The Hutton Letter - Golf at Kinghorn 1812

9 October 2017

A recently discovered letter written by John Hutton to Alexander Orrock at Wemyss in 1812 records that golf was being played on Kinghorn Links in the early 19th century and probably for some time before that. The Links land was owned by the Shanks family of Castlerig, a title which goes back to Robert the Bruce in 1286. They sold the land to the Council in 1886 and it has been in public ownership ever since. This makes it one of the oldest golfing grounds in the world and one of the most historic.

The Hutton Letter

Kinghorn letter 1812 E

The Hutton Letter to Alexander Orrock, courtesy of P Sargent

Peter Sargent, a social philatelist, recently acquired a letter written to an Alexander Orrock at Wemyss on 2nd May 1812. It says that 'Moyes' has complained about golf being played on the ‘Links’, apparently land which he rents. The letter mentions several people who have all been identified with some certainty.

The writer says that 'Mr Shanks' will have to act 'as he may be advised'. Mr Shanks was the Rev Alexander Shanks of Castlerig, who owned the land and who lived in Aberdeenshire. Mr Moyes was William Moyes, a local innkeeper, who, the writer believes, is only objecting because the ‘afternoon’ is not spent at his ‘house’, meaning that the golfers are not patronising his tavern. Additionally, the writer says that Moyes rents the land at a price that 'will not pay'. An edited, interpreted version is given below.

To Alexander Orroch, Wemyss castleby, Wemyss

Kinghorn 2nd May 1812

I received yours of the 27 ult[imate] only yesterday morning. As to Golfing on the Links, I am clear of [the] opinion that the public has acquired a right to Golf on them from long possession. Mr Shanks must take such steps as he may be advised to present [preserve?] them. For my own part, I do not give a penny about it.  I like the Company to spend an afternoon [at golf?]. The reason of Moyes complaining is that (the) afternoon [of golf] is not spent in his house [inn] and another reason is that he has the Links at a rent that will not pay. I will be happy to see you and my friend Mr Edington here when we pay [play] on Whitsunday next and I expect you will dine with me. I have some good old whiskey [whisky] of Mr Edington’s. Best wishes to you and I am dear sir,


John Hutton

Battle of Kinghorn

The author of the letter is believed to be John Hutton, who was a lawyer and former provost of Dunfermline, though he lived in Kinghorn. He was the initiator of one of the most infamous stories in Parliamentary history, when he tried to manipulate the election in Dunfermline in 1796. The story is long and convoluted, but in summary Hutton 'kidnapped' seven fellow members of Dunfermline council to prevent them voting against the Tory candidate, the Hon Andrew Cochrane-Johnstone. At the time, members of parliament were elected by a small number of people in burghs or combinations of burghs, so the absence of the seven could sway not just the vote at Dunfermline, but the whole constituency. Hutton took the councillors to an inn in Kinghorn where they were plied with drink and kept away from the electoral college meeting. What part force or drink played is not clear, but, in the event, the supporters of the Whig candidate, Sir John Henderson, found out about the ruse and went to rescue them. 

Battle of Kinghorn Kay 1846There was a violent confrontation at the inn, and although nobody was killed, several were seriously injured. This was widely reported as the 'Battle of Kinghorn'.  John Kay's sketched this in his series of caricatures, depicting among others, John Hutton himself wielding a baton at the top of the stairs.

The councillors were taken back to Dunfermline, but because of the fighting, they and John Hutton were then arrested for affray and spent the night in Inverkeithing jail. They were soon released, but the matter did not end there.

The Hon Cochrane-Johnstone won the election, despite John Hutton's actions, but Sir John Henderson challenged the result and the whole matter was investigated by a judicial process in London, at which Luckie Skinner, the landlady of the inn where the councillors had been held, was called to testify. This turned her into a local celebrity, not the least because her answers cleverly parried all the barristers' questions and gave nothing away. The election result stood.

More details of these fascinating events can be found here.

Clearly John Hutton was one of the golfers, as he talks about liking 'the Company'. Alexander Orrock may have been a playing partner. Research indicates that Orrock was a man of means who owned a part share in a sloop and was worth £500. James Edington, whose whisky Hutton and Orrock were to enjoy, was a rich local farmer who ran the MacDuff Brewery. This is probably the "considerable brewery" recorded in the Statistical Account of Scotland in 1745, which later came into the hands of the Edington family and was operated by James Edington senior until 1825. These characters are all possible golfers, but whether the 'Company' to which Hutton refers, was a formal or informal golf club is an open question.

William Moyes the Innkeeper

The reference to Mr Moyes making the complaint says it is because the golfers are not meeting in his 'house', which is a reference to his pub. William Moyes was an innkeeper who ran The Three Crowns, now gone, which was on the west side of today's Rossland Place, below the links.  He seems to have been something of an entrepreneur and there are newspaper advertisements in the Caledonian Mercury for 25th and 27th July 1793 for a new stage service he had started from his inn to Dundee.  He was still listed as an innkeeper in 1825. When he died in 1836, he left his property to his son William Moyes (Jnr), but he went to sea and was not heard of again. This resulted in a legal case to settle the estate of William Moyes (Snr) as late as 1880.

Moyes' motivation is making the complaint may have been to force the golfers to patronise his inn or to make them pay rent for using the land. John Hutton's comment that he doesn't 'give a penny about it' and his determined personality, evidenced by his involvement in the Battle of Kinghorn, makes it unlikely that Moyes succeeded!

Shanks of Castlerig

In 1812, the Links were owned by Rev Alexander Shanks.  He lived at The Villa in Laurencekirk in Aberdeenshire. He had been minister at St Cyrus in Angus from 1759 to 1781, following in the footsteps of his father, who had been minister there twenty years earlier. On the demise of his childless cousin, the Rev Alexander became the inheritor of the Castlerig lands, with an ancient title, originally granted by King Robert the Bruce for services rendered by his ancestor Murdoch Shanks in 1286. As the Rev Shanks lived in the north, it explains why he leased out the Kinghorn lands. He died in 1814 and his son and grandson lived in London, so their interest in the property was probably nominal.

Maps of the day show that this land was the Kinghorn Links. From Council records and contemporary newspaper reports, the Links were acquired on the death of Captain Henry-Alexander Shanks in 1886 by the Council. They hired Old Tom Morris to design a 9-hole golf course, subsequently developed into the course we see today. Through name and ownership, this has to be the land that was being used by the golfers in 1812.

Kinghorn hole 16 2017 33

Kinghorn golf course hole 16 looking over the Forth

The research initiated by the letter shows that the Kinghorn golf course is situated on ancient land, gifted by Robert the Bruce. The links were inferior land compared to the Castle lands that the king retained, only fit for breeding rabbits, grazing animals and golf.  However, unlike many others, the Shanks family managed to hold on them and the Castlerig title for 600 years, despite wars and disputes, thus producing one of the most historic courses in Scotland.

This article is based on key information and research provided by Peter Sargent, a social philatelist who works for Stanley Gibbons.  Additional details were provided by Douglas Speirs, archaeologist with Fife Council.

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