Scottish golf and the two World Wars
Allan Kilpatrick of RCAHMS explores how the sport of golf in Scotland was affected by the two World Wars.
The two World Wars had a profound and long lasting effect on the Scottish landscape, including the airfields and coastal defences built in both wars to protect the east coast from German invasion.
Miles of anti-tank blocks, pillboxes, anti-glider ditches and poles, minefields, barbed wire, trenches and coastal artillery batteries were built to protect ports and vulnerable beaches. It is hardly surprising that golf courses and military requirements often overlapped. The location of many coastal courses near towns and cities meant they were requisitioned by the military.
World War One saw military activity on the east coast especially the Forth, Tay and Cromarty Firths. Anti-invasion beach defences, mostly in the form of trenches have only recently been recognised as a result of the joint RCAHMS/Historic Scotland First World War Audit Project.
The defences constructed along the coast comprised trenches and barbed wire, with some blockhouses or pillboxes, such as at North Berwick golf course on the Forth. Even the Old Course at St Andrews did not escape, with a machine gun post and small trench built by the eighteenth green. Other trenches and blockhouses or pillboxes were built on courses at Gullane and the now lost courses at Hedderwick near Dunbar and Ferryhills, by North Queensferry.
By World War Two, the nature of conflict had changed. Large systems of defences including anti-tanks blocks and ditches spread parallel to the shore often cut across coastal golf courses. Airpower was to the fore and defences were required to adapt to the new threat.
On or behind beaches became littered with anti-glider poles; on flat land beside military sites, towns and ports lengthy systems of interconnected anti-glider ditches and mounds were constructed to prevent troop carrying planes or gliders from landing. Examples are still visible on golf courses at Elie in Fife and Craigentinny, Edinburgh.
Other defensive sites such as airfields, radar stations, anti-aircraft batteries and coast artillery batteries occupied many golf courses. Even club houses were requisitioned for the war effort, as at Royal Burgess, Edinburgh.
In addition the military required large training areas and accommodation camps which had a real impact on some courses. The land that golf courses occupied were militarily useful for training as well as for defence, importantly the land could be requisitioned at little cost and without losing valuable agricultural land.
The effect on some courses was huge, some golf courses closed for ever, as at Nigg on the Cromarty Firth, others closed for many years, though others managed to play on albeit on a shortened course.
The military use of golf courses didn’t finish at the end of World War Two. During the Cold War from the late 1950s until the early 1990s, a number of Royal Observer Corp underground nuclear fallout monitoring posts were established on Scottish courses, including Elie, as part of the wider UK network.
For all the disruption caused to existing golf clubs, members of the military were rather keen on the game. During World War One, the naval officers of the Grand Fleet established a golf course on the Island of Flotta in Scapa Flow in the Orkney Island, according to senior officer of the time: ‘There were eighteen holes and each big ship undertook the design and construction of one hole. Great ingenuity and care were taken over the business, and one battleship is reputed to have spent £70 in getting turf for their green from a famous Scottish golf course. To the best of my recollection, HMS Canada or the King George V was responsible for a wonderful green, standing as smooth as a billiard table amidst the encircling heather’ (Stell, ‘Orkney at War: Defending Scapa Flow’, 2010).
The North Sutor Coast Battery near Cromarty had a small cliff top course for officers to play. The RAF were particularly keen on golf, creating courses on post war airfields to provide additional recreation for the airfield personnel.
Many courses across Scotland were or still are affected by the military occupation and activity, but they have also managed by accident or design to preserve military remains which otherwise would have been destroyed or lost. Golf courses are an important resource for the preservation and understanding of archaeological landscapes and in particular of the major wars of the twentieth century.
See images and documents relating to Scotland's lost golf courses on the Canmore website.
Images copyright RCAHMS. Top: Craigentinny Golf Club, middle: RAF Fearn in 1946; bottom: Aberdeen.