Ferry Golf: Golf Courses of Scotland’s Western Isles

By Graylyn Loomis

The 2016 Open Championship took place at Royal Troon, on Scotland’s west coast, an area that hosts many traveling golfers. Some of the more adventurous go farther west, crossing the Firth of Clyde and visiting the Mull of Kintyre and Machrihanish. But few journey beyond, missing a string of remote Scottish islands known as the Hebrides. It’s their loss, because those who haven’t made it to those barely inhabited islands are missing something special, from the isles’ exquisite remoteness to their incredibly natural golf courses.

The Hebrides—divided into Inner (more to the south) and Outer (more northerly)—feel like a foreign country. As you travel farther from the mainland, signs are written in Scots Gaelic, the ancient language still spoken by many Hebrideans. Strange phenomena like the northern lights and lunar rainbows are common thanks to the absence of light pollution. The Gulf Stream passes by and its warm temperatures create crystal- clear water and white-sand beaches that wouldn’t be out of place in the Caribbean. 

Although by no means tropical, the Hebridean weather is more temperate than in many parts of the Scottish mainland. The golf courses are “mowed” by grazing sheep and cattle and “honesty boxes” replace pro shops to collect the inexpensive green fees. While there’s nothing like the Hebrides, the problem is getting there: The best way to do that is by ferry.

Ferry Golf

Ferry from Kennacraig to Port Askaig
Time: 2 hours, 30 minutes

Golfers who enjoy a dram of whisky should take the car ferry from the mainland to Port Askaig on Islay (pronounced “eye-la”). The island is famous for its peaty, smoky whiskies such as Ardbeg, Laphroaig, and the increasingly popular Bruichladdich. The reason to bring clubs to Islay is Machrie Links (green fee: £65 or about $88), originally routed through the dunes along picturesque Laggan Bay in 1891 and recently renovated. The course’s new owners are currently updating both the course and the hotel next door.

Ferry Golf

Ferry from Oban to Castlebay
Time: 5 hours

From Oban, commonly called the gateway to the isles, it’s a long ride to Barra, the southernmost populated island in the Outer Hebrides. Golfers are likely to be joined by surfers in search of the prime conditions created by the Gulf Stream. Isle of Barra Golf Club, a nine-holer that uses electric fences to keep cattle and sheep off the greens and is the most westerly course in the UK, costs only £10 ($14): Pay the fee at any local hotel as there is no clubhouse. If you fall in love with it, a lifetime membership is £100 ($135).

South Uist
Ferry from Mallag to Lochboisdale
Time: 3 hours, 30 minutes

Immediately north of Barra is South Uist, home to the best-known of the far-western golf courses, Askernish. A truly authentic links, it was originally laid out by Old Tom Morris in 1891 and is considered one of the purest examples of his natural design philosophy: He stuck flags in the ground, marked the tees, cut the grass, and the course—playing along dunes behind an expansive beach—remains all but unchanged today. Green fees are £50 ($68) and an annual membership is £200 ($270).

Ferry Golf

Isle of Harris
Ferry from Uig to Tarbert
Time: 3 hours, 40 minutes 

Located at the same latitude as Anchorage, Alaska, this is where Harris Tweed first came from. Locals still weave the wool in their homes before sending it on to design houses around the world. Isle of Harris Golf Club is a nine-hole links that overlooks miles of white-sand beaches and turquoise-blue Atlantic. One round costs £20 ($27) and two loops of the course add up to a 4,900-yard, 18-hole round. Even with the beautiful golf, it’s the setting and isolation that capture a golfer’s imagination.