The words of young Peter Voy, the local factor for South Uist Estates, were clearer now. "One of the problems of the Askernish course is that it's on the machair, which is subject still to crofting and common grazing," he had said before sending us out. "There is a committee for the golf course and people who play golf, but there are no real enthusiasts. Last year the course about collapsed completely. The thing almost disappeared."
This conversation took place in Voy's office in a stone building a few hundred yards back toward the main road. Voy's unruly black hair contrasted nicely with his neat tweed jacket, checked shirt and tie. He had spent 18 months on the island working for South Uist Estates Limited, a family syndicate based in England.
The island and the estate, Voy explained, were one: a 21-mile-long, seven-mile-wide ribbon of machair, moorland, sea lochs and mountains. Ninety-nine percent of the land was subject to crofting tenure—crofter being the British term for tenant farmer.
"The landlord gets a rent of 20 to 30 pounds per croft per annum," he said, "but to all intents and purposes the crofters have most of the rights of occupier-owners." There was "sport" on South Uist, but golf was not the first thing that came to mind. "For fishing and shooting, it's paradise."
Askernish—which was spelled AISGERNIS in Gaelic on the sign by the main road—was not strictly a golf course. It had been a grassy airstrip from 1935 to '39. Currently, it served as the local site for the annual South Uist Highland Games. By and large, Voy said, the crofters were content to share the machair. Yes, there had been complaints about the "excess of enthusiasm" by some army golfers at a recent summer solstice tournament—Voy wouldn't elaborate—but the British Army no longer used the course. Yes, a few crofters grew agitated at the sight of mowers on the machair, fearing the loss of their winter's keep. And yes, there had been some conflict when the golfers put up electrified wire fences to keep the sheep off the greens.
"That was very controversial," Voy said. "The sheep kept getting caught in the wires."
If that were so, I offered, the crofters might not be that excited about the coming centennial.
Voy raised his eyebrows.
"The centennial," I said. "One hundred years of golf at Askernish, from 1891 to 1991."
Voy tipped his head back in understanding. "Ah! I was going to say, what centennial?"