News Release
Highland Golf Links

  • Study uncovers new evidence of golf and education links
  • Research examining sporting traditions around Moray Firth
  • Project is bridging gap in centuries-old knowledge 

Golf and education have been playing partners for centuries in Dornoch, evidence uncovered from an academic study on sport and culture around the Moray Firth has confirmed.

Wade Cormack has completed the first year of the three-year Royal Dornoch PhD studentship at the University of the Highlands and Islands’ Centre for History. The Royal Dornoch Golf Club has donated £54,000 for the study as it prepares to celebrate 400 years of golf being played on the town’s famous links in 2016.

Wade gave an update of his research in a talk entitled Playing By the Rules: Burgh Sports in the Moray Firth c.1600-1800 to members of the golf club on Tuesday (26 August) and will hold a drop-in session on Friday 29 August.

The first reference known to date of golf being played in Dornoch is in 1616 when John, the 13th Earl of Sutherland, was sent to school in the town and his expenses showed that ten pounds annually was provided for “bowes, arroes, golff clubbes, and balls, with other necessars for his L[ordship's] exercise”.

The expenses were paid by John’s uncle Sir Robert Gordon, an influential man in the court of King James VI and I, who became the earl’s tutor after the death of his father.

In 1620 the then 11-year-old John received a letter from Sir Robert advising him on becoming a successful leader, a calculated but kind master, a learned man and someone respected throughout the land. The letter included advice on how to select a proper wife and how to administer his estate effectively, as well as instructions on sport, education and ‘civility’.

He urged John to ‘Cherishe your countreymen and train them vp in all kynd of honest exercise, such as hunting, ryding, archerie, shooting with the gun, gofing, jumping, running, swimming and such lyk’.

Although ‘gofing’ had been previously restricted by the Scottish kings because it was of no military benefit, Sir Robert felt it was acceptable. However, football, which was also restricted on the same grounds, was not recommended to John as, according to his uncle, ‘footeball [w]as a dangerous and vnprofitable exercise’

Sir Robert was also keen to improve the area through education and proposed to have schools ‘in ewerie corner in the countrey’. He advised John to build a bibliotheque, or library, in Dornoch to provide people with more books to ‘amend their ignorance’.

Wade’s investigations also uncovered details of trips to London between 1654 and 1656 by George, Lord Strathnaver, and Robert, his younger brother, both sons of the Earl of Sutherland. During their stay they bought educational books and took various academic lessons, but there were also expenses for bowls, fencing and golf, which they likely taught to play by their father.

Wade said: “Sport and education have been linked together for centuries. Numerous accounts of young men attending school and university demonstrate that, from a young age, physical education was integrated into their studies, preparing them to be leaders on the battlefield and also on the links.

“Some of the brightest minds of the elite were keen sportsmen. Even if they were not keen themselves, they supported physical education as part of a balanced educational experience.

“Nearly 400 years later, the connection between golf and education continues in Dornoch, thanks to the collaboration of the University of the Highlands and Islands and the Royal Dornoch Golf Club to support and investigate that passion of Sir Robert’s: the place of sport in society.”

Wade has uncovered other evidence of historic sporting activities in the area. In the 17th century there were two golf ball-makers – one in Elgin and one in Aberdeen – in business, and a father-and-son team of club makers in Banff.

He also found information to archery competition in the 17th century - Sir Robert Gordon of Gordonstoun winning a ‘silver arrow’ in Edinburgh 1617 at a contest during King James VI visit, and a similar award going to Simon Fraser, Master Lovat, during an event at King’s College in Aberdeen in 1636.

In addition, there is reference to two major horseracing events in the Moray Firth during the same period, in Inverness in 1662 and Banff in 1684. Lord Lovat won the event in Inverness and the 1st Marquis of Huntly won the Banff race.

The information comes from a number of sources, including the records of Dornoch and the surrounding burghs, ecclesiastical and Kirk Session records and archived family papers and documents from lairds in the Moray Firth region.

Royal Dornoch Golf Club is a partner in Highland Golf Links (HGL), an organisation that promotes Play and Stay destination breaks in the area and also includes Castle Stuart Golf Links and The Nairn Golf Club. The Kingsmills Hotel and Culloden House Hotel, in Inverness; the Royal Golf Hotel at Royal Dornoch; and the Golf View Hotel and Spa in Nairn are also part of the group.

Fraser Cromarty, chairman of HGL, said: “The PhD study is providing some fascinating insights into the history of golf in the Highlands.

“The knowledge gained from the research will provide an invaluable resource for the entire golfing community.”


Wade Cormack has strong Scottish connections with his father’s family having lived in Wick and his mother’s family, the MacDonalds, having sailed from Tiree to Canada 200 years ago.

Wade, who completed a MA in Scottish history at the University of Guelph in Ontario, learned about the studentship through the university’s Centre for Scottish Studies.

During his MA and undergraduate degrees he studied sport history in Europe and examined the connections between 19th century field sports and the growing tourism industry in Scotland.

For more information contact

John Ross
Lucid PR
01463 724593; 077300 99617




Quick facts

The Royal Dornoch Golf Club has donated £54,000 for the PhD study as it prepares to celebrate 400 years of golf being played on the town’s famous links in 2016.
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The PhD study is providing some fascinating insights into the history of golf in the Highlands
Fraser Cromarty, chairman of HGL