Fairytale towns, braised lamb shank and shaking hands with sheep: Golf off the beaten track in Scotland

By Tim McDonald, Contributor

The golf courses of Scotland are not all expensive links courses by the sea. The country has some wonderful little tracks out in the hinterlands that are scenic and cheaper than the more famous courses.

Alyth Golf Club in Scotland
Alyth Golf Club: "A bloody good test of golf."
Alyth Golf Club in ScotlandInchmarlo Golf ClubDuff House Royal Golf Course in Scotland
If you go

You finally made that trek to Scotland, the home of golf, a few years ago and it was all you thought it would be.

But it's been a few years now and you're itching to go back. Only this time, you want something different. Maybe you want to avoid all those fellow countrymen swarming the famous grounds, like the Old Course at St. Andrews. Maybe you want to avoid the high green fees. Maybe you just want to see some parts of Scotland most outsiders never see and still get in some good golf.

Here are some of our suggestions for golf off the beaten path in Scotland.

Dunkeld & Birnam Golf Club

Dunkeld & Birnam Golf Club is a Scottish course that Americans rarely see. "We tend to get only those Americans who are 'doing Scotland' and also want to play some golf," said David Falls, captain of the club. "We don't get many packages."

That's a shame, because this little 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 club sits high over the Scottish fairytale town of the same name, with ancient castles, a soaring cathedral and a charming town center.

The River Tay runs through it; you can literally see salmon leaping from the cold, dark waters. There are bed and breakfasts in ancient buildings and hotels that look like castles - in fact, they are castles.

The area is the gateway to the Scottish Highlands, and that dramatic geographical region has lent some of its drama to the area, in the case of low mountains, cold lakes - or lochs, as the Scots call them - and wildlife. The Loch of the Lowes Wildlife Reserve is just up the road, across the bridge, where you can sit in a small, wood cabin and watch ospreys nest, both with your own eyes and close-up through a television screen.

The golf course is an extension of the town.

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

The scenery is the star here, but the golf 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.

Perthshire hotels: Nearby Perth is a relatively large city with a choice of accommodations. The New County Hotel is about $90 a night. In Dunkeld & Birnam itself, there are a number of bed and breakfasts, guesthouses and a smaller number of hotels, like the Royal Dunkeld, Birnam Guesthouse and Byways B&B.

Alyth Golf Club

The Alyth Golf Club is one of those fine, little golf courses you come across when you roam the Scottish countryside, not really close to any major cities or tourist attractions, just sitting out here in the hinterlands waiting to be enjoyed by its members and guests.

And enjoyed, it is.

"It's a bloody good test of golf," said Steve Cochran, a resident of Alyth (pronounced A'-lith) and regular at the course. "You have to hit it straight and be accurate, and you have to be on the right side of the hole. It's one of the better courses in the area. I like it as well, because they always make you feel welcome, and you don't always get that."

It's a good thing the staff makes you feel welcome, because the course doesn't make it easy for you, not with its blind shots, rolling terrain and elevated greens, many of which drop off sharply. That isn't to say it's unwelcoming; the course is a blast to play.

It's easy on the eyes as well, with its rural Scottish views of Angus and Perthshire. The course was designed in 1894 by James Braid and Old Tom Morris, and it has only been slightly modified over the years. It's a parkland course, with tall pine and beech trees lining the rolling and tilting fairways.

Alyth is a good bargain with green fees at about $45 weekdays and $60 weekends. It's a member course but so popular that the club recently decided to give visitors a place to eat.

Alyth is a good place for a golf mini-vacation in rural Scotland. Aside from Alyth, there is also the Strathmore Golf Center and, across the street from Alyth, the Glenisla Golf Club. Down the road a bit is the well-regarded Blackmount, in Blairgowrie.

Alyth hotels: The Alyth Hotel is located in Alyth's small downtown, the former home of a famous Scottish inventor, James Sandy, said to have "hatched birds with his body heat." It's a very friendly, small hotel with homemade scones and a cozy, burgundy and wood dining room with a fireplace. The restaurant in the Alyth Hotel has excellent food. Try the braised lamb shank or the salmon, which is caught locally.

Duff House Royal Golf Course

There probably aren't too many Americans who make it to Banff and the Moray Coast for their Scottish golf holiday. It can be cold and windy, being hard by the icy North Sea as it is.

You should go, however, if you get the chance, for several reasons. One is that Banff's downtown architecture is a great example of faded, Georgian elegance, with sweeping views of the sea from its perch on the rocky cliffs. Two, this area is known to Scots as one of the driest in Scotland, a welcome thought when you've been battered by the coastal rains playing the famous links courses.

Three, it's close to the whiskey trail, and four - trumpet roll - the Duff House Royal Golf Club, which sits on the grounds of the magnificent Duff House mansion. The mansion, which dominates the layout of this beautiful course, was built for a wealthy Scottish businessman, William Duff, who went on to become the Earl of Fife. The owner and architect had a little legal squabble, and the thing was never completely finished, but it is still one of the finest Georgian baroque houses in Great Britain. It houses some fine art, including a painting by El Greco.

The course doesn't have the dramatic elevation changes many Scottish golf courses sport, but it makes up for that with a stylish design by famed Scottish architect Alister MacKenzie, featuring multi-level greens in great shape, stately fir and mammoth pine trees, and a parade of challenging holes. The River Deveron comes roaring by several holes, and there are times you can watch seals swimming up the river snatching great bites of salmon for their lunch.

Banff is just one town on the Moray Coast; the area is dotted with little fishing hamlets against rocky cliffs, and there are a number of good golf courses nearby.

With green fees of roughly $48, the course is a good deal. Weekend rates are about $69.

Banff hotels: The County Hotel is in downtown Banff, built in 1778, a fine example of the architecture of that time. It's owned and operated by a local couple, and the food is excellent. The hotel will also set up golf packages for you.

Inchmarlo Golf Club

Every golf course in Scotland can't be 200 old and designed by Old Tom Morris. They do build some new ones here occasionally, designed by living architects, like the Inchmarlo Golf Club in Banchory, about an hour's drive west from Aberdeen.

The 18-hole Laird's course at Inchmarlo opened in June of 2001, built on the slopes just to the north of the existing nine-hole course. It opened to some acclaim, being nominated for the best new course in Britain, putting it in the top 20 new courses in the United Kingdom.

It's easy to see why. It's a parkland course, with many of the trees lying along the perimeter, while the interior is relatively open. The Inchmarlo is like many courses you find in the Scottish countryside: short but tricky. That being said, what Americans may define as tricky may not be the same as the Scots. The Scots like a wee challenge. They would probably scoff at some of the player-friendly resort courses in the U.S.

Inchmarlo is a course that plays up and down the hills of the interior, with gorgeous views of the surrounding hills and even some snow-covered peaks in the distance. The fairways dip and twist like pretzels, and some of them sport what could almost be called small mountains. Some of the slopes on the fairways will make you wish you had brought your skis.

The course is set on agricultural land - note I didn't say former agricultural land. One of Inchmarlo's great charms is that a working sheep farm cuts right through it. Talk about following the natural contours of the land. To get from the sixth green to the seventh tee, you walk right through the farm and its accompanying farm aromas. You could shake hands with the sheep, if you and the sheep were so inclined.

Inchmarlo doesn't carry the big green fees associated with Scotland's more famous links courses. Green fees are around $45-$50, which makes this course another hidden-gem bargain.

Banchory hotels: Like most Scottish towns, there is a wide range of accommodations, from the Banchory Lodge, Burnett Arms and Raemoir House to the Village Guest House the Birch and Willow Lodges. The Inchmarlo Golf Centre has an excellent restaurant. If you want to explore the town, try Dudley's, Scott Skinner's (try the desserts, especially), Carmen at No. 10 or St. Tropez.

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.

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