History of golf in north of Scotland to be studied

Golfers at Royal Dornoch, which is approaching its 400th anniversary. Picture: Gary Henderson/CC
Golfers at Royal Dornoch, which is approaching its 400th anniversary. Picture: Gary Henderson/CC
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A NEW academic study to explore the history of golf in the north of Scotland has been launched.

• Study will look at bridging the gap in golf history between 1600 and 1800 ahead of Royal Dornoch’s 400th anniversary

• Research set to start in September and be carried out by Canadian Wade Cormack, whose ancestors came from Wick and Tiree

The research project was unveiled at one of the world’s oldest and most renowned links courses, Royal Dornoch – which will soon celebrate 400 years of the sport being played in the town.

The University of the Highlands and Islands set up the three-year PhD studentship being part-funded by the golf club.

The earliest concrete evidence of the game, known to this point, dates back to 1616.

However, few records have been explored from the period 1600-1800 and the new project aims to bridge the gap in knowledge in the lead up to the town’s 400 Years of Golf in Dornoch celebrations.

The golf club has donated £54,000 to UHI’s Centre for History, based in the town, to establish the studentship to investigate the history of sport and culture in the wider Moray Firth coastal region during the period.

The subsequent research will be used for an exhibition and a series of public talks, but will also add to the early knowledge of the growth of golf worldwide.

The research will start in September and will be carried out by Canadian Wade Cormack who will stay in Dornoch during the three-year project.

He has strong Scottish connections with his father’s family having lived in Wick and his mother’s family, the MacDonalds, having sailed from Tiree to Canada 200 years ago.

During his MA and undergraduate degrees he studied sport history in Europe and examined the connections between 19th century field sports and the growing tourism industry in Scotland.

He said: “This studentship excites me because I will be going further back in Scottish history, another two full centuries, to examine the foundation of golf, and sports in general, in the Moray Firth region.

“I believe this is a very important project for the golf club because it will be able to use the research to celebrate the longevity of the game of golf in the area, build their prestige as being one of the oldest golfing centres, and promote the game as a continual/historical pastime of the Scottish people.

“For Dornoch, I believe that 400 Years of Golf project will give them yet another reason to be proud of their town and their heritage.

“And for golf in general, this project will help to uncover the foundations of the game, and answer more questions about who played, where they played and what it was like.”

He plans to interrogate a variety of sources, including the records of Dornoch and the surrounding burghs, ecclesiastical and Kirk Session records and archived family papers and documents from lairds in the Moray Firth region.


The project is being supported by former Open Champion Paul Lawrie and First Minister Alex Salmond, and is being launched in the run-up to the Scottish Open beginning at Castle Stewart on the shores of the Moray Firth on Thursday.

Lawrie said: “Knowing more about the history of our game is of interest to all golfers. The work here at Royal Dornoch with UHI may even show us how to bring new people and children into golf.”

First Minister Alex Salmond, a keen golfer, said: “Scotland is the home of golf and this academic research will help us understand more about the game’s early history and those who played it. It is that heritage, combined with our wonderful courses, such as Royal Dornoch, that continues to attract people to Scotland to experience the sport at its finest.

“It is only fitting that during this week as some of the world’s best golfers arrive in the Highlands to play in the Scottish Open at Castle Stuart, this innovative study is being launched to investigate the area’s golfing past.”

Neil Hampton, Royal Dornoch Golf Club’s general manager, said: “Dornoch takes great pride in its history and heritage, being one of the oldest clubs in Scotland. Finding out more about this important period will help us better understand how we were involved in helping to spread the game of golf around the world.

“We know golf is a big economic driver for the town today. It brings in lots of people and money and helps makes it such a vibrant place. It will be interesting to know how far back this association goes and the extent to which it has driven the economy of Dornoch, helping the town grow and prosper over the years.”

Dr David Worthington, head of UHI’s Centre for History, added: “The PhD is important since it provides an excellent opportunity for the post holder to bring the history of golf, the social and cultural life of Dornoch and of the wider Moray Firth region from 1600 to 1800 to the forefront. This comprises a key element of the Centre for History’s wider research strategy.”

Before any organised playing of golf in Dornoch, the town’s links were also used by local people for grazing cattle, drying clothes and practising archery.

Written accounts from 1616 show that a local schoolboy - John, the 13th Earl of Sutherland – spent £10 on bows and arrows, golf clubs and balls.

The golf club was formed in 1877 and the first 18-hole course was laid out in 1886 by Old Tom Morris who extended the original nine holes.

In 1906 King Edward VII, a close friend of the 3rd Duke of Sutherland, granted a Royal Charter to the Club.

In recent years, Prince Andrew and golfers Greg Norman and Ernie Els have made honorary members of the club.

Royal Dornoch Golf Club is seeking sponsorship from members to help cover its investment in the research.