Wednesday, 5 September 2012

Stroma Golf Course - Course no 536

Our visits to Scottish golf courses are all memorable in their own ways.  Sometimes its just the memory of a particularly good hole on an otherwise unmemorable course, or the scene of a great, lucky or appallingly poor shot.  On other occasions its courses as a whole that stick out as being excellent (or poor!) that you'd want to return to (or never see again!)  On very few occasions (and Solles is the only other that instantly springs to mind) we get to play somewhere that's genuinely unique, somewhere you know, even during the visit, that is a very special place that will be remembered fondly long after the day is gone.  My Stroma memories are very fresh after Craig, Stu and I played it on 3 September 2012 and I'm sure that when my journey round every course is finally complete, our day on Stroma will be a memory to cherish.   I think it's important that readers understand something about the history of Stroma, since playing golf there takes you deep into the fabric of the place.
The island of Stroma lies in the Pentland Firth between the Scottish Mainland and the Orkney Isles, one and a half miles North of Gills Bay.  Stroma is just a mile long and half a mile wide at its widest point.  Its thought that the island's population reached around 550 at most, but by 1901 it had declined to 375.  That decline continued into the 20th Century, with the last families leaving in 1962.  Much has been written about Stroma and its slow decline and for those interested, offers a good starting point.  The key issues as I understand them are that although the islanders were renowned as fishermen and maintained good numbers of livestock and grew their own crops, the absence of fuel (i.e. peat) imposed heavy financial pressures.  Coal and peat could be imported from the mainland and islanders had a licence to extract peat around Gills on the mainland, but the absence of a safe harbour meant that transport to and from the mainland was problematic.  By the end of World War 2, the island's economy began to break down as Stroma's younger people were attracted to the mainland by higher wages.  The many jobs created during the construction phase of the UK Atomic Energy Authority's nuclear plant at nearby Dounreay in the 1950s were, economically, the final straw.  Local and central government funded a new harbour on Stroma that was finally completed in 1956 in an effort to ease communications and improve Stroma's viability, but as James Millar wrote in "Stroma" "It was too late.  Cynics argued that the wages from the harbour building enabled some families to find new homes on the mainland.  It was more likely that mainland wages, particularly those on offer from Dounreay, proved too strong to resist."B
Some time after that depopulation the island was bought by Jimmy Simpson, a Stroma man, who now farms the land, rearing large numbers of sheep and cattle.  Jimmy is also a keen golfer and 16 years ago he created a 9 hole course on westerly side of the island by simply cutting some tees and greens - the sheep keep the rest of the course "manageable"  and, as I was to discover pretty quickly, well fertilised.  We'd heard about the Stroma course through internet research and after tracking Jimmy and his son William down, contact was made and our visit to Stroma was arranged for 3 September 2012.  Unfortunately, we'd just missed this year's Stroma Open, an annual event organised by Jimmy and William for local friends and fellow golfers.  Accordingly, we're hugely grateful that Jimmy and William went over to the island on the 2nd to cut the tees and greens in preparation for our trip.  The course was in far better condition than we'd expected, having already played in some wild and remote places e.g. Coll, and Papa Westray.  We'd made arrangements for William to take us across in his boat, as seen here moored at the Stroma harbour.  The winds the day before had died down and although the Pentland Firth was reasonably calm, an Atlantic depression was on its way with expected winds gusting to 60 mph, so we only had a few hours for the return trip. 

The journey across took around 25 minutes and was uneventful, with 5 local ladies as fellow passengers.  One of the ladies had been born on the island and as a 70th birthday treat she and her friends/daughters were going across for a "picnic" which as we would discover later involved some bottles of wine and spirits. The course was almost half a mile away, so Jimmy kindly gave Craig, Stu and I (and all our clubs) a lift on his quad bike and trailer, while William sped around on another quad bike setting out the flags. The worn out tarred road up from the harbour is pretty steep, so with the quad bike struggling for traction, Craig and Stu walked the steepest section, with me standing at the front of the  trailer to get my weight over the back wheels.  This worked to a degree, but once Craig and Stu had got back on board and Jimmy headed off across rough grazing land, I was getting liberally sprayed from the bike's back wheels by a mixture of sheep shit, grass and muddy water.  This is me on board before the shit really started flying. 

Jimmy only had one scorecard left after this year's Stroma Open which Craig now has, but this is my score, with details from that card -

Hole      Yards      Par    Score   Putts

1               260          4           2          1
2               240          4           4          1
3               250          4           4          2
4               160          3           3          1
5               150          3           5          2
6               255          4           5          2
7               230          4           4          1
8               140          3           3          2
9               140          3           3          1
                1825        32         33        13

Craig also scored 33, but then he plays off 2 at Carnoustie.  So maybe that's not quite the Stroma Course Record, but who knows and who cares!   One of my better scoring rounds and certainly one of the most enjoyable rounds I can remember.

Although I clearly played well, I think the course distances are a bit exaggerated.  The 1st is a blind uphill Par 4 of dubious length, played towards a small marker pole.  I'd hit a good straight drive but we'd all assumed the ball lying within a few feet of the hole, as shown here, was Craig's (whose ball was well through the green within an alarming distance of a sheer 100 foot+ drop off a cliff!) Note the shipwreck in the distance to the right of the flag, a recent casualty of the storm-lashed waters around the island. You'll also see  the sea spray extending over the distant cliff tops - and it wasn't that windy a day.

Had Craig gone just a few feet further, he'd have been over this cliff edge!  Note the rocky outcrop in the distance. That's where one of the tees used to be. The wooden bridge to that outcrop is still in place (just) but is thankfully no longer used on safety grounds.  The scenery around the course was simply outstanding. Jimmy and William were the perfect hosts and as nice a couple of guys as you're ever likely to meet. Overall, playing Stroma was an unforgettable experience for all 3 of us and aside from the golf, it was fascinating to see the deserted island and hear Jimmy's many stories about its past.  We'd taken some Jungle Formula Extra Strength midge repellent with us but that had little effect on the local midges who obviously relished us as fresh blood on the island.  There was some relief to be had down by the harbour after our round, but the little beasties soon found us even there.  Meanwhile, the ladies were still "picnicing" away merrily and were all very well refreshed by the time we headed back to the mainland, 2 hours later than intended, barely before the approaching storms arrived. 

Thanks again to Jimmy and William for all of their kindness and help, and to the ladies who made our journey back so hilarious - and for their generous donation to our chosen charity.  Stroma is, for me, one of the great Scottish golfing experiences.  Just a really perfect day and some great memories.  If you ever get the chance to play here, jump at it, but don't even think of wearing your best white golf trousers - unlike Stu!

Here are some further views of the Stroma Course and our trip generally, starting with me on the way over from Gill's Bay, two of the greens and my ball too close for comfort to a 100 foot+ drop.


  1. Good day! First of all I would like to highlight that you truly succeeded in creating a very nice looking blog. And there is also one thing I wanted to ask you. Do you have plans to write professionally or having a blog is just a kind of hobby?

    1. Hi - maybe when I finally complete the challenge I'll think about how to sum it all up. However, a book based on the challenge might just end up looking like a long list rather than a smooth-running story, so we'll see. What I'll definitely do is get a print of the complete blog. There must be a wobbly table somewhere that such a weighty tome would fit/stabilise.

    2. Fantastic blog, I was really impressed with your story of Golfing exploits in Scotland, not only one of the most beautiful parts of the world, but on an Island so magnificent as Stroma.
      Keep up the good work.

      Curtis Fendlen.
      Mad Golfer.

  2. Curtis - thanks for the comments. Look out for a report on our future trip, probably in May 2013, to play the Lighthouse Keeper's Course on Fair Isle, a tiny island mid-way between Orkney and Shetland. I think this one must be the most remote course in Scotland and is sure to be great fun!