Braids marks 125 years of golf

Braids Golf Course. Picture: Ian Georgeson
Braids Golf Course. Picture: Ian Georgeson
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IT didn’t get so acrimonious that wedges and putters were brandished aloft outside the City Chambers by tweedy gents in their plus-fours, but when the plan to stop golf on Bruntsfield Links was first mooted, the golfers of Edinburgh were more than a little teed off.

Their precious sport was to be banned from its historical home in the interests of the “public” and so, through letters, “indignation meetings” and a campaign, they demanded that something from the public should be given in exchange.

It was, they said “a fair thing that the council should provide a suitable place for the game within a reasonable distance of Edinburgh . . . and a very good golfing course could be got within 15 minutes of the tram terminus at Morningside . . .”

And so, 125 years ago this week, the public Braid Hills Golf Course, with its fairways and greens, gorse bushes and rocky promontories was opened, free for anyone to use.

The decision to create a course as far inland was revolutionary as most courses of the time were built near sandy coastline, and its popularity, thanks in some part to its views of Edinburgh, the Forth, and even Fife, made Morningside one of the most desirable areas of town.

“It certainly transformed this end of the city,” agrees David Atkinson, Edinburgh Leisure’s golf and grounds maintenance manager at the Braids. “And it attracted many more people to the game itself. It also revolutionised the idea of where courses could be created, so it was pioneering in many respects.

“The reason it was created though was because Bruntsfield Links, where golf was traditionally played in Edinburgh, was becoming so busy with people using it as a leisure park, as that whole part of town was becoming quite urban. As a result, playing golf there was becoming dangerous so it needed to move elsewhere.”

He adds: “The council seemed amenable to the golfers ideas for the Braid Hills, so it bought the land – it wasn’t gifted to the city as some think.”

In fact the land, which was once used to camp on by Oliver Cromwell, was purchased from the Cluny Trust for £11,000 and the 134 acre course was officially opened on May 29, 1889 by the lord provost, Sir John Boyd, and a “score of others who travelled by carriage” and who went on to have a “light luncheon” in a marquee on the course.

The following year, to show its support for the new course the Edinburgh Evening Dispatch launched its own golfing competition to take place on the Braids, and the Dispatch Trophy – still being contested for today – was born.

Famous golfers of the time also took to the Braids to perfect their swings and putting. James Braid, who won the British Open five times, would practice there regularly, while Tommy Armour, who went on to win the US Open, the British Open and the PGA Championship, honed his skills on the Braids while he was convalescing after the First World War.

“These days you’re more likely to see Ronnie Corbett,” says David. “It is still an incredibly popular golf course as it can really be quite challenging. It has changed a lot over the years and at one point there were two courses but now we have one 18 hole and one nine hole for juniors.”

Changes have included seeing the south end of the course dug up for the planting of potatoes and other vegetables during the Second World War, while hole 14 used to consist of a pond on which people could go boating in the summer, and even skate on it in the winter freeze.

“I’ve been here for over 20 years but the greenkeeper before me was here for 40 years and he could remember when the course was dug up for farming,” says David. “It’s got a great history. At the 14th there was even a pier which went across to an island in the middle of the pond and when it’s really dry even now you can still see the pier’s foundations.”
He adds: “When it opened it was fairly basic but it’s constantly evolved. At one time there was no golf on a Sunday and the place was just used by dog walkers so that’s changed as demand grew for golf to be played on Sundays. Half the second course is now a public park, so people can walk there at any time.”

There are now 25,000 rounds of golf played on the Braids every year, and David says demand just keeps growing.

“Last year was our most successful. I think there’s been a change in golfers’ habits with fewer people joining private clubs and more looking to just pay and play.”

Certainly, Torphin Golf Club at Colinton closed in December last year after dwindling membership numbers and Lothianburn Golf Club suffered the same fate last September.

But for those who tramped across the lush grass of the Braids yesterday, as it threw open its doors to all who wanted to try 18 holes for free (unlike the 19th century, these days there’s a price to play at the Braids) and even those who play there regularly, the words of Sir John Boyd on that opening day probably still ring true: “It will be a favourite resort of the community of Edinburgh, and the community will be the better for frequenting it”.

David agrees: “Golf is a great sport for keeping fit. We have golfers who have annual memberships which gives them unlimited usage and so they play more than one round a week, and most of them are older people. In fact. 41 per cent of our members are aged between 51 and 70, while 14 per cent are over 70, so most of our members are over 50 and that’s the group most likely to benefit from physical exercise like golf as it can reduce risk of heart disease, stroke and diabetes while getting out in the open can help reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety.

“And it is very hard to feel bad when looking at the view from the Braids of Edinburgh, the Forth and across to Fife. It really is magnificent.”

Martin Dempster writes . .

IT’S often been said that if the Braids was actually in America, it would be privately-owned and jam-packed with members perfectly happy to play thousands of dollars per year to play there.

Anyone who struggles to get their head round that should have been standing there beside me up on the 18th fairway on a glorious night on Tuesday as the 115th Dispatch Trophy was raging on.

For starters, the gorse is in full bloom at this time of the year and, though almost magnet-like in swallowing up wayward shots, it adds colour aplenty to a stunning landscape.

Then there’re the vistas from almost every hole, though in particular the back of the 17th, where the green gives the impression that it topples down into the city below, and the 18th.

From there, you can pick out every landmark in the Capital. You can also look out across to Fife, down the coast to East Lothian and see way to the west, too.

It’s why I’ve often heard people say that “the best place to get a proper view of Edinburgh is up at the Braids”.

As a golf course, it’s not championship-standard like Muirfield, Gullane or North Berwick, the places where most Americans come to play.

It’s short and it’s quite quirky, too. It’s one of those places you’ve simply got to play at least once, though. Many who do fall in love instantly and return over and over.

Ian MacNiven, a predecessor at the Edinburgh Evening News, requested to have his ashes scattered up at the Braids.

It’s easy to see why.

• Martin Dempster is Evening News golf correspondent