Any truly memorable trip starts with a disaster. That's what was running through my mind as I stood panting in Heathrow Airport, two minutes late for the connection my wife, Sally, and I had hoped to catch to Inverness, glowering at the supercilious smile of the British Airways agent who had just told me—a barefaced lie, by the way—that the plane had already left the gate. It would be five hours before the next flight. She had this attitude that nothing was anyone's fault. Flight delayed an hour from Boston? Are you sure? No one to help with your transfer? Well, it's Sunday, you know. No buses? How peculiar. A quarter-mile line at the security gate? Bad luck. Why don't you pop up to our lounge and pass the time by enjoying a spot of tea?
Which is how my tee time at Royal Dornoch came and went. If I'd been smart, of course, I'd have gotten us to Dornoch two days early, as our friends Charlie and Barret Sawyer of Cambridge, Mass., and Kim and Susan (Q) Montgomery from Middlebury, Vt., had done. They had flown into Glasgow and traveled to Dornoch by rail, getting in an additional round on that magnificent course. Other friends, Jim and Marcia Hooper from Dover, Mass., had been in Ireland before catching the Inverness flight that Sally and I had just missed. The eight of us had rented a barge, the Spirit of Loch Ness, for $2,600 per person and were going on a five-night, six-day trip on the Caledonia Canal, with an additional night at the Gleneagles resort. The package included six rounds of golf at some of the finest courses in central Scotland.
The barge trip was Charlie's idea. He had read about it in an airline magazine. Barge trips are popular on the rivers of Europe, but golfing in Scotland by barge is a fairly new concept. I'd never even heard of the Caledonia Canal, a 70-mile-long waterway that runs diagonally through Scotland, connecting the west coast to east via lochs Dochfour, Ness, Oich and Lochy. The canal was completed in 1822.
The Royal Dornoch course is quite a bit older than that. Golf has been played there since 1616, and Tom Watson, a five-time British Open winner, once called it his favorite layout in Great Britain, a compliment that immediately upped greens fees, according to the locals, so that they now stand at £50. Before Watson's pronouncement, Royal Dornoch was something of a well-kept secret. It's not on the British Open circuit because of a dearth of hotels in the region. Dornoch was the birthplace of the prolific architect Donald Ross, who designed more than 300 courses in the U.S., including Pinehurst No. 2 and Seminole, incorporating Royal Dornoch's finest features—subtle contours, hidden bunkers and open approaches to the greens that encourage bump-and-run shots—into most of his designs.
I wanted at least to see this great course, if I couldn't play it, so after finally arriving at Inverness in mid-afternoon, I beseeched the cook of the Spirit of Loch Ness, the talented Annelise Bjornseth, to drive Sally and me up. Though the course was an hour away, she did so with a smile. It was a beautiful afternoon, and with little trouble we found four of our fellow bargers on the 15th hole and walked along as they finished their round. Surrounded on three sides by the deep blue of Dornoch Firth, the course lived up to its billing and ended up being everyone's favorite.
Afterward we were driven back to settle into our rooms on the barge, our home for the next five nights. We wouldn't have to pack and unpack every day and constantly check in and out. The barge was our mobile hotel, and a van would drive us to the course each day. Built in the Netherlands in 1930, the barge had been used for transporting timber, peat and coal before being converted into a passenger vessel in 1987. One hundred and five feet long and 18 feet wide, the Spirit of Loch Ness felt more like a small inn than a boat, with a capacious galley, small bar, dining area, den and four guest cabins belowdecks, each with its own shower.
We awoke in the morning to the sight of an old man in a Sherlock Holmes hat and tweed jacket giving a fishing lesson to his grandson on the canal. We were told that the canal, which is 15 to 20 feet deep, holds northern pike as large as 30 pounds, as well as brown and rainbow trout. For some reason I had pictured the canal as straight and devoid of wildlife, when in fact it is gently curved, like a river, and has Scotch pines growing along its banks. The canal rises 106 feet from beginning to end by virtue of a system of 13 locks. Each series of locks is overseen by a gatekeeper, and each gatekeeper's cottage has a meticulously tended flower garden, the best of which is awarded a prize each year. In short, it is a lovely stretch of navigable water.
Six of us were scheduled to play the Carnegie Club at Skibo Castle at noon, while the two nongolfers—Barret and Q—made plans to go for a bike ride. Only four miles from Royal Dornoch, Skibo, as the course is called, was a nine-hole layout when it was built in 1898 by American industrialist Andrew Carnegie. The Carnegie family allowed the course to grow out after World War II, and it wasn't until 1995 that architect Donald Steel refurbished and expanded the course, turning it into a world-class 18 holes. The Carnegie Club hosted a Shell's Wonderful World of Golf match between Fred Couples and Greg Norman last July, when the wind was gusting to 40 mph, and Couples outlasted Norman 76-78 over the 6,671-yard, par-71 layout.
Even without a big breeze, I lost at least eight balls during our round and nearly broke my ankle in the thigh-high rough by stepping in a rabbit warren. I also backed into a gorse bush, which had thorns like spiny sea urchins'. This was survival golf. As we walked up the 18th fairway, one of the few that I had hit all day, my caddie, John Bray, showed me a pocketful of balls he'd found while stomping around the heather after my errant drives.
"Are you sure none of those are mine?" I asked.