Golf in Ulster
Golf (gowf or goff in Scots) is probably the best-known Scottish traditional sport, now enjoyed by millions throughout the world. There are records of it being played in Scotland since 1457, although most of these documents refer to the breaking of the Sabbath by playing at 'the gowf on Sundays (a clash of two Scottish traditions which we are still aware of today).
Until the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers was established in 1744, and the Royal and Ancient Club of St Andrews in 1754, the traditional game involved hitting for distance, usually along the back of coastal sand-dunes called links. The oldest surviving golf club was founded by James I (of England and Scotland) in 1608 at Blackheath. James I was the monarch who initiated the Ulster Plantation, and during his reign gowf or goff was played by all classes in Scotland.
In Ulster at this time, one of James I.'s most important Plantation landlords was Hugh Montgomery of Newtownards. When Sir Hugh built a 'great school' at Newton in County Down, about 1630, he allowed the scholars a 'green for recreation at goff, football and archery'. Over 150 years later, in the 1780s, Sir Hugh's successor as landlord of the extensive Ards estates was Robert Stewart, Lord Castlereagh. Castlereagh was of Donegal Scottish plantation stock, and in setting out the 'Mountstewart' demesne for his new house near Greyabbey, he landscaped an area for playing golf. A portrait of Lord Castlereagh survives at Mountstewart, probably from about 1790, showing him standing with a golf club. Beside him is a golf ball on the ground. This is certainly the earliest illustration of anyone in Ulster actually playing golf.
Given the Scottish origins of the sport, it is not surprising that some of the words associated with the sport are rooted in the Scots language too.
In the Dictionary of the Older Scottish Tongue, the words linkis, lynkis, lincks etc are defined as 'a stretch of comparatively level or gently undulating open, sandy ground having turf, bent-grass or gorse growing on it, normally near the sea-shore and commonly including sand-dunes'. The term often appears in place names, such as 'le lynkis de Leith' in 1453. Links were used for grazing, for maintaining rabbit warrens, for musters and for sports, including golf. In the Scottish National Dictionary (which covers the use of Scots words after 1700), the definition of links is:
The sandy undulating ground, generally covered with turf, bent grass, gorse, etc, which is freq. found near the sea-shore on a flat part of the coast, and is often common ground belonging to the nearest town. General Scots. Very common as a place-name associated with most sea-side burghs in Scotland.
The specific meaning of links as 'a golf-course' on such terrain goes back in Scots to 1728 with Allan Ramsay's Poems:
Then on the Links, or in the Estler Walls,
He drives the Gowff, or strikes the Tennis Balls.
In the Scottish National Dictionary, a tee is 'the small heap of sand or earth from which the ball is driven at the start of each hole'. Again, from Ramsay's Poems, we find in 1721:
Driving their Baws frae Whins or Tee,
There's no ae Gowfer to be seen.
(Driving their balls from gorse or tee,
There's not one Golfer to be seen).
For this word the Scottish National Dictionary has 'a turf, sod. General Scots'. This meaning is applied in Scots to all sods or tufts, with the golfing term being a recent borrowing into English from Scots.
The Concise Scots Dictionary notes that fore was used in Scots from the late nineteenth century as a shouted warning to anyone in the path of the golf ball.
Fore-caddie has been used since the late eighteenth century in Scots to describe the caddie, who went on ahead of the player to watch where the golf ball fell.
The following Scots meanings are also given in the Concise Scots Dictionary:
(a) a military cadet (recorded from early seventeenth century);
(b) a messenger or errand-boy (eighteenth century);
(c) a ragamuffin, a rough lad or fellow (from late eighteenth century, now Aberdeenshire, Fife and Ulster);
(d) an attendant who carries a player's clubs in golf (from nineteenth century).
(a) a bank of earth etc. at the roadside (from nineteenth century);
(b) a large heap of stones or clay (from late nineteenth century);
(c) a small sandpit, now especially on a golf-course (from nineteenth century);
(d) a storage receptacle for household coal (from eighteenth century).
(a) push, shove; nudge gently, prod (from fifteenth century)
(b) (especially athletics), hurl a stone or heavy metal ball from the shoulder (from late sixteenth century);
(c) (golf) strike the ball with a series of gentle taps so as to move it towards the hole (from late seventeenth century).
(golf) the piece of finely turfed grass used as the putting ground; formerly also the fairway, or the whole course (from eighteenth century).
From the 1880s on, the popularity of the modern game of golf grew rapidly in Ulster and Scotland and spread across the world. A host of local golf links and clubs were set up in the late nineteenth century, including Royal Belfast in 1881 (at Kinnegar, Holywood) and Helen's Bay in 1896. The Royal Portrush was first formed in 1888, becoming the Royal County Club in 1892 and the Royal Portrush in 1895. Tourist guides of about 1900 often compared the Portrush links with those of St Andrews in Scotland, only just admitting that the latter alone might be superior. A more restrained description is given in Blacks Guide Book of the North of Ireland, which in 1912 stated that 'the Portrush Golf Links are considered the best in Ireland and equal for turf, hazards and scenery to most of the finest greens in Scotland'.
The Royal County Down, Newcastle, Golf Club was opened in 1889, getting its present name in 1910. Bangor Golf Club was opened in 1904 and was the subject of a humorous article in the County Down Spectator of 3 June 1904. Today, a keen interest in the game is maintained throughout Northern Ireland, supplying several first-class professionals. It might be some consolation to know, next time you are trying to hack your way out of the rough, that you are helping to perpetuate the game of your guid Scotch forebears.
Originally published in Ullans Number 6, 1998