How Musselburgh Old Course celebrated its 350th anniversary - 'a very special place Scottish golfing history'

It was race day at Musselburgh. Horse boxes were arriving in the East Lothian town and some spit and polishing was taking place at the entrances.

By the time the first race was underway and the stands packed with punters, the golf action in the middle of the track had ceased on what was a special day.

Though some swinging clubs on a brisk morning might not actually have known it, Musselburgh Old Course was celebrating its 350th birthday.

On 2 March, 1672, golf was officially recorded as being played there for the first time through a match involving prominent Edinburgh lawyer Sir John Foulis of Ravelston.

Musselburgh Old Course Golf Club member James Bonthron is joined in commemorating the 350th anniversary of the town's Old Course by youngsters Brodie Irving, Ellie Robertson, Neena Irving and Freya Robertson. Picture: Alan Rennie

He might actually have been following in the footsteps of Mary Queen of Scots if reports of her picking up a club on the same piece of links land in 1567 are accurate.

With that being unofficial, though, it’s that date in 1672 that has been used to determine a milestone year for the historic course.

It’s the second oldest in Scotland behind the Old Course in St Andrews, where there is evidence of golf being played as far back as 1552.

Musselburgh was an original Open Championship venue, hosting one of the game’s most-recognised events on six occasions between 1874 and 1889.

Musselburgh Old Course Golf Club captain Steven Hill with East Lothian Lord Provost John McMillian and member James Bonthron. Picture: Alan Rennie

Having also spawned no less than five Open champions and been home to some of the world’s first members’ golf clubs, the town is rich in golfing history.

It has also left a lasting legacy. The accepted diameter of a golf hole - four-and-a-quarter-inches or 108 mm - was the width of the piece of drainpipe used at Musselburgh to cut the holes.

This was adopted by The Royal and Ancient Golf Club in 1893 as the official measurement requirement for all golf holes as they standardised the rules of golf.

“I like to think it’s a working piece of history,” said Ian Sills, head of operations and transformation at enjoyleisure, which runs the starting operation.

A plaque celebratinh Musselburgh's five Open champions is located on the outside wall of the Musselburgh Old Course Golf Club clubhouse. Picture: Alan Rennie.

“But I am also conscious that it’s a public golf course, which is as much for the people of Musselburgh as those who come here from around the world.

“It’s a massive part of the town and, if you walked down the high street in Musselburgh right now, I think most people will have an anecdote about it as kids or whatever.”

Steven Hill first set foot on the course when he was just five and is now the proud captain of Musselburgh Old Course Golf Club.

“Most of the guys who are members played it as kids,” he said. “I was born 50 yards away from the course and sometimes played 36 holes each day in the summer holidays.”

Musselburgh Old Course Golf Club captain Steven Hill, who first played the course when he was just five. Picture: Alan Rennie.

At one time, as many as 20 clubs played on the course, including Royal Burgess and the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers before moving to their current respective locations at Barnton and Muirfield.

Having been refounded in 1982, Musselburgh Old Course Golf Club is the sole club based there these days, with members playing on the nine-hole course along with enjoyleisure ticket-holders.

“Our membership, which is restricted to 130, is full and we have a waiting list of around 20 people,” added Hill. “Most of the people are from Musselburgh, but there are a few from the town as well while we also have an overseas membership now, including people from America, Japan and Argentina.

“We as a club appreciate what we are playing on here. We are custodians of the course for want of a better word. We are aware of its history and take care of the course.”

Efforts are being made to educate the next generation of golfers in ‘The Honest Toun’. “We are trying to get kids interested and we’ve got members keen to fund a junior section,” said club treasurer Drew Irving.

“There’s a fantastic core of 21-year-olds here at the moment and I’m keen to push the junior side of things. We don’t want there to be any barriers.”

Musselburgh Old Course Golf Club treasurer Drew Irving is keen to bolster the club's junior section. Picture: Alan Rennie.

Musselburgh Old Course turning 350 comes in the same year of the 150th Open at St Andrews. This summer also sees the Genesis Scottish Open and the AIG Women’s Open being staged in East Lothian at The Renaissance Club and Muirfield respectively.

“The Old Course here at Musselburgh has a very special place in both East Lothian and Scottish golfing history,” said Lord Provost John McMillan.

“Ever since March 1672, the course has been recognised as a wonderful place to play golf and the fact that it is one of only 14 venues to have hosted The Open Championship is testament to that.

“We are very proud of the fact that East Lothian is Scotland’s Golf Coast, with an unparalleled selection of courses, including the Old Course which golfers continue to enjoy to this day.”

This Saturday, members of Musselburgh Old will contest the 350th Anniversary Stroke-Play Championship while, on 4 July, 20 golf clubs and foundations from across Scotland and the United Kingdom have been invited to participate in an eighteen-hole shotgun tournament on the Old Course.

“I’m delighted that the council and enjoyleisure are working with Musselburgh Old Course Golf Club in celebrating this remarkable milestone and I’d like to congratulate all involved as their plans take shape for a year of celebration,” added McMillan.

Though not to golf, the visitors to Musselburgh Old over the years have included The Queen. Relaying that intriguing story, Sills said: “Apparently, she was driving to Edinburgh Airport from Balmoral to get the helicopter to go down to Buckingham Palace, but it was foggy.

“The chief constable, who just happened to be at a meeting at Musselburgh Racecourse and received a phone call about the situation, said it wasn’t foggy down at Musselburgh, so that’s why the helicopter landed on the first fairway.

“Some Americans who were out playing on the course couldn’t believe it when three Range Rovers turned up and The Queen and Prince Philip jumped out.”

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