Golf In Scotland – Family Style 

Even little golfers want their picture at this famous spot
Even little golfers want their picture at this famous spot

“When I have kids I’m going to bring them here.”

It was day two of our summer vacation and our daughter, Ailsa, was in love.  With Scotland. My wife and I had been yearning to make the Scottish journey for some time but decided to wait until our little one might be old enough to appreciate it. Based on her response, eight was a perfect age.

I’d been to Scotland before, but it had been in the typical way that most golfers do – with a golf buddy, filling each day with endless stretches of fairways and the occasional dip into a pub.  Sightseeing was limited to a brisk walk up the Royal Mile, a stretch of road leading from the Queen’s residence at Holyrood Palace up to Edinburgh Castle, the pinnacle of the capital city.  It’s fair to say that while enjoyable it did not give a full impression of what this historical country was all about.

I immediately made plans in my mind for the return trip, knowing the rest of the family would likely need to be in tow. After all, deciding to make the investment in time and money to make such a foray is rarely the kind a single member of the family makes on their own. That’s reality, and I was fine with it. As appealing as Scotland was, I WANTED to share it. The history, the scenery, the congenial nature of the people – it already had the makings for a memorable family vacation – the golf almost seemed like a bonus.

That’s opposite to the usual scene of course.  Most often Scottish golf trips are about a foursome of guys making a journey of a lifetime together. They save and plan for years, carefully plotting out how many golf courses they can play off the Open Rota, and the “manly” compromises they may have to make in order to do that. You know, the crammed accommodations and late night meals squeezed in after 36 hole of golf.  They have the perception of Scotland as a “rugged location” only suitable for themselves as golfing rogues heading off on a crusade.  They may take a yearly vacation with the family but a golf journey to Scotland would never be considered – that would need to be saved for the one-time escapade with the boys.

That sells Scotland pretty short. It also deprives you of an opportunity as well, if that is how you are thinking.

There is no need for the all or nothing trip.  Taking the family to Scotland and mixing in a little golf is possible. Everyone can get what they want and leave pretty satisfied.

But by the time our little unit flew home from Glasgow to Toronto this summer after 11 days in my ancestral homeland, my wife, and clearly, my daughter, could attest that Scotland serves up a lot more than a land made for golf self-indulgence.

Get The Flight Right

Don't forget the beach when in St. Andrews
Don’t forget the beach when in St. Andrews

Choosing how and when you are heading to Scotland can’t be overlooked.  My first choice for a Scottish vacation would actually be in early Fall.  Temperatures are still fine, there is not a lot of rainfall and, outside the normal heavy tourist times, accommodations and tee times are more readily available.

If, like most, your family vacation has to be taken during the summer season then you’ll exchange all that for tourist attractions that are much busier (it’s all relative – not many things are really busy in Scotland) and slightly higher costs for things like travel.

There are a couple ways that you make things easier on yourself when it comes to flights.  First off, the sweet spot for pricing is normally 4-6 weeks in advance for fare pricing and enough time to help you do other planning around the flights.  If possible, book your accommodations (which is often a more demanding task to meet family needs) as far in advance as possible (more on this in the next section).  If you are willing to gamble a bit and have your place to stay secured you can often find last minute deals on flights even up to a week before (often for as much as 35% less).

To also ease the strains of family travel try and find a direct flight.  Kids will be tired enough with trans-Atlantic travel ahead of them so the less stops the better.

We chose an Air Transat flight direct from Toronto to Glasgow.   Glasgow is also a smaller airport and very easy to get in and out of.  It’s often worth the extra 40 minute drive to the east coast over an Edinburgh flight.

We also chose an overnight flight, boarding just after 8 in the evening in Toronto and landing some 12 hours later (with the 5 hour time change).  That gave us a chance to sleep on the plane and start our visit as soon as we got off the plane.

Get Local

The fearsome Road Hole bunker...and the sites beyond
The fearsome Road Hole bunker…and the sites beyond

The further ahead you plan your visit to Scotland the longer the laundry list of potential stops will be.  Not a large country, those new to driving in the United Kingdom will quickly find that every kilometre seems a lot longer on Scottish soil.  The narrow roads can fray the nerves of the most heroic of drivers and hinder the pace of progress.  There are major motorways but the most interesting destinations will take you away from them.

As a family we chose to plant ourselves in two separate locales during our stay, minimizing the use of a car. It put the focus on one of the country’s greatest joys, exploring on foot.   By choosing to put down roots for a week in St. Andrews, followed by three days in East Lothian, with just one single-day side trip to Turnberry Resort, we negated our stress levels and gave ourselves the best chance to feel more like a local than a tourist.

Plenty of the “guy” trips will include a marathon of single night stopovers. While this serves the golfer trying to knock off as many courses as possible well – it falls short when it comes to exposing you to the true charms of the country.

Hunkering Down

Making the choice to really be a part of the St. Andrews community during our stay we looked long and hard for a home base.  We wanted to be central to the golf scene but close enough to other non-golf activities.  That’s not a tough quest when you consider that the town has a pretty compact footprint. To minimize feeling “confined” in a hotel room we sought out a flat, cottage, or house with a little more room.  Given the high cost of hotel space and the seasonal demand you’ll find that for groups from small to large that properties like this are a good value.  They also provide a more relaxed atmosphere, more like being at home.

We found our perfect choice on Holidaylettings.co.uk, a website where many rental property owners manage their bookings.  Choosing the first week of July as our visit time also proved advantageous as it is a time when many Americans, the most active base of visitors Scotland, choose to stay home to celebrate Independence Day.

As a result we managed to find a two bedroom, three bathroom cottage built in the back courtyard of a Victorian row house. The bigger bonus?  The Whins Cottage was a forty second walk to the first tee of the Old Course.

For the balance of the trip we made our home at the Craigielaw Golf Club in East Lothian, about 25 minutes east of Edinburgh.  Their 25 modern rooms are attached directly to the clubhouse, making it a perfect base to play there or any of the other 21 courses within a twenty minute drive along Scotland’s Golf Coast.   From there you can also make an easy sight-seeing trip into the capital city (mandatory), either by car, bus or even by train from the nearby Longniddry station.

Alternate Activities

While being less than a minute from the home of golf in St. Andrews (and six of their golf courses) was a huge bonus, it also brought with it some other advantages.  Just minutes from the R&A clubhouse is the British Golf Museum (closed for renovations until 2015), the St. Andrews Aquarium, the West Sands beach, and St. Andrew’s Castle – all attractive family stops.  From here we could also easily access the more than 100 pubs and restaurants that have popped up in the town.

Our car? It stayed parked for six days.  Whether we wanted to get to the local indoor pool, visit the shops, or even pick up a few groceries, all was accessible on foot.

We made use of the car a bit more in East Lothian, even making a quick afternoon jaunt to the English border town of Berwick-Upon-Tweed, but the train might be a better option than a car rental for many families.   Trains run frequently in Scotland and multi-day passes include free travel or reduced rates for children. The trains run along scenic areas and without the stress of driving you can all enjoy your travel time. No roundabouts…no troubles.

The Golf

When it St. Andrews be sure to pay homage to the greats of the past.  Tom Morris, Jr. gravestone.
When it St. Andrews be sure to pay homage to the greats of the past. Tom Morris, Jr. gravestone.

With almost 600 golfing options in Scotland there are plenty of choices.  That means you can look well beyond the normal few Open Championship layouts to find a fairway or two where you can play.  The variety is endless (most clubs welcome visitors) and when families and kids are taken into account, there are few places in the world that pay more attention to them.

It starts right at the Home of Golf.  The St. Andrews Links Trust courses are constantly littered with youngsters.  Locals under sixteen can play the Strathyrum, Eden, and Balgove courses for free.  The fare is still reasonable for visitors on those layouts. A day of play on the Balgove runs just 15£ for adults and 5£ for children.  Three and five day unlimited passes are also available.

I chose to play the New Course one morning on my own but it still did not compare to a Canada Day spent at Balgove with my wife and daughter.  The nine hole layout is limited in length and the firmness of links turf is friendly to even topped shots – ideal for small children and novice golfers. It’s a simple design but one that every golfer seems to enjoy.  It delighted me so much that I returned another day and played a match with a thirteen year-old local. It was the first of 54 holes he would play that day.  The love of golf starts early in St. Andrews.  They do everything they can to foster it, and it shows.

In East Lothian, a place where six of the first fifteen golf courses in the world were founded, golf has long been the fabric of life as well.  From a very young age kids in the area take up the game. And why not? The Gullane Golf Club, for example, has had a kids course for more than a hundred years. Better yet, it’s free for them to play.  Another of the world’s best courses, the West Links at North Berwick, has their own scaled down layout for little ones.  The tariff?  2 pounds for kids for a day of play or 20 for a year of golfing pleasure.  European star and 4-time LPGA Tour winner Catriona Matthew got her start on that very course.

Scotland is family friendly.
Scotland is family friendly.

In East Lothian, my little golfer and I found our way to the South Links at Craigielaw.  The six-hole course was built by Donald Steel at the same time as their main course.  It’s a delightful test including a double green and a smattering of pot bunkers.  We could cover a round in 40 minutes and it left us both smiling.

Those smiles grew larger on our final day in Scotland when, as a family, we stood on the 9th tee at the famous Ailsa Course at the Turnberry Resort, and gazed across shining waters at the rock formation for which our daughter is named. It was a suitable ending to our Scottish family vacation.

In eleven days we had shared memories that would bond us forever, with golf in a spectacular and friendly land serving as a common thread.

The enjoyment of golf by all members of the family is not an afterthought in Scotland; it has never been that way.

It shows in how people respect it and incorporate it into their daily lives.  They are happy to share that passion with visitors, meaning your next golf trip there shouldn’t be one without your family in tow.

You never know, the next little one that tells you how much they are enamored with Scotland might be one of your loved ones.

Just think how easy it will be then to get them to come back.

That sounds like a win-win for all.

Fast Facts

Visit Scotland

www.visitscotland.com

St. Andrews Links Trust

www.standrews.com

Craigielaw Golf

www.craigielawgolfclub.com

Trump Turnberry Resort

www.turnberryresort.co.uk

The Whins Cottage

www.holidaylettings.co.uk

The Lodge at Craigielaw

www.craigielawlodge.com