I awoke one May morning in a cupboard bed on the coast of East Lothian, Scotland, with sea sounds—gulls, tides, wind—in my ears. It was snug under the covers, but my fire had long since died out and the safari tent had turned bracingly cold. Shivering, I managed to get the woodburning stove lit again, and a quick sunrise run on the vast, empty beach gave the dwelling time to heat up. With the kettle singing on the stove’s Aga-like range, instant coffee and oatmeal made for a passable breakfast, though a pair of intimidatingly large duck eggs—a welcome gift from my hosts—went uncooked. A hot shower and a cold shave later, it was off down the road to tee it up at one of the most prestigious golf clubs in the world. In other words, this was not an average morning.
“Am I to introduce you to Sir Charles Name-Withheld, one of Scotland’s great gentlemen, as ‘My friend who is sleeping in a tent’?” had been the amused query of Lionel Freedman, a retired London stockbroker, the day before our appointment at the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers. Yes, however harebrained, that was the idea: to test the concept of “glamping” (a portmanteau of “glamorous camping”—see “Where to Stay”) in one of the world’s greatest golf destinations. That would be East Lothian county, a short drive from Edinburgh, which boasts well over a dozen glorious seaside links beaded along a single 30-mile stretch of road. Recently re-branded as “Scotland’s Golf Coast,” it will forever play second fiddle to St. Andrews, but for the connoisseur—one who has perhaps grown weary of leaning on the driver while stuck behind glacially slow bucket listers on the Old Course—it may well be the Home of Golf’s equal.
In a debate concerning the relative merits of Fife and East Lothian, the Honourable Company’s links, known as Muirfield (greens fees, $320; Duncur Rd., Gullane; 44-16/2084-2123; muirfield.org.uk), would clearly be the latter side’s opening gambit. The original Rules of Golf were formulated at the club’s first location, Leith Links, in 1744. (Engulfed by Edinburgh’s expanding city limits, it’s now a public park of the same name.) These were just the first pen strokes of an illustrious history. Since moving to the town of Gullane in 1891, the club has hosted 16 Open Championships. Muirfield is possessed of a sophisticated beauty—set at a slight remove from the water, the course has long views that are marked by a gentle interplay between two parallel waves. The first is Muirfield’s own barrier dunes; the second is the coastline of Fife, some ten miles across the Firth of Forth. Skilled players tend to love the course because it’s as equitable a links as can be; its (few) detractors point to a lack of memorable holes. I’d hold up the par-three 13th, its green set perfectly in the saddle of a sand hill and defended by deep pits, as a pulse-quickener of the first order.
A typical day at Muirfield involves 36 holes—two fast-paced foursomes matches, in which partners play one ball and alternate shots. These two rounds are divided by the club’s legendary lunch. Seated at long communal tables beneath oil paintings of red-jacketed luminaries, members and guests feast on simple, traditional British staples—roast beef or haddock, potatoes, veg, that sort of thing—executed at the highest possible level. Dessert is treacle pudding with cream. “You see,” said one of our group, “these things are here because they remind the boys of what they used to have in their nurseries.” Given that the “boys” in this refectory now likely own approximately half of Scotland, this sentiment seems, well, sweet. The final grace note is a round of kümmel, a delicious cumin-flavored digestif that’s always served ice cold—a couple of these ensure an afternoon match marked by spirited banter.
Muirfield is literally the ultimate old boys’ club: “I could submit your name for membership today,” said one of my hosts, “and it would be about 18 years before you got in.” Many such gentlemen patiently hold memberships at nearby Luffness New Golf Club (greens fees, $130; Aberlady; 44-16/2084-3336; luffnessgolf.com), an 1894 Old Tom Morris design. A formal, traditional club, Luffness is well worth a visit under any circumstance, but especially if a game at the Honourable Company doesn’t come together. Like Muirfield, this is not a quirky links, so first-timers get a clear sense of the kinds of shots the course demands. Old Tom’s greens, however, are a master class—they seem imbued with a kind of quiet mystery that’s rarely seen on modern courses. Full of subtle breaks and borrows, they also offer a smooth and silky roll—indeed, the club has long had a reputation for possessing the truest greens in East Lothian.
The true yin to Muirfield’s yang, however, is the West Links of The North Berwick Golf Club (greens fees, $154; Beach Rd.; 44-1620/895-040; northberwickgolfclub.com). Where the former impresses with its noble bearing, the latter vexes, infuriates and inexorably charms with its caprices. North Berwick is a treasure trove of wild and wonderful golf. On the second hole, one can clamber down onto the beach to recover from a sliced drive; at the 13th, a narrow sliver of green is tucked behind an ancient stone wall that’s set on a devilish diagonal. Oh, yes, and the famed Redan hole is here, too. Despite countless attempts at reproduction around the world, the original is still the best—the Redan’s bold slopes and arrangement of hazards place the clever and the powerful on equal footing. The West Links might require a bit too much local knowledge for visitors to score well, but most probably won’t care. Instead, they’ll remember the pure enjoyment the course provides—as well as the lovely views of Bass Rock, looming just offshore—for a long time to come.
Speaking of Bass Rock, if it seems impressive from the West Links, it practically looks like a skyscraper up close. The Scottish Seabird Centre (The Harbour, N. Berwick; seabird.org) runs Zodiac-like boats from North Berwick Harbour out to the rock several times a day. From January to October, this volcanic plug hosts the world’s largest colony of gannets. Roughly 150,000 of these yellow-capped birds make their home here. The sheer profusion of life—besides the gannets, there are puffins and kittiwakes, seals and dolphins—is unforgettable.
For those who fall in love with the region and wish to return on a regular basis, but with all the creature comforts one expects from an American-style private club, The Renaissance Club (Cowden Hill Dr., Dirleton, N. Berwick; trcaa.com) fits the bill nicely. Situated directly adjacent to Muirfield, the club has a Tom Doak–designed layout—an appealing links notable for its gorgeous specimen trees and old stone walls. The course opened in 2008, just in time for the Great Recession, but Renaissance has weathered the storm well and continues to hone its offerings to appeal to an elite international clientele. A luxurious clubhouse is nearly complete, as are three new holes on land acquired from the Honourable Company—including a magnificent cliff-edge par four—that should further raise the profile of a course that already has the feel of a modern classic.
Covering all of East Lothian’s golf highlights in one story, it would seem, is as tall an order as playing them in one trip—such is the depth of the destination. The three links of Gullane Golf Club, local favorites Longniddry and Kilspindie, even Musselburgh Old Links, that ancient Open Championship venue set in the infield of a horse-racing track—all these and more remain to be discovered. With that said, the geographical end of the line for the Golf Coast is Dunbar, a quiet town that doesn’t quite have the charm of North Berwick but features its own points of interest, starting with the Dunbar Golf Club (greens fees, from $110; E. Links; 44-1368/862-317; dunbargolfclub.com), another course with the Old Tom Morris touch. The first three holes are routed like a dog chasing its tail, but then the course passes through a high deer-park wall and onto open linksland, with several holes playing hard by the rocky beach. Dunbar is also home to the John Muir Birthplace Trust (126 High St.; jmbt.org.uk), a modest but surprisingly inspiring museum that sketches out the Sierra Club founder’s boyhood in East Lothian and his life’s work in the United States. Mostly geared toward school field trips, it’s not a must-see, but golfers are often nature lovers, too, and Muir wrote with true passion. “I only went out for a walk,” reads one of his journal entries, “and finally concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in.” Anyone who has spent an enchanted day on the links of East Lothian, perhaps even experiencing all four seasons in one round of golf, might relate to those words.
Where to Stay
East Lothian’s “glampsite” is a few minutes north of Dunbar at Lochhouses Farm (tents, from $1,153 a week; harvestmoonholidays.com), a collection of safari tents with wood-burning stoves for cooking and heat. Private toilets and showers are just beyond each tent’s back flap. At 450 square feet, they’re the size of a Manhattan studio but can comfortably sleep up to eight. An honesty shop in a beached fishing boat is well-stocked with staples for basic meals. But really, the main selling point is the wildly beautiful beach, with its views of Bass Rock.
Clearly, glamping is not for everyone. Prerequisites include a sense of humor regarding Scottish weather and a true willingness to disconnect from the devices that dominate our modern lives—after all, there’s no electricity.
For those in the anti-glamp camp, East Lothian has several fine lodging options, though none rise to the level of a Gleneagles or an Old Course Hotel. The best bet is almost certainly Greywalls (rooms, from $444; 44-16/2084-2144; greywalls.co.uk), an Edwardian country house designed by renowned architect Sir Edwin Lutyens, who also (with Gertrude Jekyll) laid out the estate’s elegant gardens. Greywalls overlooks Muirfield’s links, but with just 23 rooms, it’s not always easy to align a stay with golf next door.
Many visitors wind up at the Macdonald Marine Hotel and Spa (rooms, from $200; 44-84/4879-9130; macdonaldhotels.co.uk) in North Berwick. The hotel rivals Greywalls for location and features a good restaurant, John Paul at the Marine, but it has a rather bland atmosphere that’s hard to shake.
Finally, informed sources speak highly of Letham House (rooms, from $200; 44-16/2082-0055; lethamhouse.com), a restored manse just outside the county’s inland market town of Haddington. Letham’s central location places it within a 15- to 20-minute drive of most of East Lothian’s links.