Make time to visit your own personal sacred landscapes in life… —Lacy Clark Ellman
What does it mean when we refer to something as “sacred?” Can a stone be sacred—or a pile of stones? Can a piece of rusted iron be sacred? How about a man’s hands—or a golf course? Or a friendship?
This essay came out of a two-week journey I made to Scotland in fall 2015. The idea of doing this trip began earlier in that same year as I participated in a class on “pilgrimage” offered by a church I was attending while living temporarily in Seattle. I already was somewhat familiar with the idea, and had even facilitated a few local pilgrimages through a retreat house with which I am affiliated in Minnesota. Yet this class, led by Lacy Clark Ellman, spurred an interest in undertaking an international pilgrimage through which I might delve more deeply into the meaning of “sacred.”
This essay gives an account of some of my experiences and reflections before and during my journey. I discussed the venture with my wife Mary Ann, and we concluded that it was something I should undertake alone. She is not a golfer, plus we had a dog at the time and didn’t feel comfortable leaving her for two weeks in a kennel or with a pet-sitter. Mary Ann gave me her blessing, as well as several notes of encouragement surreptitiously tucked into my travel journal. I was on my way.
Golf is in my DNA. Although I didn’t officially take up the game until I was twelve years old, I have a photo that shows me trying to swing a golf club at age two. My father, an avid golfer then, had probably taken me with him to his club in Terre Haute, Indiana. Perhaps someone had left a child’s club there and my dad decided to see what I might do with it. This picture is now a treasure for me.
While I was learning about pilgrimages in Lacy’s class in Seattle, I found out that there was to be a World Hickory Open golf tournament in Scotland the following October. A recent adopter of golf played with early-1900s hickory-shafted clubs and period balls (a game termed “hickory golf”), I was drawn to the possibility of playing hickory golf on the classic links courses in Scotland. I later decided not to participate in the World Hickory Open, but the seed had been sown. I began framing my pilgrimage partly around my life-long interest in golf and in hickory golf. Scotland was, in my mind, the only place to pursue this endeavor.
I’ve decided to take a different kind of Scottish golf trip. I aspire to spend my time traveling the country and avoiding almost any course I’d ever heard of: no Old Course at St. Andrews, no Prestwick, no Troon. In fact, no itinerary. I’d simply rent a car at the airport, throw my hickory clubs in, ask strangers for recommendations, search the map and see where Providence leads me. —journal entry adapted from Back-roads Scotland: A Journey of the Heart
I made airline reservations, which set my date of arrival in Scotland for October 14; the time of my return to the United States would be October 27. What would happen between those dates was yet to be determined. I drew up a list of prospective golf courses to play, most of which would not be on the radar for American golf tourists. All would be links-style (i.e. classic seaside) courses at least a century or more old; it’s the hickory golfer’s way after all. My list included two 9-hole courses: one a 1890 layout near the village of Anstruther. I had a couple of “name brand” courses on my list too—Leven Links and Elie Golf Club—but I decide not to include the most famous course of all, the Old Course at St. Andrews. I realized that if I was to gain insight into the soul of this game I love, it would happen away from the hustle and bustle—and at courses where I could linger and reflect. It’s the pilgrim’s way after all.
No matter the itinerary or the location, pilgrimage is a sacred journey…a journey embarked upon with the intention of encountering God and experiencing transformation. —Lacy Clark Ellman
The idea of pilgrimage is deeply embedded into almost every major faith tradition. The Islamic Hajj (the pilgrimage to Mecca) may be the best known, yet my own tradition, Christianity, has a longstanding practice of travel for the purpose of spiritual reflection too. By the fourth century A.D., the idea of pilgrimage was already well established in the Christian faith. Some early pilgrims saw it as a way of fulfilling a vow, others sought to find miraculous healings, while many were simply seeking a deeper faith. Overarching it all was a conviction that a pilgrimage can draw one closer to God and transform one’s life. It was this latter aspiration that motivated my undertaking the journey.
During medieval times, the destinations of Christian pilgrims included places such as Rome, Santiago de Compostela (Spain)—and St. Andrews (Scotland). The attractions at these destinations included holy relics attributed to various saints of significance to the faith. For example, the cathedral at St. Andrews held artifacts that were purported to be linked to the early apostle Andrew. The practice of making pilgrimages to St. Andrews effectively ended after the Reformation.
As I studied more about the idea of pilgrimage, and especially in a contemporary context, I learned that there’s an increased interest in traveling the ancient pilgrim paths today. To be fair, not all modern journeys are spiritually motivated; some are simply eco-tourists, wine enthusiasts, hikers or bicyclists with the goal of engaging beautiful scenery and fascinating, historic cultures. Yet a few like me come to these places for the purpose of drawing closer to God and discovering meaning and hope in our lives. We become seekers of the sacred.
Seeking the sacred is simply about paying attention and following the thread. —Lacy Clark Ellman
Follow the thread. This simple exhortation provided the framework I needed to further plan my journey—or perhaps I should say—aspire to it. I grew to imagine my sojourn in Scotland as a fabric into which I was weaving various threads. One was, of course, a thread of golf. I intended to hire a caddy for one of my rounds, something I had only done once before in nearly sixty years with the game. Caddies were common during the hickory golf era and I wanted to experience using one in the homeland of the game. I also expected to play some of my rounds alone—just my clubs, the courses and me.
As part of this golfing thread I also intended to bring three of my original Scottish hickory clubs back to the seacoast villages in Fife where they were created in the early 1900s. I knew that none of the original club-making shops were still operating, but one purpose for my pilgrimage was still to bring my clubs “home.”
A second thread of the pilgrimage that emerged for me was an intent to walk part of one of the medieval pilgrims’ paths that led to St. Andrews. Along with this came a desire to understand the faith of the early Celtic Christians who lived in Scotland a thousand years ago and more. I’d known for some time about the ancient Celtic crosses created by these people, and I hoped to experience at least one of them in the place where it has been located since its beginning. Most such antiquities have been moved to museums for the sake of preservation where they become treasured works of art but may lose some of the significance they had in their original context.
So the fabric was in place and some of the threads had begun to be woven into it. It was time to begin my sacred journey.
In my first full day in Scotland, I undertook my only prearranged endeavor—an excursion to Inchcolm Island in the Firth of Forth. It was the final trip of the fall for the “Maid of the Forth” excursion boat and every seat was taken. I’d chosen to go to Inchcolm partly because of its medieval abbey dating to the 1100s, which is considered to be one of Scotland’s best-preserved monasteries. I intended for this sojourn to be a time for reflection and contemplation as I began my pilgrimage. It would be a place where I might walk in the footsteps of Celtic believers from a thousand years before. Inchcolm Island was purported to have been visited by St. Columba, the Irish missionary monk, in 567 A.D. In fact, the island’s Gaelic name, which dates to the 12th century, means “Columba’s Island.”
I hadn’t anticipated that Inchcolm Island is also a popular destination for families and others out for holiday excursions. Their principal interest is not the abbey and its historical or spiritual significance, but rather the island’s open spaces and paths, as well as the prospects for sighting seals or birds. The abbey itself is an afterthought or curiosity for some, although it is known for its tower that affords a panoramic view of the Firth. Let me just say that my thirty-minute sojourn to the island aboard the crowded Maid of the Forth was anything but quiet and reflective.
Upon arriving at the island, I held back to give the others a chance to go ahead of me. I figured that I could then follow in relative peace and solitude. It was not to be. During my two-hours on the island and in the abbey there always seemed to be others scurrying about and shouting loudly to each other. I blocked these distractions from my mind as best I could, and tried to envision this place as it might have been 800 years ago. It may be one of the most complete monasteries in Scotland, but it is only a remnant of its former magnificence. And yet I still found places and moments in the abbey that touched me deeply—weathered stones, a spiral stairway, soft light filtering through windows, and the doorways, for example. There was surely a “presence” here if one was attentive to it—and I was.
The beach where Columba is thought first to have landed is covered with small stone cairns, built by passing visitors over many years. Leaving something behind is a fundamental human impulse. Today I am here; tomorrow I will be gone. —Daniel Taylor from In Search of Sacred Places
Before coming to Scotland, I’d read that when one goes to the Island of Iona (on the west coast), another place that is attributed to St. Columba, one finds stone cairns built by earlier pilgrims all along the island’s beach. As my time on Inchcolm Island neared its conclusion, I left the abbey and walked to the small beach nearby; it was deserted at that moment. I looked for cairns, but there were none. Either that tradition doesn’t apply to Inchcolm Island—or perhaps I was there to begin it! So I walked out onto the beach and selected a favorable spot to build my cairn. I decided it would be a small one—nothing pretentious—after all it was my first. I selected just three stones and stacked them one upon the other on an even larger stone embedded into the beach. I capped my cairn with a small snail shell found nearby. I offered a prayer of gratitude for my time in this sacred place. Afterwards I walked back to the boat dock to rejoin the throng; my return to the mainland aboard the “Maid of the Forth” awaited me.
Linksland is the old Scottish word for the earth at the edge of the sea—tumbling, duney, sandy, covered by beach grasses. When the light hits it, and the breeze sweeps over it, you get every shade of green and brown, and always, in the distance, is the water. —Michael Bamberger from To the Linksland
The principal reason I chose Scotland as my pilgrimage destination was my desire to play hickory golf on the classic “linksland” courses where the game originated centuries ago. One such place is the Elie Golf Club along the south coast of Fife. I’d been told by a hickory-golfing acquaintance in Seattle that it was especially well-suited to using hickory clubs and I believed him.
People have played golf at Elie since the 1500s; it’s one of the oldest golfing grounds in the world. Through time it has evolved from a simple layout to an 18-hole course that now draws golfers from far and wide.
Scottish links courses are quirky. One expects to encounter unusual features on them—double greens, unusual hole designs, strange bounces. So I expected to find some unique things at Elie, and I did. It started with—the periscope. Elie is the only course in the world that has a World War II submarine periscope that is used to view over an obstructing hill on the blind first hole!
I got to the course about a half hour before my mid-morning tee time. I took my clubs out of my car and began walking the hundred yards or so to the starter’s shed—and to where the periscope is located. I had reserved a caddy for this round who would carry my clubs. After paying my greens fee, I talked for a short time with the young man who was serving as starter that day. He was interested—and a bit amused—by the fact that I would be playing my round with hickory clubs. He informed me that my caddy’s name was George and that he was also the “caddy master” at the course. In other words, George knew his stuff.
I walked outside and stood by my bag awaiting the arrival of my caddy. Then down the path towards the clubhouse I saw a figure with a broad smile walking towards me. He was dressed as if he might be playing himself—a typical golf-style cap with a ball mark clipped to the bill, dark slacks and a light windbreaker with its collar turned up.
“Hello, Steve, I am your caddy George,” the man said as he extended his hand to me. I returned his greeting.
“A fine day for the Links,” he continued. “Is this your first time at Elie?”
I replied that it was and that being there was the fulfillment of a lifetime dream. He smiled.
“What’s your handicap?” George asked.
“Well, George, I play with hickory clubs and my hickory handicap is 15.”
“Ahhh, hickories,” George replied. “I’ve heard of people like you, although I haven’t had the opportunity to caddy for anyone before now.”
“Yeah, George, I guess there aren’t that many of us fools who try to come at this game with such outdated equipment. But I’m counting on you to keep me pointed in the right direction and out of serious trouble. I’ll do the rest.”
We both smiled, and I knew we were going to make a good pair.
In the first few holes, George ably performed his caddy duties by carrying my bag, pointing out the best lines to the greens, and helping me to read my putts. He didn’t try to advise me about what clubs to hit because I think he was still sizing up my game and becoming familiar with my clubs and their unusual names—spoon, wooden cleek, mashie, mashie-niblick, niblick and jigger.
As we walked together, we also shared about our lives. I learned that he was retired although perhaps five years younger than me. He also informed me that he was a 4-handicap golfer. I was impressed.
Sometime during the initial few holes of my round I managed to hit my ball into a sand bunker. As I approached the bunker I became discouraged; the ball was nestled close to the vertical forward face, and it appeared that I had no shot directly to the green. To complicate things, I had no sand wedge with a higher loft that might be used in this situation. I looked quizzically at George and said, “Looks like my best shot is to go laterally out of the bunker towards the fairway and then hope to chip it close from there. Is that the way you see it?” George got a sly look on his face and said, “You can clear that bunker wall.” I wanted to believe him, but I had never hit such a shot before. I responded, “George, my niblick only has a 50 degree loft.” Again he smiled: “That’s enough.”
That was when George ceased just being my caddy and became my links golf coach as well. He stepped down into the bunker with me and pointed to the place behind the ball where my club should enter the sand. “Stay down through the ball and be sure to follow through,” he said. I addressed the ball without grounding my club—as the rules dictate—and concentrated on that point where George said my club should strike the sand. I swung, kept down and followed through. The ball popped out of the bunker like it had eyes and landed softly on the putting surface a few feet from the pin. I looked at George, smiled and gave him a thumbs up sign. Yes, we were a good pair.
As the round continued George sprinkled in stories about the history of the course. At one place he pointed to a small berm crossing the fairway. “Do you see that, Steve? What do you think it is?” I’d seen such berms on vintage courses in the U.S. where they were meant to deflect errant balls. So I proposed, “I suppose it was constructed as a type of hazard back when the course was first established and the game was different than now?” George shook his head. “Not here, Steve. This used to be land for raising sheep before it became a golf course. The farmers then constructed stone walls to contain their animals, and when the course began the founders simply put dirt over those walls and created berms. No fancy golf architecture then—it was practicality.” I realized at that moment that George, my caddy and links-golf coach, was also a historian and philosopher.
At one point during my second nine holes, George and I were some distance from the Clubhouse. Assuming we were out of range of disapproving eyes. I asked him if he would like to hit a shot with my hickory club. “I’d like to see what a 4-handicapper can do with this baby,” I said. I held out my hickory driver to him and he immediately took hold of it and stepped onto the tee box. Now it was my turn to be his instructor: “One more thing, George. To do this right you’ll need to use a 1920s-era ball like the ones that were popular when this club was in vogue.” I handed him a replica web-mesh ball meant for hickory play. “Address the ball just as you would with your modern driver, but the key to a successful shot will be to just concentrate on making good contact. You’ll be impressed how far the ball will fly.” Then I stepped back to watch what happened.
George teed up the ball and got into position to take a practice swing. Then I noticed that in his grip the left hand was below his right hand—the opposite of any other right-handed golfer I’d ever seen! I didn’t say anything; I was too surprised. He took his practice swing, then stepped up to the ball and looked down the fairway to where he intended to hit his drive. His grip was still as it had been. Back went the club and as he swung down and through, the ball sailed well past my ball. I congratulated him on this fine stroke on his first try with a hickory club.
Then I said: “George, I do have to ask you about your grip. I’ve been playing golf for almost sixty years and I’ve never seen a right-handed player grip a club the way you do. Where did you learn that?” He responded: “It’s how I started was a boy. I taught myself to play and it just felt natural then. I’ve gripped the club like this ever since.”
I’ve learned that George’s unorthodox grip has a name in Scotland—“cack-handed.” Although his grip is—and has always been—a rarity, some other successful golfers through the years have used it. Perhaps most accomplished of all, yet little known today, was a South African professional in the 1960s by the name of Sewsunker Sewgolum.
Of Indian origin, Sewgolum was, like George, self-taught and approached the game using a cack-handed grip. He too never changed. He later became a caddie and was “discovered” by a member of the Club where he worked. He went on to win several championships including the Dutch Open. Sewgolum also was the first person of color to win a championship in South Africa. However, after he defeated South African favorite-son Gary Player in the 1965 Natal Open, the apartheid-based South African government revoked his passport and stopped him from competing internationally. It also banned him from competing in local tournaments as well. Sewgolum died impoverished at a young age in 1978.
I don’t know whether George had ever heard of Sewsunker Sewgolum before—I had not before writing this essay. Yet I now regard my introduction to Sewgolum’s sad story through my research about George’s unorthodox grip as a one of the most poignant—I would say “sacred”—moments in my life with golf. Sewgolum, and perhaps other cross-handed golfers before George, were “present” with us in that transcendent moment when he struck his fine drive at Elie Golf Club.
As George and I continued down the fairway to retrieve his ball, I felt even closer to him than I had before. Yes, he was my caddy and my coach, but I had also just given him an experience unlike anything he had known before in the game, and he was elated. When we arrived at George’s ball, I picked it up and gave it to him. “Please take this with you from here on, George, as a reminder of your fine hickory shot today. Your using my club with your unusual grip is certainly something I will never forget.” We both smiled again.
As we concluded my round, George totaled my score, signed the card and handed it to me. “A fine round, Steve,” he remarked.
“Yes it was, George,” I replied, “Yes it was.”
Lifelong golfer Steve Robert Simmons went to Scotland to escape the increasingly commercialized American game and to search for the true soul of golf. He studied the game in its birthplace, the courses of the linksland, the legendary windswept earth at the edge of the sea. With the help of a Scottish “sage” whom he met along the way, he came to understand the game—and himself—at a deeper level. And yes, he also played the best golf of his life. —journal entry (adapted from To the Linksland)
Give up the weight of knowing, for the reverence of quiet attention…—Christine Valters Painter from The Soul of a Pilgrim
Each morning during my Scotland pilgrimage I awakened to a clean slate. I had plans, of course, but I held them loosely and looked forward to each day’s “Providence.” It was on just such a day I encountered the Skeith Stone for the first time.
When I first was considering the idea of making a pilgrimage to Scotland, I acquired a guidebook titled Sacred Scotland at a Seattle bookstore. It contained descriptions and photographs of sites throughout Scotland that date to times of the early Celtic Christians and before. Within its chapter for Fife one place that especially impressed me was the Skeith Stone. It was described in the book as distinctive for being in its original location and largely unaltered except for wear from weather and time.
Soon after arriving in Fife, I decided to seek out the Skeith Stone. As I entered the village of Kilrenny, which the guidebook had said was within walking distance of the stone, I asked for directions. I mostly received blank stares; no one seemed to know what I was talking about! I finally encountered one man walking down a street and as I asked him where I might find the Skeith Stone, he smiled and said, “Ahhhhhh, you mean the ancient stone—the one in situ.” (Thanks to my biology background, I knew that in situ means “in place.”) He instructed me to drive farther down the road, park beside an old barn and then follow a path leading behind the barn and into an adjoining agricultural field. He concluded: “Just follow that path and it will take you to the stone.”
I followed my guide’s instructions to the letter, and I was soon walking along a narrow footpath leading into some fields north of the village. I began to make out what seemed to be a small stone marker on the horizon. As I drew nearer, my excitement grew as I sensed that I was about to fulfill my long-anticipated encounter with an in situ Celtic stone.
Some who come to the Skeith Stone may be underwhelmed by its small size and highly-weathered condition. I was not. In fact, as prehistoric sites go I’ve seldom been more impressed. It’s not like Chaco Canyon National Historic Park in the United States (by which I was comparably affected). In fact, the Skeith Stone does not even have a sign identifying it. Most people in the village seem to be oblivious to its existence. It’s a simple hand-hewn stone depicting a stylized cross and it has been in this place for ages.
I am kneeling beside the Skeith Stone. This is sacred ground for me. I am “listening” to the echoes of saints past who worshiped and reflected and made meaning here—just as I am doing today. In the distance is the spire of Kilrenny Church; I don’t want to leave. The sunlight is casting my shadow as a profile across the stone; it is reminiscent of others who have passed this way over the centuries…
—adapted from journal entry on October 18, 2015
The early Celts believed in the “thin places”…where a person experiences only a very thin divide between past, present and future. —Edward Sellner from Wisdom of the Celtic Saints
An observer in 1867 stated: “Nothing is known of the history of the Skeith Stone, nor has any tradition connected with it been preserved.” Since that time, archaeologists have unraveled some of the mystery concerning the stone, but not all. It’s now thought that monastics from the Isle of May (about six miles off-shore) may have erected it in the 8th Century to mark a place of worship. The Isle of May can, in fact, be viewed from the stone on clear days. One might envision monks transporting themselves by boat from their monastery on the island to the mainland and then walking up the long hill to the stone for various faith observances during their liturgical year. Yet, as was noted in 1867, none of their traditions are known today. Some even speculate that the stone has had other meanings over its long history—for example, possibly serving as a simple boundary marker or commemorating a long-forgotten battle.
So it’s anyone’s guess why the Skeith Stone is there—and I prefer it that way. For me though, the idea that the site may have been used as a coming together place for the monastics is favored. And that stems from my understanding of ancient Celtic spiritually. The early Celtic Christians believed in the transcendence of “thin” places, and it would certainly appear that Skeith Stone may have been one of these. It was here that past, present and future came together as one. I guess it’s not that different from All Saints Day as modern churches that follow the liturgical calendar commemorate it on November 1st. Congregations come together then to remember and celebrate the spiritual bond that exists for the faithful with all who have come before and are yet to be.
Skeith Stone became a significant place for me during my time in Fife. I returned two more times to touch the stone, and on each occasion I felt the same “connection” I had during my initial visit. No one else ever came to the stone while I was there except a few dog walkers from the nearby village; they also seemed uninterested in the stone’s meaning. It was just the Skeith Stone and me—and a strong sense of transcendence. It was enough.
For early Celtic saints, to make a journey for Christ brought—despite the hardships—unexpected blessings, increased intimacy with God, and the healing of body and soul. —Edward Sellner from Wisdom of the Celtic Saints
Pilgrims understand that it’s about the journey not just the destination. Yet most do have an ultimate destination and mine was St. Andrews. For centuries its large cathedral drew people from throughout Europe who came to obtain blessing, to experience divine healing, and to find greater intimacy with God.
I too was seeking these things. One of my closest friends had died two years prior to my pilgrimage; my brother Phil had died eighteen months before my departure; and Phil’s dog (that I had inherited and to whom I’d become very attached) died three weeks before I left on my trip. So I was seeking emotional healing, and as my pilgrimage unfolded before me, words of poet Steve Garnaas-Holmes came to have deeper meaning for me:
Solely you, a soul.
Come away to be yourself:
Nothing to prove
Only your soul matters
And your holy rest…
I arrived at St. Andrews in mid-afternoon. The heavy clouds of the morning had passed and the sun was beginning to break through. I’d come to St. Andrews on a Sunday because its famous golf course (which is closed to golfers then) becomes a city park and the public is permitted to roam at will. Although I didn’t play the Old Course during my pilgrimage, I was still interested to see it. It is the most famous golf course in the world after all.
However my first priority was to go to the destination for my pilgrimage, St. Andrews Cathedral—or what’s left of it. Zealots following the Reformation in Scotland ransacked it. But enough remains to give a hint of its grandeur during medieval times when pilgrims processed down the ancient streets radiating out from the Cathedral. I was impressed by its size and sense of history. I offered a prayer of thanksgiving for my safe arrival—as other pilgrims surely did through the ages upon reaching the conclusion of their sacred journeys.
For me, however, my pilgrimage wasn’t yet completed. I moved along to the St. Andrews Old Course. I hadn’t planned for what I might do there, so on the spur of the moment I decided to walk parts of the famous 17th and 18th holes. I’d watched the best golfers in the world walk these holes during The Open Championship, which was contested at St Andrews just the previous July. As I walked towards the 17th green I soon met a young golfer from Spain who, like me, had come alone to Scotland to explore the birthplace of the game. As we continued together down the 18th fairway, we approached the 700 year-old Swilcan Bridge over which every golfer of significance during the past 150 years has walked. We agreed to take turns photographing each other standing on the bridge. I told him that I didn’t plan to play the Old Course during this trip, but he stated that his intention was to return to the course the next morning and get on a “wait list” hoping for an opportunity to play the course later in the day. I wished him well, and we parted. As I went back to my car, I offered a brief prayer for my new acquaintance that his aspiration to play the Old Course would be fulfilled. It’s the pilgrim’s way as well.
As I departed St. Andrews I thought of my aspiration to walk an actual medieval pilgrims’ path leading to St. Andrews. Although daylight was waning, I decided to route myself back to my bed & breakfast by way of a tiny village named Ceres, which is located just a few miles west of St. Andrews. I’d read before coming to Scotland that a portion of an ancient pilgrim path still exists there and I decided to walk part of it.
When I arrived at the parking area near the center of Ceres, I looked for a prominent sign (or perhaps a souvenir shop?) that might indicate where the path was located. Nothing. I finally spotted a small sign to one side telling of “The Waterless Road” and its significance as a pilgrim’s way; I’d found my place.
The place starts with you standing in a physical spot—and wondering… —Laurie Allman (2007)
It was late in the afternoon now and the path was dark and deserted. Still I was determined to walk a short distance towards St. Andrews on the path, and to listen for the echoes of footsteps of thousands of pilgrims who followed this way after the Cathedral was completed in the 1200s. I was alone in this moment—maybe. As with my time at the Skeith Stone, I again felt a spirit of transcendence—a “presence”of the faithful who had come before me. This too was enough.
I had been to St. Andrews. I’d played a memorable round of golf at Elie with caddy George; surely that was enough. Yet one more golfing place called to me—and this is its story.
With a population of about 3000 people, the village of Anstruther is the largest in the area of Fife known as East Neuk. Originally a fishing village, it’s now mostly a tourist destination. I came to Anstruther, however, not for its famous fish and chips shop or tourist amenities. I came because one-hundred years ago it was the location of the James Anderson Golf Club Company, which had made one of my three original Scottish hickory golf clubs. That club is a c1910 ladies’ “mashie,” which I intend to one day pass on to my granddaughter. Earlier in my pilgrimage, I had tried to locate in other villages what remained of the workshops where my two other vintage Scottish clubs had been made a century ago. Nothing remained of those. So my last hope was to find James Anderson’s former shop in Anstruther.
My initial inquiries about town were not fruitful. Most people didn’t know what I was talking about—and the ones who did were vague in their responses. At last I met a man near the Anstruther Golf Course who, upon hearing my query, offered a smile rather than a puzzled look. “Yes, I know of it. You’ll find it across from The Waid Academy.” Because of his thick Scottish accent, I had little idea what he had said but I proceeded in the direction towards which he had pointed. At least I knew that something might be there. I stopped to ask another person where The Waid Academy could be found; I tried to pronounce the name of the Academy just as I had initially heard it. I must have been close enough—the gentleman pointed up the hill towards a large building and said, “There it is.”
I’d now located The Waid Academy, yet there were a number of buildings across the street from it, and I had no idea which one had formerly been the James Anderson Golf Club shop? There was no one to ask and no evident signs. Then I walked down a narrow lane leading behind the buildings and about fifty feet further along I found what I was seeking—a small sign attached to a stucco building that read:
This is the former site of James Anderson’s Forge. From 1865 to 1942 Anderson, a blacksmith, became world famous for his quality golfing cleeks.
I stood next to the building and held my Anderson mashie golf club while considering the significance of what I had just found. I tried to figure a way to take a picture of my club—and me—beside the landmark. I’d about given up when suddenly a man carrying a small infant walked down the lane towards me. He was probably in his thirties, and he smiled as he approached. As I greeted him I explained that the club I was holding had been made in this building over one-hundred years ago. He took the club from me with one hand and looked at it for a few moments while still holding the baby in his other arm. He then handed the club back to me and motioned saying, “Follow me.” I did so and he led me another thirty or so feet down the alley. We stopped beside a gate that opened into a tall-fenced back yard. “You wait here; I’ll be right back,” he said.
A couple of minutes later, the man reappeared through the gate; he wasn’t carrying the baby anymore. Instead he held a piece of rusty iron in his hands. He handed it to me and said, “This needs to go back to America with you. It was made in that old shop and I found it while I was digging in my garden a couple years ago. I want you to have it.” I turned the piece of rusted metal in my hands and I realized it was an old iron club head—very possibly from the same time period as my ladies’ mashie. I thanked him as earnestly as I could, and then I turned and began walking back to my car carrying both my club and rusty relic. After getting into my car, I just sat there holding my relic and looking at it. I took a deep breath as I realized I hadn’t even learned the man’s name; he became for me simply “the man with the baby.” Sometimes sacred moments come in anonymous ways.
I wondered what it must be like to spend a lifetime playing a single course. I wondered what it was like to be part of the fabric of that course—so intimately and so thoroughly to see it day after day until the days become seasons, the seasons years, and the years a lifetime. —Michael Bamberger (adapted from To the Linksland)
There was one more sacred experience awaiting me in Anstruther on my final day in Fife. I’d decided to return to play its 1890 nine-hole golf course one more time. I’d played it once earlier during my time and had formed an affinity for this lesser-known gem. I wanted to know the course under a different set of circumstances and conditions.
As I arrived, I imagined golfers from the nearby village coming so often over the years that they became “part of the fabric” of the course. I could not attain that level of familiarity in just two rounds, but I hoped I might catch a glimpse of the course’s deeper qualities—of its sacredness.
The first thing one observes upon viewing the Anstruther Golf Course is its impressive location right beside the sea. When I played it, the wind wasn’t a factor, but I can imagine that it can be a very difficult course under windy conditions. Regardless of the conditions, there is a hole at Anstruther that is one of the most memorable of my entire life with golf. It’s the 5th hole, aptly named “The Rockies,” which was selected by a golfing magazine as the most difficult par-3 in all of the United Kingdom. Here’s how that magazine described it:
You’re firing blind from an elevated tee to a tiny sloping green nearly 240 yards away. sitting next to the dark, jagged rocks of the Firth of Forth. Oh, and the fairway is pencil-slim and, like the green, falls away to the sea. There’s also knee-high rough and the wind is always against you. No wonder most locals play it as a par four—a bogey is a great result here…”
I played ‘The Rockies’ twice during my rounds at Anstruther and I obtained a triple-bogey 6 each time; I felt fortunate.
The 6th hole following ‘The Rockies’ is also along the sea and is another par 3. However, it is only 128 yards long, although one must play to a narrow, elevated green backed by a bank covered with treacherous gorse bushes. I scored a par both times I played this hole; such is the roller-coaster experience of playing golf at Anstruther.
Erratic scores were part of the Anstruther golfing experience for me, but I wouldn’t consider them “sacred.” I’ll reserve that term for a few special moments I spent reflecting beside the World War I memorial built right beside the second green. One can’t miss it; the memorial stands like a sentinel along the high bluff overlooking the sea. I’ve seen other World War I memorials in towns and villages of Britain, but none has impressed me more than this one.
The side-by-side coastal villages of Anstruther and Cellardyke lost over one-hundred men (and one woman) during World War I. After the declaration of war in 1914 both communities entered a difficult time: banks closed, staple goods doubled in price in local shops and fishing, a mainstay of the economy, was curtailed. The war fatalities came soon and often. Some of the men killed had formerly lived in the area, but had emigrated to Canada or Australia before the war and were serving for those nations when they died. Still the news of their deaths came as a shock to parents and family members who remained in Fife. The toll of those from the villages was so heavy at times that next of kin were not informed immediately for fear that the spirit of the people might be broken. In one battle, two brothers died within minutes of each other; one can only imagine the anguish felt by their parents, family and the community upon receiving word of their deaths.
Word of the Armistice finally came to Anstruther and the church bells, which had been silent during most of the war, rang again. A dispute arose between Anstruther and Cellardyke as to how to honor the war dead so two memorials were created, one in each village. The memorial next to which I stood was the one erected by Anstruther.
I counted forty-nine names on the memorial. Although a few of those listed in the honor roll no longer lived in Anstruther after the war began, it’s a staggering number for such a small town. And to realize that it all happened again with the onset of World War II just nineteen years after the memorial was dedicated.
Stories are life, life is stories. —Julie Beck
My time at the war memorial on the Anstruther Golf Course was sacred, but why do I say that? As I approached the war memorial that day during my round of golf, I hadn’t yet researched its history. One name, the first listed for Anstruther Wester, stood out to me—James Anderson. I knew it wasn’t the famous golf club maker himself because he had died in 1895. Yet I wondered whether this man might have been a descendant of the elder James Anderson—a son or a grandson perhaps?
This I do know: The James Anderson on the monument was a Private in the Canadian army. He was killed in action on February 10, 1917. A mason by trade he had lived in Anstruther Wester before the war and had married a woman from Cellardyke. They had emigrated to Canada in 1910, about the same year my James Anderson ladies’ “mashie” golf club was made at the Anderson shop.
I stood by the monument and I thought about how each of the names represented stories of a life lived—and ended much too soon. Each represented unfulfilled dreams and diminished hopes. Yet, in a sense, the memorial itself is a resounding symbol of hope. It was dedicated by the community on Christmas Day of 1921 with a deep conviction—and hope—that this had indeed been “the war to end all wars.”
Standing on the course in the rich late-afternoon sunlight, I am in a sanctuary. I wonder: What’s in store for me next time? There is hope in my voice, of course. Without hope there is no golf. —Michael Bamberger (adapted from To the Linksland)
I’m sure that much thought went into locating the Anstruther World War I monument at the edge of its golf course. Golf was a large part of the town’s identity in 1921 with club makers such as the James Anderson shop garnering widespread acclaim. There was even a plan to expand the course to 18 holes so that it might join the nearby Elie and Crail courses as among the elite in Fife. Some who planned the monument were undoubtedly golfers and had played the course many times. They knew the commanding vista of sea and town afforded behind that second green. And perhaps a few of those—just a few—understood that a golf course is also a hopeful place. What more symbolic backdrop could they find for their monument to hope?
After my time of reflection at the war memorial, I continued my round of golf. About an hour later, I stood at the tee for the final (9th) hole, which is situated with a view down upon the quaint harbor and town. I’d been in this spot just a few days earlier as I completed my initial round at Anstruther. That time it had been late afternoon, and as I teed my ball before hitting, I admired the low-angle radiance playing upon picturesque clouds to the east. “What a lovely view,” I said to my playing partner. “Would you please take my picture as I hit my shot so I can remember this moment in time?” I didn’t know then whether I would ever return to this special place again. There was only hope.
I did return, and as I stood in that same place on the 9th tee on my final day in Fife, I knew my hope of returning had been realized. I now aspire to once again return someday to Anstruther for another round of golf. After all the third time is a charm, they say—and “The Rockies” is awaiting me. Without hope there is no golf.
On a pilgrimage, we discover that the journey has its own rhythm. There are destinations that reveal themselves as our path unfolds. —Christine Valters Painter from The Soul of a Pilgrim
A pilgrimage takes on its own rhythm. During past travel experiences I’ve found that some of the most memorable times are not planned. Before going to Scotland, I’d prepared my list of possible destinations yet I tried to be open to changing that as circumstances—and the “Nudge”—dictated.
The Nudge is hard to define, yet all pilgrims experience it. Christians call it God’s Spirit. Whatever the source, it’s a strong inner sense that another, unforeseen way is the “right” one in this moment.
The best thing about my travels are the chance conversations, the satisfaction of finding my way around a new place…[and] imprinting it all in my memory. —Nadine Blacklock from 15 Years In A Photographer’s Life
And so it was for me that Sunday morning I left my bed and breakfast in Leven. I expected to drive directly to St. Andrews for a day of sightseeing in the home of golf. However, as I proceeded east to where the road splits and heads north towards St. Andrews, I saw a dark and threatening sky in that direction. “Hmmmm,” I thought to myself, “that doesn’t look very promising.” Then I looked to the east and south towards the region known as East Neuk; there the sky was clear and bright. I felt the Nudge and I determined in a moment that the right path for me that day was to be the coastal road, which circles the peninsula and eventually delivers one into St. Andrews.
I’d followed part of this coastal road the day before as far as Anstruther, Kilrenny and the Skeith Stone. I thought to myself: “This will be better. I’ll seek out an idyllic coffee house in Anstruther before proceeding on around East Neuk to St. Andrews. It will be later in the day when I get there, and maybe the stormy weather will have moved on by then.”
Just a few miles farther down the coastal road, I passed a sign pointing the way to the village of St. Monans; I can’t explain why it caught my eye. I’d passed it the day before and felt no inclination to follow—but this day was different. Maybe it was a curiosity to investigate the significance of the name St. Monans. Perhaps it was a hunch that I might find my idyllic coffee house in St. Monans rather than Anstruther. Possibly it was just the Nudge.
I turned at the sign and followed a narrow road leading a short distance into the village. I parked and walked down a steep hill to the small harbor; it was a quiet place that day. I looked for a sign on one of the buildings lining the harbor that might indicate a coffee house was present. I saw nothing.
Then a man passed me and I asked him where in town one might find a good espresso drink. Without hesitating he pointed to a small building perched along the east edge of the harbor. In his Scottish brogue he remarked, “That’s the East Pier Smokehouse; it’s the only place in town.”
It’s important to know that another of my aspirations for my pilgrimage before coming to Scotland was that it might lead me to meet a Scottish golfer with whom I could form a friendship that would continue after I returned to the U.S. Through that friendship I hoped to stay connected to the homeland of this game I love. Yes, I knew I’d have my vintage Scottish golf clubs that had been back to their “homes” in Fife, but their stories come to me in different ways than those from a golfing friend.
During each of my rounds of golf before coming to St. Monans I’d been paired with Scottish golfers, yet none were inclined to stay in touch with me after our rounds concluded. And with only a few days—and rounds of golf—left during my pilgrimage, the prospects of forming a Scottish golfing friendship were diminishing.
I entered the East Pier Smokehouse and immediately liked the place. It was quaint and cozy, and I was told it had once served as a smokehouse for fish unloaded from boats in the harbor. I ordered my drink and took it upstairs to the second floor. There I found a door leading onto a small sundeck overlooking the harbor. No one else was there at that moment so I took a table in the sunshine and in the shelter of the building out of the cool breeze. I settled into writing an entry into my journal. This was an idyllic time; this was the coffee house I had been seeking.
After a few minutes the door opened and a woman walked out and took a seat at a nearby table; two companions soon joined her. We struck up a conversation and I learned that they were day-hikers walking the South Fife Coastal Trail that passes through St. Monans. During the conversation that ensued, I shared some about my writing interests, my essays—and about my affinity for hickory golf. One of the women, Elis, remarked, “I’m a golfer too!” I told her that I planned to play the Elie Golf Course that following day, and she shared a bit about her course at nearby Crail. She mentioned that the professional at her course also liked hickory clubs. “You ought to stop in and talk with him if you have a chance.” I told her that I would try to stop when I passed through the Crail area later that day.
The women finished their refreshments and stood to leave and continue their hike. I quickly gave Elis the internet address for my WordPress writings site and listed a couple of golf-related essay titles for her to peruse. She smiled and said, “I’ll check these out later.” I thought to myself: “I have a hunch that she will.”
After a little more time in the sunshine on the deck, I too departed East Pier Smokehouse and began walking back up the hill to my car. As I went I reflected back over my fine time at the Smokehouse and about my conversation with the hikers on that sun-drenched deck.
“Wouldn’t it be something if my golfing friend from Scotland turned out to be Elis?” I thought to myself. “And to think I might meet her at an old fish smokehouse rather than on a golf course!”
Then came a knowing smile: “Well, why not? All pilgrims understand that God works in mysterious—and sacred—ways.”
Drink in the beauty and wonder at the meaning of what you see. —Rachel Carson from The Sense of Wonder
This personal essay was written by Steve Robert Simmons in 2016. All rights reserved.
I am grateful to Scottish golfer Elis Reekie whose support, encouragement and emerging friendship during the preparation of this essay helped keep me grounded in the homeland of golf. To be continued, Elis…