Royal Dornoch

Words by: James Wilson
Photography by:Ollie Allison, Douglas Guillot & Harvey Jamison

40 of us are sitting in a historic clubhouse. It’s long past last orders but a warm Scottish welcome and a dinner for champions is on its way. Our guests are in the Highlands to celebrate the release of the Frontier Collection Vol. 3. In the darkness, beyond the glass windows, the 13th best course in the world lies in wait; Royal Dornoch.

Something is stirring at the dinner table, like a game of Chinese whispers, phones around the room open up to the weather app. The forecast for the following day reads like a Stephen King novel: gusts of 45mph.

I studied at a Scottish University, and by that I mean I spent 4 years skipping classes and playing golf on the links of Ayrshire, Fife and Aberdeen. I’ve ventured out in 45 mph winds before. Here’s what it looks like: if you place your ball on a moderate upslope and hit a 3 iron off the front foot the ball will take off, fight the wind for a moment until it's travelling vertically and then it will loop back on itself in your direction. The recommendation is to cover your head, because the ball will be landing at your feet. No need to shout fore.

I know what we’re in for but the Americans amongst us do not. I keep my opinions to myself and let the group go to bed in blissful ignorance.


Drawing the curtains at Dornoch Station reveals a tranquil scene. Over the wall at the hotel perimeter, a greenskeeper on his mower is making the finishing touches to the 18th green against a sky caught between shades of orange and blue. A sigh of relief: the day is saved.

Then, the greenskeeper sweeps past the newly cut hole and replaces the pin. Squinting I realise, he hasn’t put it in correctly, it slants at 45 degrees. I squint again, the pin is holding on to the base of the hole for dear life - the bright red flag buffeting at hyper speed. Gulp.

After breakfast the short walk towards the first tee is full of nerves. We round the houses towards the clubhouse and a familiar droning stirs the Scottish patriot in me. 30 of our group are gathered on the tee, wind whipping in from behind as Michael (the local bagpiper) attempts to drown out the gusts with a booming rendition of Highland Cathedral.


Following Mac’s opening shot 40 golfers attempt to hit the first green like a long range artillery section. Our army of explorers marches off to the wails of ‘The Black Isle’ and the beat of flags crack in the wind. Jorge, our Spanish nomad, gestures to the piper, ‘is this as windy as you have seen it?’ Michael gives a patronising shake of the head. Fool.

High spirits endure as the wind carries the groups north between the gorse bushes. 400 yard drives roll out through the softly undulating fairways, chips land 30 yards short and rumble over the back edge.

We skip down the fairways and turn to laugh at our caddy, making over-animated air swings to suggest how far our drives are travelling. We float towards the greens, levitating on the wind.

Then things change. The 9th tee sits at the furthest point of the course and marks the first change in direction for the routing. The explorers turn to face the gale. The juke box turns from 90’s pop to heavy metal. I shout to my playing partner Ashley, who is standing 4 feet from me: ‘BUCKLE UP’. All he hears is white noise, like a confused scuba diver, he gives me a vacant thumbs up.

Driver, Driver, 3 iron takes us to the front edge of the 490 yard par 5 9th. The group looks at each other and laughs nervously. The onslaught continues, 3 irons are trapped low into the 146 yard 10th hole. From there the par 4s play like par 5s, the par 5s like par 6s. The wind dictates the direction of your backstroke on the greens, and by how far your ball misses the hole.

The illusion of control is obliterated, but it’s liberating. Whatever our previous concept of golf counts for nothing here. This is a different sport entirely: yardage is meaningless, reading a green: meaningless.

We head south towards the clubhouse and it’s clear that patience is wearing thin. Ashley storms on to complete his 9 holes in honourable fashion, ex-LPGA player Liz isn’t phased, she still hasn’t missed a fairway. Alexis hits the driver harder and harder in defiance.

Eventually the 18th pin flag is muscled back into place, we embrace like Amandson and his crew at the North pole. Expedition complete.

My initial feeling (beyond relief about my survival) is that of concern. Our guests have travelled from the farthest corners of the world to be here, and have honourably battled through harsh Scottish elements when, technically, they should be on their holidays. I’ve just played with 4 scratch players but there are high handicappers out here. Yes they’ve ticked off a bucket list course, but it’s the weather that has stolen the limelight.

You fool James. You fool to doubt them. There’s something about the golf explorer that I won’t forget again. They’re not here to shoot the perfect score or play on perfect greens. They’re here to see a new place, meet new people, experience a different culture.

These otherworldly conditions didn’t just offer a new experience, they galvanised the group. Talk of knee high stingers and quadruple bogey 8s echoed through the hotel bar. Everyone united over a battle against the elements. Victory at last, or so we thought…