Golf In The Shetland Islands - The UK's Hidden Gem?

·8 min read
 Whalsey Golf Club pictured from above
Whalsey Golf Club pictured from above

The Shetland Islands aren’t best known as a golf destination, more a destination with golf, but after visiting recently we found three very good reasons to consider this archipelago of islands lying between the Faroe Islands of Norway and the Orkney islands just off Scotland.

Formerly known as Zetland, with a population of around 23,000, spread around the 100 islands (16 are uninhabited). One of 32 Scottish councils, it is hardly surprising they have golf there, in fact, good golf too!

Taking the Land Rover, we jumped on a ferry from Aberdeen to Lerwick.  With familiar scenes as you pull into Lerwick you immediately have a sense of ‘I know this place’ - but you’re probably thinking about the TV police crime series

Unst Fest is a celebration over one week of the year where the locals set up, alongside other activities, a number of golf holes around the island.  Armed with a map and whatever clubs you have to hand, the ‘9 hole course’ takes in the whole of the island. It is pitched, rather tongue in cheek as “the world biggest golf course."

Having inspected the golf holes on offer, none were particularly long and none were proper golf holes, but all offered an opportunity not often given whilst playing a round of golf, the chance to sightsee! One enterprising family have taken golf to a different level. A field at the back of their property where Shetland ponies graze also has a few holes, crudely cut out and dotted around the ever present ground level rocks. I couldn’t think of anywhere else where the land owners didn't worry about their neighbours satisfying their golfer's itch!

Back on the mainland we were invited to play Dale Golf Club, a stones throw away from Lerwick, the capital of Shetland. Set within a natural valley, we had all sorts of weather thrown at us during the 18 holes of golf we played.

Dale Golf Club hole pictured from above
Dale Golf Club hole pictured from above

Digging deeper, it seems Dale is not all it first appears, in fact it has roots as the oldest golf course in Shetland, dating back to 1891. The original Shetland Golf Club was split over not only two locations, but two islands. Bressay is the nearest island and is visible from Lerwick, it is said Bressay protects Lerwick from the harshest of weathers. Now returned back to farmers land, the Bressay course layout is still visible, with some imagination.

The other half of Shetland Golf Club was back on the mainland, a ferry ride away. Annesbrae, not too far from the Knab - an open-to-all nine hole par 3 course with no green fee and a great starter or skills practicing course. Annesbrae Park had 6 holes and a committee who met on a regular basis. Quirky and possibly a local rule we could reintroduce was a fine for not replacing your divot.

The first offence carried a fine of sixpence, subsequent misgivings were fined at one shilling - per divot. Bressay site doesn’t mention having machinery to mow the fairways, instead ponies were allowed to graze whilst play was suspended and the greens were top dressed with sand and manure applied as needed. The first printed fixture was in 1912 and carried the names of the committee alongside a warning that if fees weren’t paid on time there was a penalty of 2/6.

Moving to the site and renamed Dale (although if you say Shetland Golf Club, everyone knows it is Dale) in 1976. Dale is accessed via a sweeping road of almost a horseshoe shape that snakes itself around, off which is the entrance to the course. With the golf club set high, you can watch the golfers play pretty much all of the holes from this elevated position.

Dale GC pictured on a rainy day
Dale GC pictured on a rainy day

Sadly on the day we played, the fog had come in and was clinging to the hillside with odd breaks of sunshine and dots of rain. The 6th, a par 4 289/297 yards is a fairly easy looking hole from the tee before it drops down to cross over one of the many water courses. Quite reachable in two, the approach is a bit of a nerve tester as it crosses the babbling brook. Light relief is by way of a midway pebbled island in the water, although almost unplayable, at least you could find your ball!

The water was flowing so fast the day we visited, any ball going into the water soon disappeared as it got carried away downstream. The greens rolled well and were in good condition, albeit wet and therefore a bit sticky on the approach for the lob shots.

Overall, it's an easy to navigate course that does come with some climbs. With the topography of the course came the estuary, which is in view from almost anywhere on the courses. Like so many places in Shetland, sitting in the middle of the 9th and 11th is a ruin, most likely a croft of old left to the elements never to be sold on or renovated, just gently being reclaimed by nature.

Such a pretty course, even on a wet day, but the wet summer had taken its toll on its condition - except the greens, which were exceptional.

Climbing back up the 18th towards the clubhouse, we had hoped to grab a hot drink and to dry off a bit. Sadly the clubhouse looked closed and unwelcoming. Shame to end a nice day without at least a chat with the locals.

A short drive from Lerwick is Asta Golf Course. Just nine holes squeezed between the road and a loch, with views to rival some of the best golf courses in Scotland. Beyond the loch was a hill banked with heather and other wild flowers. Unusually the owners switch the course around half way through the month and literally play the course the other way round, ie tee box 1 plays to hole nine, etc.

Female golfer hits a shot at Asta Golf Club
Female golfer hits a shot at Asta Golf Club

Playing this course does need an element of nerve with its tight, shared fairways, but the delight of the 7th (Classic course) pretty much sums up this cracking little nine holes which can be played as 18.

None of the tee boxes or greens are big. The 7th tee sits alongside the loch and is elevated above an unseen green lying somewhere below, beyond a rocky outcrop.  At just 58 yards, it is surprising how difficult it is to hone in on that small target green. I think Asta is such a great place to play golf, although I would be wary if playing during a busy time as it can get a bit hairy.

Our final game in Shetland was at the most northerly golf course in the UK, Whalsay (pronounced wol - za). A 30 minute ferry journey from Laxo on the mainland to Symbister then a short drive to Whalsay GC was an easy and pleasurable journey. Being greeted by the friendliest of members set the tune for a great day of golf with a slight wind, although we were assured this was no wind! Whalsay actually has two courses, although purests might argue the Peerie course mainly for the 30 or so juniors is nothing more than a short area to engage new golfers and looking at it, it was just that.

Whalsey Golf Club general view
Whalsey Golf Club general view

Playing Whalsay it struck me that if god were to pick a location for a golf course, this would be it. It really isn’t trying to be something its not, its not manicured to within an inch of its life, although the ground work is very good, but its not trying to compete with anything - just provide a good honest game of golf, which it does so well.

The first sits alongside the water with Yell in full view in the distance. It was wet underfoot and the course was lush but with the exception a couple of strange cross over holes, even those holes away from the sea offered a great challenge.

In truth, Whalsay gently wakes up as you play each hole. The 11th green offers beautiful views over the sea especially with the sun glistening on the moving water before turning your back round for the slight uphill 12th. A ravine down to a drop off cliff almost dissecting the fairway for any golf ball heading far too right.

Whalsey Golf Club hole pictured from above
Whalsey Golf Club hole pictured from above

The 16th always make me happy, and as we got to 16 the sun showed us the way forward. With an elevated tee, it isn’t a particularly long hole of 322/375 yards SI7/13. Stood on the tee of 16, I cant help but compare this hole to Kawana in Japan, with its craggy drop off cliffs left into the white tipped sea crashing against the rocks below. Any golf ball going left is not recoverable!

The drive is best kept right but then you’d need to negotiate a cheeky little burn running across the fairway down to the cliff top. A cleverly placed narrow bunker means bouncing off the right bank for your approach isn’t easy. A brave or accurate shot is required to make the green in two for two putts.

Dropping back down over the other side of the hill you reach 18, which really is nothing like any of the other holes. An almost 90 degree dogleg left around a loch to a tight green in front to the clubhouse. Driver could well be too much off this elevated tee to the corner, so careful club choice is needed, especially if you’ve got a good card in your hand!

If a golfer has any objectives in life, I believe it should be to play the most northerly golf course in the UK, Whalsay - add it to your list of bucket list golf courses.