The village (and former royal burgh) of Cullen lies on the Moray coast, around twenty miles west of Elgin. Famous for a culinary delight known as Cullen Skink – a traditional soup made from smoked haddock, milk, potato and onion – it was once a thriving centre for fishing but nowadays its harbour is used mainly by pleasure craft.
The golf club was formed in 1870, with Old Tom Morris setting out the original 9-hole layout alongside Cullen Bay. Thirty-five years later, Charlie Neaves, the professional at Moray Golf Club in Lossiemouth, was called in to advise on the expansion to an 18-hole layout.
The additional land came from the Town Council, which rented the ground on the plateau next to the links from a local farmer. Ten new holes were fashioned in total, with one of the old holes lost to the new development.
An account at the time described the development as follows: “the new course is in striking contrast to the old one. The players had few hazards to encounter, and it was plain sailing from first to last. The present course is truly a sporting one, and abounds in hazards of such character that an inexperienced player will find himself punished.
Some holes on the top plateau require careful play. No doubt that in years to come, and with the course in steady use, a good many faults will be remedied, but the course will always remain a good test of golf.”
Today, the course measures just over 4,600 yards, playing to a par of 63, with ten par threes and only one par five on the scorecard. Quirky doesn’t really come close to adequately describing some of the holes that are played here, especially those located around the 80-foot high red sea stacks on the back nine.
Some courses fade in the memory as years pass. Holes mingle and elide until you're not quite sure where you played them. You will not, repeat not forget playing at Cullen! There are some completely conventional holes here, 1 and 3 for example and the closing stretch. But the middle section is unique. The landscape is dominated by huge rocks and strange escarpments.It is at once a primitive and thrilling place to play and you half expect dinosaurs to appear! There are blind shots aplenty and tees so elevated that vertigo is a danger. There are firsts they say you never forget : first kiss, first car and others. I would undoubtedly include your first round at Cullen in that list!
The club celebrates its 150th anniversary this year, which is a great achievement for such a relatively obscure golfing outpost up at the top end of the country. If you like your golf to be on the unorthodox side, with a little out of the ordinary and unconventional thrown in for good measure, then Cullen Links is bound to appeal to you.
Playing to a par of 63, there are no fewer than ten par threes on the card – with consecutive short holes played at holes 2 to 4 and 11 to 14 – so you might say golfing convention gets turned upside down here. The early holes are played along an escarpment overlooking the links ground before the long par three 7th plunges downhill to the holes next to the beach.
The remainder of the round is played out among the big sea stacks located close to the shore, with blind shots, crossing fairways and lie of the land greens all adding to the old-fashioned charm of the course. For sure, it’s a rather surreal setting for golf and one of the most unique I’ve ever come across – I wonder what Old Tom made of it all when asked to lay out the original nine holes?
My advice is not to bother about keeping score if you play Cullen, just go out and have some fun, like the locals have being doing for the last century and a half. Your green fee allows you to play all day if you like so maybe go out a second time and replay the holes you liked best. And when you’re done, don’t miss out on a bowl of Cullen Skink in the clubhouse – it’s delicious!