Foreword to Scottish Golf History

by Neil Laird

Scottish Golf History began as a personal odyssey to find the oldest golf courses in Scotland to play. Two problems emerged in my research.

The first was that the historical data was not related to the present day, and thus you did not know exactly where ‘X marks the Spot’. This website seeks to relate the golf history to present day courses, locations, websites and maps.

Secondly, it became clear that information on early golf history was patchy and conflicting. In cross-referencing the facts, I became aware that almost every publication contained gaps or at least one error or piece of misleading information.

Some websites list dates that are several years adrift of the documented date. The terms ‘instituted’ and ‘foundation date’ are often used when what is meant is ‘first documented date’. Even prestigious books confuse the ‘Golf Hotel’, former clubhouse of the Burgess club, now destroyed, with that of the extant ‘Golf Tavern’ next door, which had served as the clubhouse of the Bruntsfield Links club.

A few of these issues are typographical errors or flow from the fact that some websites are created by enthusiastic students practicing their new-found technical skills for the benefit of golf history; and far be it from me to dampen their enthusiasm for the game or inhibit their scholarly studies. Other oversights appear part of a campaign to maintain an orthodoxy about golf history and the relative ages of certain golf clubs that the evidence does not merit.

As is common in a literate world, there is a natural tendency to over-value documentary evidence at the expense of traditional or oral evidence. Yet history is littered with examples where archaeology and the passage of time have revealed more than a passing truth in oral history. A detailed and corroborated story can be relied upon more than an isolated date inscribed on a brass plate. Moreover, as mentioned, ‘written’ evidence can contain errors and omissions and cannot be taken at face value.

On the other hand, traditional stories of kings or queens playing golf on particular occasions are sometimes recounted in detail as if they were known facts, although no contemporary source is available to support the story. The correct presentation is neither to denigrate the traditional nor to repeat it blindly, but to note the facts and the references or lack of them.

There is a danger, as the catalogue of errors is repeated, that ‘historical lies’ will be created in golf history. In the end, I decided to publish here to put some records straight. In so doing I shall doubtless introduce errors of my own, but so be it.

The history of golf in Scotland must forever live with the problem that there are few written records on it and what there are shed light on the day-to-day minutia of how much golf balls cost, but little on the monumental matters of who invented the golf hole or where or when. Sadly the good ‘burgesses’ of Edinburgh (and elsewhere) did not record their inaugural golf meetings or thoughts and we are left forever guessing about many details. For those interested in knowing which are oldest societies and courses either for their amusement or even to go and ply them, I offer the information on the other pages of this website, in a spirit of helpfulness and encouragement of the great game of ‘Gowfe’.

Neil JB Laird
Edinburgh 2003