By Toby SkinnerOctober 1st 2020

The Whalsay Golf Club, on a beautiful headland on the edge of the famous fishing island, has been run by the community since 1976 – and they’ve kept it devilishly tricky.

Arctic terns, or tirricks in the local dialect, are chirruping and swooping overhead. It’s a blue-sky August day, and the craggy south coast of Whalsay lies before me, with views across the water to the Shetland Mainland in the distance. But my immediate concern is more pressing: the second shot to the 16th at the Whalsay Golf Club, Britain’s northernmost course. I’ve been visualising this locally famous shot – a seven iron across a precipitous gap in the cliffs – and imagining a certain glory, even if I’m alone out here with a set of borrowed clubs.

After a slightly over-indulgent prep, including a few too many practice swings and a PGA-style shake of the arms, I take my shot. But any delusions evaporate as the ball skites horribly off the toe of my club and clanks off one side of the cliff then the other like a pinball, eventually settling in a nook near the water. The shot is an insult to its surroundings. A tern stops nearby and seems to regard the ball with what appears to be bemusement. His friends swooping overhead sound like they’re laughing.

Back at the 18th green, I meet Graeme Sandison and Magnus (Magnie) Jamieson, two of the longest-standing members of this community-run club that was created in 1976. They’ve had no such problems, recording scores in the 80s, even if Graeme hasn’t quite matched his course record of a four-under-par 67, recorded one magical day in 2006. As we settle in for a post-round cider at the clubhouse, I ask for tips from Graeme, a founding member who has now won club opens here in six different decades.

“Play it safe,” he says, in a Whalsay accent that is only marginally less thick than Magnie’s (Whalsay is known for having the least comprehensible of the Shetland dialects). “A lot of people come here and try to play the perfect shots. They underestimate it, but it’s actually a pretty difficult course. People who have an eight or nine handicap on the Mainland will have 10 or 12 here, because it’s peaty ground with not much run on the ball and plays long. But it tends to be that the good players like it best.”

The Laird of Whalsay played golf on this island of fisherman back in the late 19th century, but it wasn’t until the 1970s that anyone else thought to swing a club here. But around 1973, Bobby Simpson, the son-in-law of a local shopkeeper, returned from Edinburgh with a set of golf clubs. Along with some local fisherman, including a 21-year-old Graeme, he started scouting around the peaty, heathery headland in the northeastern corner of the island. “It was just peat, with no fairways,” says Graeme. “We’d just find flat bits that looked sort of like greens, and put sticks to mark the holes and the tees.”

In 1976, nine fishermen, two shopkeepers and the school janitor had the first official meeting of the Whalsay Golf Club, agreeing to buy flags and a lawnmower, and mapping out 18 holes around the headland. Most of them have now passed away, including Peter Irvine, who was instrumental in the plan to purchase the two crofts on which the course sat and build a real clubhouse in 1996, with help from the Shetland Islands Council and the National Lottery.

Of the founding members, only a few are still seeing the Whalsay Golf Club evolve. While it’s still mostly run by local volunteers, there’s been a paid part time greenkeeper since the mid-1990s, today a Cornishman called Pete Gay. The clubhouse, with its dart board and pool table, doesn’t just provide the drinks for the club’s 160 ladies, gents and junior members – more than 15 per cent of Whalsay’s population – but regularly hosts wedding receptions, silver weddings, birthday parties, and stag and hen dos, as well as the annual Fisherman’s Mission golf day and dinner, a charity event which together has raised more than £150,000 in previous years. There’s also a little six-hole mini-course for the club’s 43 junior members, whose reward for playing in competitions is usually a plate and fish and chips and one of the balls regularly rescued from the loch by the 18th fairway (more than 500 have ended up in there this year).

“It’s a place for the whole community,” says Graeme, whose name appears regularly on a board in the clubhouse listing the club champions over the years. “Everyone helps out. We’ve always been known for fishing first, but now we’re an island of golfers too.”

We’ve always been known for fishing first, but now we’re an island of golfers too.

The course has always had the advantage of its sheer beauty, with many of the front nine holes looking out to the Skerries and north to Fetlar and Yell, including the par five third, the northernmost hole in the UK, where orcas have been spotted over the years. Much of the back nine – including Graeme’s favourite, the par-four 12th, plays around treacherous sea cliffs. Only the brave take on the 275-yard drive over the loch to the green at the 18th, a ploy Graeme and Magnie are wise enough to avoid.

The course has improved over the years, despite the odd mishap. Around 1978, the members tried to plant English grass seeds on their new course, but were horrified when it all died the following year, the victim of the peat and the ever-changing Whalsay climate. The purchase of a new fairway cutter to add to the old green cutter has helped the course stay in remarkably good shape, even if the fairways can still get boggy and balls can blow off greens in stiff Whalsay winds if they’re cut too short. The tees are typically sponsored by fishing boats with go-getting names: the Venturous LK55, say, or the Courageous LK470.

“We’ve learned a lot about design and keeping the course in a good state over the years,” says Magnie, who regularly heads out to work his magic with the club’s new fairway cutter, a far cry from the days when a few sticks would mark the edge of the fairway. “A few years ago a golf architect who played the course said that the holes from ten to 16 were among the best he’s played anywhere. And we get a lot of nice letters from people who come to play.”

A few years ago a golf architect who played the course said that the holes from ten to 16 were among the best he’s played anywhere.

Over the years, an eclectic roster of people have visited, from as far afield as St Helena, the Falklands and the Bahamas, and including everyone from the darts commentator Dave Clark to the Northern Irish Pro Ronan Rafferty, who finished a shot off Graeme’s record. One visitor was so keen to play the course that he cycled up from Lerwick with his golf clubs on his back, and Graeme remembers one St Andrews member turning to his wife after a round and loudly declaring: “St Andrews will be boring after this, darling.” The Island Games have been held here in 2005, when the Shetland ladies held on for victory, and even the Ryder Cup has been – or at least the trophy, which was flown in by helicopter around the time the competition was held at Gleneagles in 2014.

Afterwards, we head outside to have a little look at the kids course. Mackie, the nine-year-old son of club secretary and fisherman Michael Anderson, has been waiting patiently while his dad oversees our interview. So we watch him play the first hole of the kids course, a chip of around 40 yards. Like me on the 16th earlier, this is his big moment. Unlike me, he has a crowd; and even more unlike me, he owns his moment. He plays a little pitching wedge and we watch as the ball arcs onto the green and begins an elegant curve towards the hole, eventually dropping in. Michael, Magnie and Graeme erupt, and the Whalsay accents get thicker, with “You’ll be getting the next round in” about all I can make out. This course, which started with a few men and some sticks on a peaty headland on the edge of Britain, seems set for a bright future.

Visit the Whalsay Golf Club website for more information.