Last month, my wife and I enjoyed the most fantastic trip to Scotland together. Neither of us had ever been and can honestly say it is a wonderful country.
As we prepared to go, we researched every conceivable resource to develop our plan and to make best use of time and money. Naturally, we wanted to see castles, churches, museums and historical points of interest.
We also wanted to dine well and of course I had to play some golf. It was, after all, Scotland.
I am not a control freak, but I am an organizer and planner of details, the difference being that I am extremely flexible and don’t pout when things don’t go according to plan.
We began in the fall of 2014 discussing mutual interests, individual attractions and some of the “mandatory” areas to consider and put absolutely everything into a great big mixing bowl.
Once the blending began, it became evident very quickly that July provided the best opportunity for decent weather, plus it is the month for the British Open and the Senior Open, two items that interest me, particularly the British Open because it would complete my own personal little grand slam of attending all four majors.
As our trip began to fill in, I started to get a very tight knot in my stomach. I love history, the castles and churches but I also love golf.
Our holiday was to be a driving vacation in an attempt to visit as many places as possible both from the perspectives of what if we never return to let’s find out what we’d like to revisit if we ever can return.
There are over 250 golf courses in Scotland of which at least 240 appeal to me with about 20 that I’ve dreamt about for over 50 years.
Marriages are like cars! If you treat them nicely, with plenty of gas and oil they work well. Fail to provide either and they don’t work as well. This trip was to celebrate our 25th wedding anniversary, so now you start to understand some of my cause for concern.
However, not all was lost.
My wife is my wife for many reasons; one of which is her complete acceptance of my addiction. “You cannot go to Scotland and not play some golf,” was her attitude. Bless you Sweetie. Golf was in.
Then strange things began to happen. I read an article where a writer claimed if you are going to Scotland for the first time, it has to be either for golf or castles – you can’t do both.
Of course, I can do both.
Why can’t I arrange a game early in the morning and be finished by noon, in time for some castles and churches? I’d have a quick shower around 5 p.m. and be ready for dinner at 7, followed by an early rise and drive on to the next town.
Three weeks away, with multiple castles/churches, several great courses, some quaint hotels and fine dining all sounds good in theory, but – and it’s a very big “but” – the driving is slightly different in Scotland than it is in Canada.
The actual operation of the vehicle which by the way, takes place on the right side of car and on the left side of the road, is not as difficult to adjust to as you might think.
In the first place, you drive with the gas on the right and brake on the left just as we do. Secondly, the driver’s mirror (on the right door) is your best friend, not for seeing, but for gauging how close you are to contacting other vehicles much like curb feelers in the 1960s.
Third, roads are slightly wider than a cart path but not much. Parking from either direction is allowed on both sides and every road has a small curb made of stone. Once you realize that it will fit, you actually begin to enjoy your new sense of empowerment.
Two more things to learn that no one tells you and I can assure you both arrive quickly and without warning.
A diesel car stalls when it comes to a stop. As soon as you press the accelerator, it engages again.
Lesson two comes as you approach the end of the parking lot of the car rental depot where you encounter your first roundabout. They are funny little circles made up of one, two, three or four choices of exit.
If you think all you have to do is enter and turn off onto your new road, you are wrong. As you approach the roundabout, there is a white line painted across your lane.
These were painted onto the road in 1437 the very year they were decreed by King James 1 and I doubt they’ve been retouched since. To say they are difficult to see is an understatement, particularly when it is raining, which varies between three hours per day to all day.
Needless to say, these vague, white lines mean you are supposed to stop and yield the right of way to traffic coming from your right. Furthermore, if you wish to take the first or second exit, you should be in the far left lane.
Those turning onto the third exit should be in the right lane. When you do it wrong, the Scottish drivers are very understanding of the need for tourism to assist their economy and they honk “beepy” little horns, wave vigorously and offer plenty of words of encouragement usually ending with the word “hole.”
The closest determination we could make was an invitation to join them in the 19th hole, which was exceptionally friendly, given how we only had a chance meeting in a roundabout.
On a more serious note, I discovered some innovations within the car rental business that were new to me.
When you are issued a car, nobody inspects it with you. Apparently, it is your responsibility to note and report the condition of the car. Given the streets are exactly four inches narrower from curb to curb than the total width of your car plus two cars parked one on either side of the road, every rental car has some pre-existing damage.
I learned that, unless you examine the car thoroughly and photograph it for existing damage, the rental company will charge you for damage, even if you didn’t cause it.
Since most of the claimed damages are only a few hundred dollars and just barely over the deductible, plus the majority of renters are North American, making a dispute unfeasible, the same damage gets paid for over and over.
I also recommend recording the discussion about the rental contract on your cell phone. You might need it because the written version is basically useless.
Experience taught me quickly that travel time in Scotland is calculated by a formula called “kilometric time,” a term I invented.
In the same way there are 2.2 miles in a kilometre; travel time is exactly 2.2 times what you think it will be due to the difference in travel by road.
Once I began to include playing golf and where such tasks might take place, I quickly determined that my plan to get out and back early was more complicated than a lunar mission.
After some profound soul-searching and realistic application of the facts, it slowly occurred to me that lugging all of my equipment through the airport, in and out of cars, up and down stairs and accompanied by an airport over-weight surcharge of $200, perhaps golf was more of a burden than a pleasure.
Axe the golf.
However, not all was lost.
Once in Scotland, I purchased a nice, used pitching club and a dozen used balls for under $50 Cdn. I was in business again.
Interestingly, on the way home, I carried the club openly to check-in. When told I had to check it, I offered it to the Air Canada Check-in agent to take home for a young aspiring golfer; she kindly sent it to oversized luggage, where I picked up it up in Toronto for no charge.
The end result was I saw golf through far different eyes than I had anticipated. Instead of playing many of the top 50, I wandered around the less known more historical venues that I would never go to.
I walked around The Links of Leith (circa 1554 and home of the first written rules and the first championship), which is now a dog walking park.
I enjoyed the clubhouse at Royal Musselburg, an old castle (circa 1760). I pitched balls on the same green that Ben Hogan used at Panmure in preparation for the 1953 British Open.
My mouth fell open when I saw Troon and Carnoustie for the Open and Senior Open. We frolicked on the beach of St. Andrews after I spent the day before in the Golf Museum, walking the course and hanging around in Old Tom’s Pro Shop.
I practiced at Crail (circa 1786) Royal Aberdeen (circa 1780), King’s Barns (circa 1793) and Duddingston.
I also played the finest nine-hole course I have ever seen, built in 1920 by a financier to be played by him and his son on a mountainside north of Pitlochry on the grounds of the Dalmunzie Castle (circa 1200) and you share it with a herd of local sheep while highland cattle stare at you over a 500-year old stone fence.
As you can see, I enjoyed a lot of golf in ways I never thought I would, plus my wife and I saw Scotland at its finest. Needless to say, I think it’s true – if you are going to Scotland for the first time you must decide whether it’s a golf trip or a tourist trip.
My advice is to go as a tourist first and then join a tour to play golf. Let someone else have the headaches. I will go back to play golf, but I’d enjoy being a tourist again as well.