Earliest Golf Sites and Golfers

Golf was being 'officially' played in Scotland from 1502. The dates below represent the first assessed record of links golf at the sites mentioned.

This list is the eighteen oldest golf sites in Scotland, with Richmond and Royston shown for completeness. It 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 was being played

 ScotlandMapSites3T7

The earliest references to golf in Scottish official records are either to ban it or to condemn those playing it. The first documented mention is in Edinburgh on 6th March 1457, when King James II banned 'ye golf', to encourage 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 unofficially 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 royal opinion, 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 the kirk service. 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. 

LothiansSites9

Early references to golf in Edinburgh and Lothians

Richmond and Royston are in the SE of England and not shown on the maps.

Golf in its early days in Scotland may have had two forms. One was a target game, round churchyards and village greens, hitting balls at targets, such as trees or stakes, in the landscape. This may be the type of golf that was the subject of the early legal prohibitions. Clearly, this is not 'links' golf. This type of golf was dangerous and may have continued to be played after links golf was popular as there is at least one death recorded in 1632 in Kelso of an innocent bystander near a church. This is long after golf on the links at St Andrews, Barry, Leith and Aberdeen is recorded.

Both the target and links version of golf were similar to 'colf' variants, played in the Netherlands, though the 'cross-country' version died out there and was never revived.

Recently evidence has been growing that the links form of golf, with wooden clubs and leather-stitched balls, existed from the days that golf is first mentioned. King James IV probably played golf on the links at St Andrews in 1504, when he was there for a state funeral, and golf was definitely played on Barry Links in 1527.  

The royal ban never affected important individuals, who were not involved in archery practice, and may even have had the effect of encouraging play on the links, out of sight of the masses. As golf would have been being played openly in dozens of places in Scotland from 1502 onwards, these dates are just the first record we have for golf at each location, not necessarily the first time golf was actually played there.