MACHRIHANISH, Scotland — You can get to this tiny hamlet on the Mull of Kintyre a lot faster than Old Tom Morris did in 1879 when he agreed to improve Machrihanish Golf Club. In this instance, however, speed is overrated. To experience the beauty of this remote part of Scotland’s west coast, take the route that inspired Paul McCartney to pen “The Long and Winding Road.”
Machrihanish is a 135-mile, three-hour trip from Glasgow Airport, longer when you stop and smell the heather along the way. You can take the high road, a 25-minute flight, if you want to get there quickly. To do that is to miss one of the best drives in golf.
Get yourself a car and take the low road. You’ll be rewarded with haunting glens, stunning mountain scenery, great sea views and one of the loneliest roads in the world.
The low road runs alongside Loch Lomond and past Loch Lomond Golf Club.
After you’ve peeked over the wall at Loch Lomond GC, stop and take in the views of arguably Scotland’s most famous mountain, Ben Lomond. I was lucky enough to have this as my backdrop when I walked to school as a wee boy. Not just one backdrop, but many, because “The Ben” appears in different guises, according to the light thrown on it.
From Ben Lomond, continue along the A82 to Tarbet and head west across the narrow glen that links Loch Lomond to Loch Long. Vikings once sailed their long boats to the head of Loch Long, a sea loch, then used logs to roll them through to Loch Lomond, where they continued on, raping and pillaging to their hearts’ content.
At the head of Loch Long sits the village of Arrochar (ARR-uh-kher).
Presiding over the town is a mountain known as Ben Arthur, or The Cobbler, because its peak resembles an old cobbler sitting at his lathe.
From here, you get into the wilds of the west of Scotland. The drive from Arrochar cuts through Glen Crow. A new road makes the journey much less arduous than the old one.
At the head of the glen sits “The Rest and be Thankful.” Park here and take in the view. The old road snakes through the glen and up to where you’re sitting. Imagine taking that trip in a horse and cart, or on a bicycle as I once did, and you’ll understand why the spot is so named.
You continue with the Arrochar Alps on your right, mountains with mystical names such as Beinn Narnain and Beinn Ime. Glen Kinglas sweeps away to your right, just past The Rest and be Thankful.
These are lonely lands. Once upon a time, crofters making a hard-earned living off this harsh, unforgiving terrain would have populated such glens as Kinglas. That was before Scottish lairds ushered in the Highland Clearances, a policy of replacing people with sheep because sheep were more profitable. It’s one of the reasons why millions of Scots emigrated to far-off places.
Make sure you stop at Cairndown at the head of Loch Fyne and sample some of the local fare at Loch Fyne Oyster Bar, one of Scotland’s best fish restaurants. The fare includes oysters, mussels, clams and herring from the nearby Loch.
The little fishing town of Inverary is your next stop. This picturesque, lochside town is home to the Clan Campbell, and Inverary Castle still is a family home. The castle and town jail are well worth a visit.
The quickest ground route down to Machrihanish is to take the A83 along the west side of the Kintyre Peninsula. The Atlantic Ocean sits to your right, with outstanding views of the Isles of Giha, Jura and Islay. The scenery is stunning. Indeed, it is as stunning as the alternate route is haunting.
The B842 is the other route, the road that inspired McCartney. This road traverses the east side of the Kintyre Peninsula and is exactly as McCartney described it; it meanders along the coastline for 34 miles, offering outstanding views of the Isle of Arran.
The McCartney road is not for the faint of heart, though. The first half of this road, until you get to the fishing village of Carradale, is single lane, with passing places. Take it slowly and take your camera.
The best part about “the long and winding road” is that it leads to two outstanding golf courses.
No wonder Old Tom Morris made the trip to Machrihanish in 1896. Stand on the first tee of the Old Course and you can imagine the thrill he got when he decided the opener should be played over the beach, with the Atlantic Ocean on your left. The club takes pleasure in calling it “the best opening hole in golf,” and many agree.
Machrihanish Golf Club, dating to 1876, is a bit like a middle-aged man at a nightclub. It starts strongly and gets weaker. The front nine holes are played over quintessential links. The holes get progressively weaker on the back nine, especially the last two, making you wonder if you strayed onto a different golf course. However, there is enough course to make anyone desire a return journey.
Nearby Machrihanish Dunes is an outstanding addition to the original links. Designed by David McLay Kidd, the layout plays over natural links land that extends from the Old Course’s front nine holes.
Mach Dunes sits on a Site of Special Scientific Interest, a fact that restricted Kidd’s design. Much like Old Tom, Kidd was not allowed to move much earth. The club claims that only seven acres of the 275-acre site were moved to create greens and tees.
My expectations were low after Mach Dunes was panned when it first opened. However, I was impressed. It was a good test, one that can be stretched from 5,095 yards to 7,151 yards.
I played it in two different conditions.
A stiff breeze the first day made it a real test. I got glorious sunshine the next day, and it was an enjoyable, yet still challenging, experience.
Mach Dunes isn’t Muirfield or Carnoustie, and it doesn’t claim to be. However, it’s a solid course with some strong holes. The eighth in particular is as good of a par 4 as I’ve found in the British Isles. At 440 yards off
the back tee, it calls for a lengthy, well-placed drive and an equally challenging approach over a wetland to a raised green.
There are a few long walks from green to tee because the routing had to account for the natural habitat, but nothing too arduous. It’s certainly worth the walk.
The visit to Machrihanish is all the more rewarding because of recently upgraded accommodations. The construction of the Village at Machrihanish by Massachusetts-based Southworth Development, with the Ugadale Cottages and the restored Ugadale Hotel, means there is first-rate lodging to match the golf.
Southworth put £20 million (about $31.4 million) toward the development, which includes refurbishment of The Royal Hotel overlooking Campbeltown Harbour. Just five miles from Machrihanish in the area’s main town, The Royal once was a magnate for Scotland’s elite wanting to escape to this remote area and experience the Mull of Kintyre, which also spurred McCartney to song.
Aficionados of links golf must visit this wild, remote and tranquil landscape. Try to take the low road, the long and winding one. And don’t be in a hurry. Stop and smell the heather along the way.