Douglas Seaton: Gullane’s talent and tragedy tales

SOME of best Gullane’s golfers struck it rich, some died in the trenches. By Douglas Seaton

John "Jack" White. Picture: Contributed
John "Jack" White. Picture: Contributed

Gullane was once was called the “Newmarket of Scotland”, where many good race-horses were trained. It was often described as a pretty sight to see the horses swinging out from the stabling beside the old smiddy in the Main Street, over the common and across the hill in a long string to their training ground.

Now, it is golfers who walk the special turf, in a special village known to golfers around the world.

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Its golfing inhabitants over the years included Jack White, pictured, the only golfer from East Lothian to win the Open Championship – in 1904 at Royal St George’s. Though born in Whitekirk, he returned to Gullane after leaving Sunningdale to start a clubmaking business in the property next to the present professional’s shop and later in a two-storey building (now demolished) in Goose Green Mews. He also opened a successful golf equipment shop at 2 Rosebery Place, Gullane.

His first apprentice was W J ‘Bud’ Russell, son of Sandie Russell, the starter at Gullane No 1 course. In June 1930, Bud Russell answered an advert from Barwon Heads Golf Club in Australia who were looking for a golf professional. The club secretary, Harry Hay, enlisted the help of Stanley Bruce, who was in London with his family’s importing business after completing seven years as Prime Minister of Australia. Russell was brought to London for an interview and the following day Stanley Bruce (Later Viscount Bruce) cabled Hay with the news: Have selected Professional-Scotch-single-twenty-two and Hay wired his approval. Russell arrived in Australia with 25 shillings in his pocket and retired a rich man.

Another native of Gullane was James Milligan, a joiner with J & R Hay, who emigrated to America in 1911 and was appointed pro at the Wyoming Valley Country Club at Wilkes-Barre (PA). Then came the First World War and soon after the news of the death of one of his three brothers, all of whom had joined the colours. Then another gave his life and after a while the third. Milligan thought of the mother, alone in Gullane, sorrowing bravely in the doing of her bit. He closed the door of the club shop and returned to Scotland, declaring that he must keep out of the trenches for the sake of the mother, who had only himself left. But word came that he had enlisted in the Highland Light Infantry and shortly afterwards the news of his death at the front. His name is engraved on the war memorial situated a pitching wedge from the first tee at Gullane.

The name engraved above Milligan is that of Peter G. McKenzie, the assistant greenkeeper at Gullane. In 1910, he was appointed head greenkeeper on the Burgh course at North Berwick. McKenzie was a member of Dirleton Castle Golf Club, the oldest club to play over Gullane Hill. He played in the winning Wemyss Country Cup team in 1899, 1904, 1906 and the first winner of the Watson Cup in 1902 and also winner of the Haldane Cup in 1906. At the start of the war McKenzie enlisted with the Royal Scots, rising to the rank of corporal. He fought at the Battle of Arras and was killed in action on 10 April 1918 and is buried in Cabaret-Rouge, Souchez, France.

Gullane had several fine clubmakers, including William and Charlie Davidson who apprenticed with Douglas McEwan in Gullane before starting their own business, W & C Davidson, in 1895. They worked from a property named Temple Croft, at the corner of Saltcoats Road and Templar Place, which was demolished to make way for the present building. Alex Aitken, a clubmaker from Edinburgh, was the first to have a golf equipment shop in Brighton Terrace. He followed the Davidson brothers living in Temple Croft.

Willie Anderson, son of the head greenkeeper at North Berwick, apprenticed as a clubmaker with Alex Aitken before emigrating to America in 1896. He was appointed greenkeeper and professional at Misquamicut Golf Club, Watch Hill, Rhode Island. Anderson won the US Open in 1901, 1903, 1904 and 1905. He shares the record of four Open titles with Bobby Jones, Ben Hogan and Jack Nicklaus and remains the only man to win three in a row.

The Litster family lived in Mayday Cottage next to Gullane clubhouse. James Litster was a greenkeeper at North Berwick and assisted Tom Anderson to extend the West Links in 1895. Jack Litster sailed for America in 1897 and was appointed head pro at Philadelphia Cricket Club, Chestnut Hill, PA.

In 1905, Robert Fisher started a clubmaking business in Briar Cottage, Templar Place, Gullane. Herbert, Frederick, Valentine and Edward Fitzjohn, sons of the clubmaster at Muirfield, attended Gullane school before they joined the professional ranks in America in 1898. The brothers moved to Springfield, New York in 1899 and worked as club and ball makers at Otsego Country Club, part of the prestigious Otsego Hotel in Coopertown, NY. In 1899, Val Fitzjohn finished third in the US Open at Baltimore.

Jimmy Lindsay, an apprentice plumber living in Hopetoun Terrace, emigrated in 1913 and was appointed head pro at Oak Park Country Club in Chicago. Robert Fortune, a member of Aberlady Working Men’s Club, emigrated to America in 1922, sharing the journey with James Wilson from North Berwick who was pro at Tucson Golf Club, Arizona. Bob Fortune was appointed pro at Conneaut Country Club, Ohio before moving to Greenville Country Club, PA in 1925.

In 1931 Jack White followed his uncle George Thomson as pro at Longniddry Golf Club. During this period new manufacturing technology was being introduced and the traditional skills of clubmaking were no longer in demand. In 1937 White sold the shop and factory and the following year he was appointed pro and starter to the newly-opened course at Monktonhall (Musselburgh Golf Club).

Another of Jack’s apprentices, Hugh Watt, became professional at Barnton, before being appointed to Gullane Golf Club. His assistant, Jimmy Hume, moved to various courses including Beaconsfield, Harewood Downs and Royal Jersey before returning to Gullane as head professional in 1975.

Jack White died in 1949 and is buried in Inveresk Churchyard with no headstone, just a simple tablet engraved ‘J.White’ – a sad end to an illustrious career without a headstone to mark the passing of an Open champion.