That’s The Way We Do It In the Western Isles

Isle of Harris Golf Club – Scarista

Directions to the 5th tee

Are you from the Isle of Lewis

Or is it the hills of Harris?

Are you from the North of Uist

Or is it the Isle of Skye?

Are you from the Isle of Barra, Eigg, Muck, Rhum or Canna?

Are you from the rocky waters of the Hebrides?

-Island, Peat and Diesel

On a cool and clear Sunday morning in May, the queue at Berneray Ferry Terminal was empty when my friend Robbie and I arrived from two days at Askernish. We had dutifully made it 45 minutes early for the first sailing of the day across the stunning Sound of Harris. In fairness, we’d had our share of difficulties with CalMac as we hopped from Oban to Mull to Iona to Skye to North Uist to South Uist to Eriskay to Berneray – and now over to the magical Isle of Harris. Satisfied that we would make the ferry without a problem, we set off on a futile search for a sausage roll and tea. A few minutes later we’d had a lovely tour of the wee island of Berneray, but no breakfast was in hand. We walked to the edge of the slip to wait for the boat to arrive from Leverburgh.

There is golf and then there is ferry golf. Ferry golf is unmatched.

The crossing to Isle of Harris is about 45 minutes. Several cars had joined the queue and many people were now on the deck with us, most of them with dogs ranging from English mastiffs to Scottish terriers. Dog watching is one of my top five favorite pastimes in Scotland. There is a sense of anticipation and adventure when you take a ferry to play golf. A seasoned ferry traveler of over 30 years, Robbie gave me his normal detailed analysis of the condition of the boat. It was something I have grown to expect from him – and love – over the last few years. The small, older ship moved slowly, but steadily, across the dead calm Sound.

The Leverburgh ferry slip

The Outer Hebrides and the Western Isles of Scotland are a world treasure. I generally do not make statements of an editorial nature, because I am a visitor, but I hope that the Scottish government makes a concerted effort at some point to support and improve the CalMac ferry system. The islands and ferries are such a part of the national identity, it is sad that ships have been allowed to become outdated and not have ready replacements – causing numerous last-minute cancellations and delays. I have found, almost to a person, that the people that work for Caledonian MacBrayne are proud, helpful, sincere and doing the best they can under sometimes impossible circumstances. That is the end of my rare editorial comments – back to golf.

We found a lovely food truck – the Butty Bus – just by the Leverburgh ferry terminal. It was still before noon, so there was no hurry to get to Isle of Harris Golf Club, which is located by Scarista Beach and no more than 10 minutes away. A nice gentleman gave us the rundown of where to book our dinner for the night, an important detail not to be overlooked. At his suggestion, we settled on the Harris Hotel in Tarbert. I called and booked a table for 7:30 – now it was on to the golf.

There was a palpable sense of excitement as we got out of the car in the small car park at Isle of Harris Golf Club. Longtime golfers in Scotland can almost immediately sense when something special is laid out before you. Robbie walked over to get a view of the wonderfully cascading and rolling links. It tumbled down perfectly and ethereally to the ocean and Scarista Beach below.

“I think you are going to love this, Jim.”

One other car was parked next to ours. Two members were on the 1st tee warming up, just a few feet away. Robbie asked them how we should pay – and for some general directions on the routing. They were more than happy to advise us. We put our green fees in a small (unlocked) lock box in the interesting wee clubhouse, which is built into the side of the hill –like a house in The Shire from Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. Everything about this place seemed perfect. A sign by the entry gate read “Golf Club Closed on Sundays.”  I can only assume that it is advisable to be at the local kirk on Sunday morning.

Isle of Harris is an ideal example of why Scottish golf is so singular and unique. The 267 yard par four 1st hole sets the tone brilliantly. It is thrillingly downhill, straight towards the vast blue sea, reminiscent of the opener at Isle of Skye or the 9th hole at Traigh – just pure golfing fun. I birdied the hole, which, of course, clouds my judgement. Despite my now unfair allegiances, the hole is a perfect opener.

The 299 yard par four 2nd hole, Scarista, is in my top 100 holes in Scotland. It is a Cape style hole, played around the ocean, to a perfectly sited green that still makes me laugh when I look at the photos. Robbie and I stood on the tee for a few moments, both laughing at what was before us. I also birdied this one – playing a low running 8 iron from 120 yards off two dunes – which may make everything I write from this point forward subject to skepticism. This hole is one of the reasons that I love golf.

The 2nd

We climbed back up the very steep hill on the 3rd and eventually wound up back by the clubhouse and the 4th tee. The 145 yard par three 4th is also in my top 100 holes in Scotland. Forgive the hyperbole, but it is just perfection. Played totally blind to an aiming post about 100 yards aways, you hit and hope.  When you crest the hill – well I don’t know what to say. The green is just one of the best in the world. I won’t attempt to even describe it. Stunning, vast Scarista Beach – and the remaining holes – spread out before you like your wildest dreams of golf. This is one of my all time favorite holes.

The world of Isle of Harris

Every one of the following holes range from good to great. The 486 yard par five 5th plays down through the dunes like it has been there for 500 years. The wee 220 yard (par four!) 6th is just laugh out loud fun. The 349 yard par four 9th plays back up the hill to another great green site carved into the dunes. Every hole is fun and yet offers a tactical challenge.

Earlier we had ran into James, the greenskeeper, coming down the 5th fairway. He shut off his mower and before we even could say hello asked us, “How did you pay?”

When he heard my American accent, I can only assume he was reassured that someone who would travel 3,500 miles to play Isle of Harris would not cheat the club out of a green fee. We had a wonderful conversation about the course and his efforts to maintain it. He clearly loved taking care of this glorious piece of the earth.

James, the Keeper of the Green

The next morning, I got up at 6 am and walked across the road from our bed and breakfast to play the 4th hole a few more times. This time I had hickory clubs and old Dunlop 65’s.  When I was leaving, I saw James heading out towards the 5th hole, with his mower. If he saw me, I hope my early morning golf was ok with him. It was a just sign of respect for the brilliant Isle of Harris Golf Club. And I left another fiver in the clubhouse lock box.

The 4th green