East Lothian – the Home of Golf
If you want to upset an East Lothian (and that now includes Musselburgh, once in Midlothian) golfer, just remind him that St Andrews is the Home of Golf. And then run away quickly, he could get quite upset! Because East Lothian can boast a golfing pedigree as long as any – whether it be players, courses, clubs or, of course, rules considered.
A comparison of key dates is instructive. The rules of the Honourable Company of Golfers (who played off Leith Links, Musselburgh Old Links and finally Muirfield) were drawn up in 1744 – 10 years before a club was started at St Andrews. Their formula is still the basis of the game, several injunctions being adopted unaltered by the Royal and Ancient.
Mary Queen of Scots is reputed (but see Golf in Scotland at the National Library) to have played Musselburgh in 1567 – before the first notices of golf at St Andrews – and regular play there can certainly be traced to 1672. The first (1860) Open was played at Prestwick – but the first winner was Old Willie Park, who had learnt his trade over Musselburgh Links.
The Royal Musselburgh Club introduced the rules of stroke play and still hosts the oldest club cup competition – inaugurated 1774. The world’s first recorded women’s tournament was held at Musselburgh in 1811. Even the universally adopted standard golf hole is based on the cutter used at Musselburgh!
So Musselburgh has a strong claim to be the real home of golf and certainly has the oldest extant golf course – always acknowledging that early golfers played over unimproved coastal links a commodity with which the Scottish seaside is abundantly blessed.
With such a resource it seems golfing enthusiasts have long been sloping off to the links for a bit of quiet enjoyment. By the middle of the 15th century it became necessary to regulate the sport – archery, the mainstay of medieval armies, was suffering. The prohibition was continually reinforced by courts high and low, civil and ecclesiastic (the 16th century reformers were dead against Sabbath breaking, which just happened to be when keen golfers had their free time). As Queen Mary’s example shows, the law was no real barrier to the elite enjoying a game of golf, and Musselburgh (and East Lothian’s) role developed strongly as the most accessible playing area close to Edinburgh. As that city became more crowded, its ancient clubs decamped to more congenial surroundings, several choosing Musselburgh in the first instance.
In a very real sense golf has left an indelible mark on the face of East Lothian – not just in the development of its now 22 courses but also in its settlements. Modern North Berwick is itself a consequence of the rising popularity of golf and the provision of a railway spur to Aberlady and Gullane (and their development) also owes a lot to the Royal and Ancient Sport.
We have prepared a few pages to highlight aspects of East Lothian’s role in the world of golf: follow the links below or within the text to find out more.