Earliest Golf Sites and Golfers

'Golf' balls were being imported from The Netherlands to Scotland from at least 1486 and golf was being played, officially, throughout Scotland from 1502. The dates below represent the first assessed record of links golf at the sites mentioned, not the first time golf was played there.

This list of the eighteen oldest golf sites in Scotland, with Greenwich shown for completeness, is based on the criteria of

  • Golf being played evidence of golf actually being played or a record of an established links where it would be being played.
  • Dated evidence - authoritative reference or cross-reference mentioning an exact date or period
  • Links golf involved - indication that the links form of golf and not 'churchyard' golf was being played

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The earliest references to golf in Scottish official records are either to ban it or to condemn those playing it. The first documented mention, as widely quoted, is in Edinburgh on 6th March 1457, when King James II banned 'ye golf', in an attempt to encourage the neglected art of archery practice.  This royal ban was repeated  in 1471 by his son, James III, and again in 1491 by his grandson, James IV.

Even when the ban was effectively lifted in 1502 in Perth, there was over a century of complaints and convictions by the Kirk from 1580 until 1724 against golf on the Sabbath (Sunday). The official (royal) line, voiced by King James VI in 1618, was that golf on the Sabbath was acceptable, so long as it was not during the times of service, because Sunday was the only day the great mass of people would have free to play. It was not a view shared by the Kirk. Indeed Sunday golf at St Andrews only began during the Second World War and is still not permitted on the Old Course, though this is more to do with preserving the course rather than religious strictures. 

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Golf in its early days in Scotland may well have had at least two distinct forms. One was a 'short' or target game, round churchyards and village greens, hitting balls at targets in the landscape. This was similar to 'colf' and later 'kolf', played in the Netherlands, and it may be this type of golf that was probably the subject of the early legal prohibitions as being dangerous. This is not really 'links' golf, played with using a variety strokes and clubs to holes. The first type of game continued in existence even after 'links' golf was being played, with at least one death recorded in 1632 in Kelso of an innocent bystander near a church, which is long after we know golf was being played on the links at St Andrews, Barry, Elie and Aberdeen.

The question therefore arises as to whether any early mention of golf is evidence of the modern links game or of the 'target' game, which died out in Scotland. The links game was well established by the end of the 16th century, so it is likely it developed over the course of the century after 1502 when the golf ban was lifted, but it may well have emerged earlier.

The royal ban may never have affected important individuals, and may even have had the effect of encouraging play on the links, out of sight of others. The dates above allow some degree of latitude on the interpretation of the golf played, but probably reflect the links game. As golf would have been being played openly and officially in dozens of places in Scotland from 1502 onwards, these dates are just the first mention or record we have for each location.

Modern golf was created by a democratic process of continuous development of dispersed innovation, gathered and regulated by common agreement. Long may this continue.