Reay Village Golf Club was founded in 1893, with twelve holes laid out for golf between Sandside Bay and the main road to Thurso. According to a Course & Club History booklet produced by the club in 1993, “during that first year, membership rose to approximately thirty, and was limited to persons living or working on the Pilkington estates. Visitors, or strangers as they were more often termed, could play the course albeit on a limited basis.”
In the book James Braid and his Four Hundred Golf Courses authors John F. Moreton and Iain Cumming make reference to a visit made by James Braid on 10th January 1933: “The estate changed hands in 1931, and the maintenance of the course devolved to the club. Hence Braid’s arrival and the possibility of an eighteen hole course. However, financial implications weighed heavily and the new six holes were never built. As for Braid’s suggestions for the original twelve, they were all implemented.”
Alex Manson held the position of club secretary from 1893 to 1938 but within two years of his resignation (and the start of World War II) the club entered into something of a hibernation period. This lasted for around fifteen years, until the nuclear establishment at Dounreay was commissioned right next to the course, bringing an influx of workers into the area. John F. Moreton and Iain Cumming pick up the story:
“In the late 1950s nine holes were constructed or reconstructed and by 1965 eighteen holes were in place. The present course uses some of the elements of the original, with five holes having a strong relationship with the pre-World War II course.” In more recent times, a new chapter began during the club's 125th anniversary year in 2018 as the land on which the course is laid out had been purchased the previous year, allowing it to be retained as a community asset for many years to come.
I played Reay in the COVID summer of 2020 as I got towards the end of my own Scottish top 100 challenge. I was met at the club my a nice gent who took responsibility for the bookings and he explained the set-up and the recent COVID requirements.
I really enjoyed my day out the course, which is over the hill from Dounreay power station. The club struggled for members in recent times and currently the course is tended to by a part time green keeper and volunteer members.
The course is a good old fashioned links, the opening three holes are relatively benign and not worth recalling but the 4th is a par 5 which is very reminiscent of many links courses, with a tee shot landing short of a ridge across the fairway which provides a blind second shot. From here onward there are a series of great holes, in particular for me the par 3's. As you can imagine with the part time green keeping the rough is brutal in places but the course isn't too tight. The signature hole for me was the par 3 9th, once on the green you get a great view back along the bay.
I struggled grading the course as I felt there were some cracking holes but these were balanced with some straight forward plods. Overall I would say it was above average, especially for the area and climate. Do not go expecting great greens and manicured fairways! It had a charm for me, a course from yesteryear. If you are in the area it is absolutely worth playing but I wouldn't make a dedicated journey. It is an ideal stop for the recently famous North Coast 500.
I passed by Reay in August 2018, on my way from Durness to Wick, but only gave it a cursory glance from the road as I was on a tight schedule (as is ever the case) to complete a 490-mile trip from Glasgow to Nairn the same day! It was a BIG mistake to not at least have a look around the clubhouse environs because, returning here 14 months later last October, I could tell right away this was a decent place to play!
It’s the most northerly course on the British mainland, located in Sandside Bay, with the club dating as far back as 1893. Unfortunately, the old 12-hole course fell into disrepair after World War II but the arrival of the nuclear plant next door in the 1950s saw a resurgence in golfing interest from its workers and an extended 18-hole came into play a decade later. Exactly how many of these new holes followed James Braid’s plans from 1933 is anybody’s guess.
What really matters is that the modern day course is a cracking little links layout, no matter its exact provenance. Starting and ending with a par three, which is unusual in itself, it’s routed across a heaving landscape that never sits still – there’s nearly always a rise or fall from every tee. Many of the greens are basic lie of the land (though there’s always a little contour or two to negotiate) with economic use of bunkering throughout.
On the front nine, both par fives at the 4th and 6th are mighty three-shot holes. I liked the second of these in particular, aptly named “Braid’s Choice”. Laid out on the flattest section of the links, closest to the beach, it doglegs left from the tee to a green that’s partly protected by a wetland area to the front left of the putting surface (pictured above).
A look at the course guide tells you this is a new development, entirely natural, which first appeared in 2006. Rather than “fight nature” the club now incorporate the feature into the design as “future high tides and heavy downpours will continue to take their toll”. The hole that follows this is also a belter, a long par three (rated stroke index 1) playing up to a plateau green that sits behind the Reay Burn – it’s an absolute beast of a “short hole!
On the back nine, I loved the par four 11th, with its fairway crossing the preceding hole at right angles, where the green lies hidden beyond a fairway marker post and the putting surface runs away from front to back. The 13th is quite similar, requiring another blind approach, but this time there’s a couple of naughty pot bunkers positioned in front of the green to catch those playing the hole for the first time.
It’s a pity that due to its remote location Reay is not as well frequented by visiting golfers as it should be. Good courses deserve the custom of people in search of an authentic links experience, no matter how far they’re situated from the main centres of population, so I’m delighted to see this layout now commands a position in the latest Scottish Top 100 on this website.
A minibus of American golfers is not the first thing I expected to see on arrival at Reay Golf Club; the most northerly 18 hole links on mainland Scotland!
To our surprise there were around a dozen Yanks milling around the clubhouse, some on the putting green, others just paying their green-fee. We were on a tight schedule and had been hoping for a quick 2-ball round of golf at a deserted links; a moments delay now could result in serious consequences.
We were pegging it up in The Club’s 125th Anniversary ’Walk On’ Open and after a double bogey start my playing partner was most likely cursing me for making us effectively jump the queue, push-in and sprint to the first tee.
Reay is a golf course that I had not been able to find much information out about so hopefully if you have stumbled across this review you are perhaps in the same boat as me and I can therefore shed some light on the course. If you are short on time right now the quick answer is simply ‘go there’ because it offers plenty of very good golf.
The longer answer will hopefully explain why it is worth making what is most likely a very long (and beautiful) journey to this authentic links course on the North Coast of Scotland around 15 miles west of Thurso.
I maintain that all a ‘good’ links course requires is firm turf, natural undulations, a few changes in elevation and some decent green complexes. Reay has got the lot and if you factor in the glorious location, and the panoramic views, it offers more than many.
It is a genuine links which is subtle and simple at times (but all the better for that) whilst at other moments the land is more dramatic and the golf more fun and exciting. It all adds up to great variety and with the exception of the less-linksy second hole and a minor blip mid-way through the back-nine (approach shot to 14 and the short 15th) there is a tremendous amount of very good golf.
The front-nine is your ‘classic links’ whilst the back-nine is more undulating, unorthodox and at times quirky (reminiscent of Bude & North Cornwall in South-West England for those who are familiar). There are a few excellent short two-shotters on the homeward stretch which make superb use of the terrain; the 16th and 17th are superb risk reward holes. The green sites throughout are very good and at times exceptional.
As we left the carpark I noted the last group of Americans were just finishing the front-nine! We had made it just in time.
I paid a measly £12.50 to play the course and to say I got value-for-money is a massive understatement. The daily green-fee of £30 would have been more than palatable. For anyone considering taking the risk to visit unknown Reay then the answer is most definitely yes.
Ed is the founder of Golf Empire – click the link to read his full review.