Dunkeld and Birnam Golf Club highlights approach to Highlands

By Tim McDonald, Contributor

PERTHSHIRE, Scotland - The Dunkeld and Birnam Golf Club sits high over the fairytale town from which it takes its (first) name, home to a soaring cathedral, ancient castles and a town center anyone in his or her right mind would associate with words like "charming" and "quaint."

Dunkeld's 9th Century Cathedral
Dunkeld's stone-built cathedral dates to the 9th century.
Dunkeld's 9th Century CathedralEleveated Green at Dunkeld & BirnamDunkeld and Birnam Golf Club in Scotland
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Dunkeld and Birnam Golf Club

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Dunkeld & Birnam Golf Club
Fungarth, Dunkeld
Phone(s): +44 (0) 1350 727524
Website: dunkeldandbirnamgolfclub.co.uk
18 Holes | golf course | Par: 69 | 5511 yd. yards | Book online | ... details »

The River Tay runs between Dunkeld and sister town Birnam; you can literally see salmon leaping from the cold, dark waters. There are B&Bs in ancient buildings and hotels that look like castles - that, in fact, are castles.

The area is the gateway to the Scottish Highlands, and that striking region has lent some of its drama to the surroundings in the form of low mountains, lochs and wildlife. At the Lowes Wildlife Reserve just up the road you can sit in a small cabin and watch ospreys nest.

These are old towns in an old country, the kind of place that inspires stories to spring into your brain. (It worked for Beatrix Potter; the author of the Peter Rabbit tales spent her childhood summers here. A garden and exhibit in Birnam celebrates her legacy.) The golf course is an extension of the towns.

"We're over 100 years old, as most Scottish courses are," said David Falls, captain of the club. "What's different about us is that we have some of the most wonderful scenery you've ever seen in your life."

Falls is right: The scenery is truly wonderful, bordering on spectacular. The course sits on (and plays up and down) a mountain, and from its lofty vantage points you can see beautiful country far and wide.

"It gets better up at the top," Falls said.

Indeed it does. The elevation is reminiscent of a course in the Carolinas, only in the Carolinas you can't look around and see the spires of an ancient cathedral, or lose your golf ball in heather.

The scenery is the star here, but the course does its bit to compete. It's only 5,511 yards long, a par 69, but with all the elevation, it plays like a longer course, especially when you're teeing off uphill to a blind landing area.

"It's short but tricky, with the elevation and wind," Fall said. "It's a super little golf course."

It's definitely tricky, and the wind makes it trickier, swirling in some of the lower areas. As if Dunkeld and Birnam needed any more tricks, with its fairway slopes from hell, blind shots off the tee and into the greens, ravine and pasture carries, and just plain awkward and interesting angles.

You know how courses brag you'll need "every club in your bag"? Well, it's true here. And there are some shots you probably don't have in your bag, like a short pitch almost straight up in the air to an improbably elevated green on No. 8. Best to hit a 3-wood here, lest you get too close. When's the last time you had to deal with that problem?

This is essentially mountain golf with a scenic, Scottish twist.

Dunkeld and Birnam: The verdict

The views aren't the only thing that makes Dunkeld and Birnam gorgeous. Alongside some fairways are ancient, protected woodlands with twisted, lichen-covered tress growing in the cold, clear air. The land itself is actually owned by the Dukes of Atholl, from whom the club leases it.

The second nine, which didn't open until 2002 and was partially financed by the government, plays down in a valley, with the mountains rising around you.

This is one of those Scottish course Americans don't see much of.

"We tend to get Americans who are 'doing Scotland' and also want to play some golf," Falls said. "We don't get many packages."

That's a shame, because this off-the-beaten-track gem is a pleasure to experience, especially with green fees in the neighborhood of $40-$50. The views, and the town itself, are worth twice that.

The only drawback as far as the course is the condition of the greens, which at the time of this writing were dry and bumpy. They'd been sanded, and hadn't gotten rain in more than a month; interestingly, this part of Scotland doesn't get much rain. There are some nice, two-tiered greens that will be a blast to putt on if they ever get a little wet.

Stay and play

Nearby Perth is a relatively large city with a choice of accommodations. The New County Hotel is only 50 British pounds (about $90 U.S.). There are a number of bed and breakfasts, guesthouses and hotels in Dunkeld and Birnam, including the Royal Dunkeld, Birnam Guesthouse and Byways B&B.

Dining out

Try the Capercaillie Restaurant at the Cairn Lodge, the Glenfarg on Main Street or Macdonald's (not the golden arches) on Atholl Road.

Fast fact

Dunkeld's cathedral dates to the mid-9th century.

Tim McDonaldTim McDonald, Contributor

Veteran golf writer Tim McDonald keeps one eye on the PGA Tour and another watching golf vacation hotspots and letting travelers in on the best place to vacation.

Reader Comments / Reviews Leave a comment
  • The course

    Nigel Sweet wrote on: Jul 9, 2012

    I first started playing this magnificent course when it was still nine holes forty years ago. I will never be a single figure handicap but I will always love playing this very trick and challenging track. I played my best ever round there three years ago and hope to better that round this coming August