Eighteen 18th Century Golf Societies

21 August 2015

There are now eighteen golf societies dating back to before 1800.

NLSIn the space of one hour last Monday, golf history was re-written in a minor way. The discovery (by me) of newspaper notices for Earlsferry Golf Society (1787) and Fortrose Golf Society (1793) at the National Library of Scotland brings to 18 the number of golf clubs which have a continuous or non-continuous history dating back to the 18th century.

We have always known about the clubs with a continuous history or those that were consciously revived after a period of abeyance caused by adverse economic circumstances such as Crail (1786), Glasgow (1787), Burntisland (1791) and arguably Royal Aberdeen (1780).

What was not recognised were the clubs which fell on hard times and which stopped operating for so long that they were lost to living memory and nobody was aware of any documentation. When times improved, new clubs were instituted, ab initio, and entered the annals with new foundation dates.  Some would argue that the length of time and lack of connection means that they are not the same club, but they are of considerable historical interest.

In the last decades, six such clubs had already been 'discovered' - Bray (1762), Fraserburgh (1777), Port Erroll (1791), Kingsbarns (1793), Dunbar (1794) and Savannah (1794).

It was always likely that there were more old golf clubs to be discovered and with recently digitised records from newspapers and other historical material, more finds were to be expected any day. What was totally unexpected was that two would be found in such a short space of time, both in the same search from one newspaper, the Caledonian Mercury.

Neither of these discoveries materially affects the position of the oldest half a dozen golf societies outlined in the conclusions On the Dating of Golf Societies. The first wave of golf clubs began in two places. One was where there were numerous well-to-do golfers such as in Edinburgh or London and the other is where there were ancient and highly esteemed courses such as at Leith, St Andrews or Musselburgh.

What is now clear is that within a generation of the first wave, golf clubs had been formed widely throughout Scotland and even abroad by groups of Scottish professionals, business people and landed gentry who wanted local availability of their sporting activities. Some of these groups relied heavily on the input and organisation of a small number of people as well as having a transitory membership. They would include members of the armed services and ministers of the church.  When these people died or moved on, as they commonly did, support for the club dissipated, sometimes beyond the point of recovery.

However, Earlsferry and Fortrose will surely not be the last 'old' clubs to be found.

Dunbarnie Nature Reserve W

Dunbarnie Links (sic) Largo Bay, reputed home of Hercules Golf Club (1835), now Dumbarnie Links nature reserve. One of the clubs and courses that did not survive. The Hercules trophy is now played for by the Golf House Club, Elie. A new course was built here in 2018.

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