Area guide: East Lothian, Scotland
It might seem sacrilegious to suggest Fife is not the pre-eminent area in Scotland for a golf break, but there is robust evidence to suggest that is the case. While Fife has St Andrews and a wealth of outstanding courses outside the Auld Grey Toun, is known as the Home of Golf and has peerless heritage, East Lothian might be even better.
Its number of outstanding courses sits comfortably in double figures and they are grouped close together, so travel time is minimal. The snaking stretch of tarmac that links them all, the A198, ought to be every golfer’s favourite road, with a succession of wonderful links strung along it like pegs on a clothes line.
There is a proper golf vibe in the towns through which it passes too, without any tangible sense of overt commercialisation. The towns are not so quaint that they can’t cater for visitors’ off-course requirements, but they retain authentic character and are very easy to like.
So, when East Lothian labelled itself ‘Scotland’s Golf Coast’, it did so with credibility.
Muirfield and Kilspindie
The revered Open Championship host and one of Britain’s most entertaining seaside courses.
The home of the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers is in many people’s eyes the finest course in Scotland. It is not the prettiest or the most spectacular, but instead is a relentlessly strategic and scrupulously fair examination.
You don’t need to be a connoisseur to enjoy playing Muirfield, but equally it is worth knowing what you will receive for the hefty green fee, for while there are better vistas than is often suggested, it is not Kingsbarns or the Ailsa.
Instead, your game will be thoroughly tested by astutely-positioned penal bunkering, by the constantly changing direction of play and by the subtle difficulty around and on the greens. It is organised out in two loops – the first nine played clockwise around the perimeter and the back nine anti-clockwise inside it – so assessing the wind and adapting club selection and accordingly is a prevalent theme.
Adored by the pros, only great players win Opens here – from Faldo to Trevino and Mickelson to Jack Nicklaus, the latter even naming his own club in Ohio after it.
You need to organise your visit well in advance, for the tee times on the limited periods of play on Tuesday and Thursday, but be assured that despite the club’s usually crusty reputation, you will be made exceptionally welcome by members and staff on the day of your game.
After the comprehensive examination of Muirfield, you might be ready for something fun and flattering. If so, few courses in Britain fit that bill better than Kilspindie.
This is the archetypal short, charming links and many of us would love to find more of them. It’s a course that you could play here endlessly and never grow bored.
Located in the pretty village of Aberlady, it has many driveable par 4s and you can get a serious score going if you find a calm day. But with the wind blowing so it basically always is – and it’s right on the shoreline – this 6,000-yard cuddly links has enough teeth too.
What a splendid, contrasting day these two East Lothian classics would make…
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A six-time Open host in the 1800s and should be inked in to your itinerary for the history and experience alone. Sits alongside the horse racing track, this simple links has lots of cool holes. Slated to be renovated by Martin Ebert.
Luffness, Longniddry and The Renaissance
A mini Muirfield, a modern Tom Doak masterpiece and a woodland on the edge of the coast.
A few yards back round the A198 towards the capital and you’ll find yet another Scottish Top 100 certainty, Luffness.
Luffness has a few relatively weaker holes in its opening phase but otherwise has echoes of a scaled-down Muirfield – and praise barely comes any higher than that.
So, even if the first five holes don’t quite hit the heights of the rest of the course, it is still a classy links that in other areas would be the stand-out venue.
Situated at the foot of Gullane Hill, it has some of the best greens to be found in the area, too, and a few all-world holes coming in. Founded in 1894 and designed by Old Tom Morris it is short by modern standards but with a breeze blowing down the Forth, often penal rough and always small greens, it is a proper test.
At the other end of the age scale is The Renaissance Club, the most recent addition to East Lothian’s portfolio which is the area’s most exclusive venue.
Renowned course architect Tom Doak has created a modern links that typically cleverly showcases the natural features of the terrain. The original layout was widely acclaimed but has been improved further by new holes, while the greens are as slick and contoured as one would expect of a Doak design.
This is minimalist golf, albeit at a hefty price – links golf for connoisseurs. To play here you need to take up the ‘One Time Experience’ offer of of staying and playing. The rooms are gorgeous, five-star affairs with amazing views and exquisite food.
Longniddry offers something different, because despite sitting on the coast it offers more inland holes than links ones. However it is still a highly enjoyable experience, an unusual hybrid of woodland and seaside holes in spite of its proximity to the Firth of Forth.
The woodland holes are well crafted and Longniddry is always well presented with immaculate greens.
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This ancient club can trace its history back to 1760, while golf has been played at the current site since the 1920s. James Braid created a very pleasant parkland that grows in both challenge and distinctiveness as it progresses.
Dunbar and Archerfield’s Fidra & Dirleton
One of the unsung heroes of Scottish golf plus two distinctive courses at an impressive new club.
Dunbar is probably the course in East Lothian that is most often under-rated. Not by us though, and expect a strong position in our imminent Scottish Top 100.
It has all the ingredients you would expect from a seasoned links, with some of the best turf you’ll ever tread on. It is also one of only a handful of courses in the UK where many of the holes are right by the sea, and at the sea level. It is more rare than you think that you play a high-quality links with sea spray and sand so hard to the course’s edge.
Dunbar is usually marked down for a modest start and finish, but that is only relative – and make no mistake, these early and late holes are still solid.
Archerfield is a modern club on the outskirts of Gullane and its Fidra course begins with a magical woodland phase that weaves in and around stunning tall pine trees that sway and whistle with the wind. The turf is in immaculate condition and glorious to strike from.
Stand-out holes include the 5th and 13th, which are situated closest to the coast and, although it’s just out of sight, the wind carries the sound of waves lapping the shore.
On the 5th tee you just about glimpse Fidra Island – which supposedly inspired Robert Louis Stevenson to dream up Treasure Island.
After 13th you turn inland and after a comparative drop in pace, the last couple are a nice finish.
The Fidra’s sister, the Dirleton, is beginning to gain a more deserved reputation for this is a tough test in the wind, with some stellar long par 4s. Initially the Fidra took the plaudits but opinion is now pretty evenly split between this more traditional links design over undulating linksland among gorse compared to the pines of the Fidra.
Archerfield also boasts a superb and welcoming clubhouse along with peerless practice facilities. If our suggested accommodation, Garleton Lodge, is fully booked when you want to travel to East Lothian, the on-site accommodation at Archerfield is out of this world… if hardly inexpensive.
Gullane No. 1 and No. 2
Enough top-class golf in one village’s golf club to keep you entertained for several days.
This village lives and breathes golf just as much as St Andrews. The Gullane club has 54 holes, named simply No.1, No.2 and No.3 and most would view them in ascending order of excellence. But don’t think of No.3 (see right) as an after thought – it is an outstanding, fun links with plenty of interesting holes and in equally superb condition.
No.1 is the premier track, though, generally regarded as one of the top 50 courses in Britain and Ireland. It begins and ends in the town – just a few yards from the omnipresent A198 that splits some of No.3 from the others – and rises to the crest of Gullane Hill, from where, says Bernard Darwin, you take in the “finest view in golf”.
Changes in elevation are common on No.1, nowhere more than on the fabulous 2nd, which plays up a continually narrowing fairway.
It might be regarded as the third-best links in the area after Muirfield and North Berwick, but that simply serves to demonstrate the incredible depth of East Lothian.
Some neutral locals, indeed, prefer its more steady fare to the preposterous entertainment of North Berwick. The aforementioned corridor-narrow 2nd and spectacular par 5 that follows are two early notables.
It has just hosted its second Scottish Open, having done so previously in 2015 using a composite course of 16 of No.1’s holes plus two from No.2.
The club was founded in 1884, and members and visitors enjoy firm seaside turf, pot bunkers, wispy grasses and smooth greens on all three links, the only notable difference that No.1 has more of the most memorable holes.
Yet it is not giving anything away to state that No.2 will feature in the Scottish Top 100 ranking we release later this year and that No.3 is a definite contender for that list. On No.2 there is the opportunity to open your shoulders on many holes and more scoreable opportunities than on its big sister. The views from the Gullane Hill are just as good as No.1 as on this GB&I Next 100-ranked course.
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This James Braid parkland pleasantly surprises on several levels. First, there is its sheer scale – Monktonhall, as it is also known, stretches to a substantial 6,725 yards from the championship tees. Standing on the elevated 1st tee, gazing down the opening and closing holes, it has the feel of a compact course. That isn’t the case.
Then there is the variety of holes on offer. Dating back to the 1930s, the turf is excellent and there is just enough in the land, the bunkering and the green surrounds to ensure that it is a cut above almost all of the inland golf in this part of the world.
Whatever you do, make sure your score is made before reaching the last hole. At 474 yards and uphill all the way, it is as stern an 18th as you will find outwith the Open rota.
North Berwick, The Glen and Gullane No.3
Arguably the course in Britain that offers the most fun, plus a tremendously scenic clifftop venue.
North Berwick simply wouldn’t be created today. Bulldozers would smash through mounds, fill in hollows and knock down the dyke that sits hard to the 13th green. It’s hard to not conclude golf is all the poorer for this scenario.
It is quite tremendous fun, packed full of holes that are at times bewildering but always entertaining. Yet for all this welcome craziness, it is worth noting it is stringent enough to host Open qualifying.
The main thrust of the front nine is wonderful, but after a relatively sedate stretch in the middle even those early pyrotechnics seem fairly tame compared with the high-octane closing holes.
The last third of this mesmeric links offers up seminal hole after seminal hole. From the aforementioned approach over the drystone dyke hard to the 13th green to the blind glory of the 14th, aptly named ‘Perfection’, to the widely-copied short 15th, Redan, it is a glorious thrill-a-minute, shot-by-shot experience. Then, beneath the windows of the Marine Hotel sits the 16th, arguably golf’s most exacting green complex with two raised plateaux separated by a trough that has its own name, Biarritz.
You don’t have to leave the town for the next course, the East Links that is better known as The Glen. This clifftop course offers some spectacular holes and some equally memorable views. Well over 100 years old, this is fantastic holiday golf with stunning sea views into the Firth of Forth and towards Bass Rock.
Or if you want more proper links action, return to Gullane to play No.3. It shares the same springy turf as its sisters and while it is the shortest of the three, it boasts some of the best views across Aberlady Bay to Edinburgh and the Firth of Forth. It already has you charmed by the time you’ve witnessed the cool green complexes on the sporty two-shot 1st, fabulous short 2nd and sub-300 yard par-4 3rd. Yet the 6th might be the pick, the approach played to an elevated green with a rocky outcrop snuggled on its right side.
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A modern championship test, opened in 2001 this is a ‘big links’ with sloping greens and deep bunkers. Expect firm, fast greens on a 6,600-yard course that sits on rolling well drained linksland without larger sand dunes seen on many of the area’s other courses. Super views over Aberlady Bay and the Firth of Forth as well as the Edinburgh skyline. Designed by the respected Tom Mackenzie when he worked for Donald Steel. Turn over for much more about this fine modern course, which sits next to Kilspindie.
Travel essentials for your trip
When to go
April is arguably the best month of the year, with the smallest amount of rain and temperatures above 12C and creeping towards the mid teens. May and June are also excellent, with a little more rain but obviously a bit more warmth. It’s a very good winter destination given the east coast’s drier-but-colder climate.
A break here can come in at any price you want. Play all the top courses and it will be fairly expensive, when you add Muirfield (£250) to North Berwick (£120). But you can perhaps choose one or two of those and then add in, say, the likes of Kilspindie (from £55) and you’ve got exceptional quality for a great price.
Where to stay
East Lothian is packed with options to suit all budgets but for this latest trip we stayed in Garleton Lodge near Haddington. This luxury B&B enjoys a fantastic hilltop location and was totally refurbished in 2017 by David and Angela Cockerton. The husband and wife returned from the Middle East – with expertise in real estate and catering – and settled upon this magnificent spot to establish this B&B (which is more like a neat five-star hotel in reality). Sitting in the middle of all the area’s great golf, it boasts eight en-suite rooms and amazing attention to detail. There are four double/twin, two one-bedroom suites as well as a two-bedroom suite. All residents enjoy a lounge with fully-stocked bar, restaurant, super-cool BBQ hut, outside bar, spa, hot tub with incredible views and golf club storage and a drying room. There’s even a practice bunker and putting green, which honestly has noting to do with David being a keen golfer whatsoever… David’s passion for whisky has also seen each guest room named after a distillery in each of the Scotch whisky regions and there is a whisky ‘flight’ in all rooms. The breakfast is as elegant as it is substantial, with a wide choice of cooked food. And if you’ve found a better Scottish breakfast than the one Angela provides, we’d be surprised.