July Golf Week from Wednesday 6 July at 6.30pm - read 'News & Events' for details
Leith has been a busy seaport for centuries, and Edinburgh’s main gateway - only 2 miles away - to Europe. Separated from Edinburgh by farmland until 19th century, Leith was formally (and reluctantly) absorbed into the City of Edinburgh's boundary in 1920. As well being a busy modern Port, Leith is the final berth for Royal Yacht Britannia and is visited by many visitor cruise-ships
The Course is truly 'Links' meaning sandy-soil and rough grass formed since the Ice Age as raised beaches, originally as high as 32metres above current sea-levels. From these raised beaches, most Scottish East coast golf courses are of sandy Links, as are some West coast ones. The last remnant of Links geography close to Edinburgh is only 5 miles east from Leith Links. This recent photo of Fisherrow Links with summer grass growth shows its original Links geography, shared with nearby Musselburgh Links (Old Course), a historic course in its own right.
Today, Leith Links is a public park as the game of golf has outgrown its size and public pressures. Only in summer, Leith Rules Golf Society holds 'Golf Week' over a few days across a new 5-Hole Course and played with traditional hickory equipment and in the traditional sporting spirit.
From its earliest days, Links golfers combined people from Leith town ('Leithers') with better-off Edinburgh citizens arriving by coach and who could afford the expense of long-clubs and featherie leather balls. An early recorded keen golfer was Sir John Foulis Bt. of Ravelston in Edinburgh, who was thought to play Leith every fortnight. His 1686 personal accounts detail: 'repair of clubs (14shillings); coach hire and supper (£3.15 shillings) and tipping his caddy (4shillings)'!
Golfers playing on Match days gathered afterwards in nearby Leith taverns, usually reserving a private room. In Leith, Luckie Clephan's (a widow in 1747 of John Clephan, Leith club-maker and golfer) tavern in Kirkgate street (now demolished) provided the first headquarters for the 'Company of Edinburgh Gentlemen', players wining and dining and - it is said - storing golf clubs in coffins, an early form of lockers.
Fisherrow Links, Musselburgh, 5 miles east of Leith Links
The short-club form of golf is thought to have been imported in 1400s from the Dutch form of 'Kolf' as there was a very active trade between the Dutch and the East coast Scottish ports from the fourteenth to seventeenth centuries. In Scotland, it was played with wooden balls in Scottish towns, particularly on the East coast. King James II of Scotland and his son James III banned golf and football in favour of archery skills to improve Scotland's defences against constant English threats of invasion. After initially continuing the ban, James IV of Scotland quickly adopted the sport for himself and was recognition of its popularity in exclusive circles, exploiting Scotland's 'links' coastlines for the long-game, particularly eastern towns like Leith, St Andrews, Montrose and Aberdeen.
Craft expertise in archery bow-making led to long-clubs. Shoe-makers crafted leather balls, densely packed with goose and chicken feathers called 'featheries'. The combination of this expensive equipment meant balls would travel up to 200 yards and so the Scottish long-club game of golf was born.
English threats of invasion and wars in Scotland led to arranged Royal marriages between Scotland and France with promises of mutual armed support. The promise of marriage between Scotland's King James IV's infant daughter Mary to Henry VIII of England's son Edward was rejected by Scottish nobles and by her French and Catholic mother, Mary of Guise. Although crowned Queen, young Mary I of Scotland ('Mary, Queen of Scots'), was sent to grow up in the safety of the French Royal Court, later marrying the Dauphin, heir to the French throne.
Mary of Guise as Regent for her infant daughter Mary as future queen, invited a French force of 8,000 soldiers to protect Edinburgh and Scotland against English invasion. She moved her Royal Court into Leith too. Over 12 years, French forces dominated Eastern Scotland and Edinburgh. They made Leith into an octagonal fortified walled burgh and suppressed the rise of new Scottish Protestants. A force of English of 6,000 soldiers, supported by 12,000 Scottish Protestant allies, mounted the Siege of Leith of 1560, lasting 6 months. The western Links was the frontline for cannonfire exchanges.
Following the (natural) death of Mary of Guise in July 1560 in Edinburgh Castle, French, Scottish and English forces signed the 'Treaty of Edinburgh'. Shortly afterwards, French and English forces withdrew from Scotland, ending Scotland's longstanding 'Auld Alliance' with France.
One hundred years later, after England's Civil War, Oliver Cromwell's army lay siege to Leith from Leith Links to help bring to an end civil wars across Great Britain.
King James VI, Queen Mary I of Scotland's son, was the chosen successor of Queen Elizabeth I of England for the English throne. He united the monarchies in Stuart dynastic line for the first time as King James I of Great Britain & Ireland (but also called James VI for Scotland - thereafter James I and VI). He brought some stability to both countries from his London Royal Court at Greenwich. Scottish nobles who followed him and his Court to London's Greenwich Palace took the game of golf with them, playing on nearby Blackheath. In later years, Blackheath Golf Club adopted many similar customs and competitions as the Company of Gentlemen Golfers of Leith Links - on occasion even serving as the Captain of the Society of St Andrews Golfers too.
King Charles I (James I and VI's eldest son) was playing golf with his Royal Court on Leith Links when he heard of Irish Uprisings, as illustrated by an 1895 painting by John Gilbert.
King Charles I's brother James,(called Duke of Albany for Scotland and Duke of York for England, later King James II of Great Britain & Ireland) spent time each year as a Royal Commissioner at the Palace of Holyrood House and was well known for betting on golf and horse racing. In 1681, when two English nobles claimed golf was an English sport, the Duke challenged them in an extravagant bet in a two-ball foursome match. His partner and local golf champion was Shoemaker John Paterson, said to be of nine previous generations of champions, after his own father Baillie of Edinburgh John Paterson and his grandfather Neil Paterson, Maltman of Leith. (The original painting by Allan Stewart (1911) is believed to be in the US Golf Association Musuem.)
John Paterson plays his shot watched by the Nobles (and Andrew Dickson, the small boy)
The Duke won the bet and gave John Paterson most of the winnings who legend said built a property called 'Golfer's Land', in Canongate, Edinburgh close to the Palace of Holyrood House. (More likely he improved the existing property. Daniel Wilson in his 'Memorials of Edinburgh' (1891) says property title deeds show his grandfather Nicol Paterson of Leith owned it first; thereafter records show it was used as security for family debts, probably golf betting ones!)
The Duke placed a Paterson armorial plaque, with a hand bearing a golf club, on the building. In this 1960 photo (just before demolition), the 1681 square armorial plaque can be seen high-up on the top-right-side next to a small window. Today, the replacement building at 77 Canongate has a replica plaque at street level.