuine understanding and respect for the game. The truth is rather more prosaic. Each green is protected with a short electric fence. And if your ball strikes the fence, a local rule permits you to play the shot again.
Golspie Golf Club: A joyous James Braid course
There's another joyous James Braid course just a few miles farther south at
Golspie Golf Club
. Although the club is 125 years old, Braid didn't weave his magic until 1925. The course has been lengthened a little in recent years and modified somewhat (most think improved) by the North Sea, which runs alongside from the third to the seventh. The clubhouse, too, was constantly shifting until it settled where it is in 1967.
You could never grow weary of Golspie as it's really four courses in one. Starting off as links, it morphs into heathland, develops into woodland and finishes as parkland.
Well, we've driven around 225 miles, enjoyed some spectacular scenery and played some memorable courses. Now for a whisky!