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Crofters teed off by island golf course

16 February, 2008

When Kenny Dalglish tees off in the sand dunes of South Uist this summer he will be creating golf history, opening to the public a “lost” course designed by the father of the modern game but hidden for the best part of a century under grass and wild flowers.

Described in the 1890s by “Old Tom” Morris, one of golf’s pioneers, as second to none, the resurrection of the 18-hole links course by the Atlantic has been hailed by today’s enthusiasts as golf’s holy grail.

The course’s opening in August is expected to stir interest across the world, with Golf Monthly calling it “a classic” and Mr Dalglish, the former Liverpool and Scotland footballer, who has been made honorary president, predicting: “Askernish Golf Club will become a jewel in world golf.”

But despite the plaudits, trouble is brewing in this corner of the Outer Hebrides. A small number of residents have begun a court action against the golf club, claiming that their right to graze cattle on the dunes is being infringed because the greens are fenced off. Insults have been traded and claims made of dirty tricks. The island’s two police officers were called after two local people pulled down fencing and removed pins at night before stuffing some of the 18 holes with dirt.

The dispute centres on the rights of crofters – a sensitive subject in the Highlands – and a stetch of machair, the sand dune habitat found only in parts of Scotland and Ireland. Speaking this week outside the courthouse on neighbouring North Uist, the crofters vowed to take their case to the European Court of Human Rights.

Although the golf course land is now owned by a community trust, they say that their rights to graze cattle on the machair were enshrined when the land was broken up by private owners in 1922. The new course would exclude them from a vast area, they say. They claim to have the support of a majority of the 11 crofters with rights over the machair, although the club disputes this.

After a two-hour hearing this week, which ended in a temporary setback for the crofters, Willie Macdonald, 53, chairman of the Askernish Township Grazings Committee, said: “I’m angry. I’m a crofter and I’m a human being, and my rights have been infringed.”

It is fair to say that the Uists, split between Presbyterianism in the north and Roman Catholicism in the south, have never seen anything quite like it. In the small fishing village of Lochmaddy, the Sheriff Court sits for two days a month and normally deals with drink-driving and cases of petty theft. This week’s hearing was delayed by 24 hours after an aircraft carrying one of the solicitors was grounded on the runway at Inverness airport.

In the front window of the village shop in Lochmaddy, a sign says: “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.” Around the corner is the spot where a mobile cinema – a large lorry with dozens of seats inside – parks once every few months.

With a population of only 4,500, there are few places to hide when neighbours fall out. After exchanging glares on the steps of Lochmaddy Sheriff Court, both camps retired to the bar of the local hotel, where they sat at neighbouring tables.

In his judgment, Sheriff Andrew Berry rejected an application for an interim order to halt the golf course, and said that any such motion should be heard in the Scottish Land Court. The crofters remained defiant. “It’s not over,” said Angus Campbell, 49, in whose name this week’s application was filed. “We’ll be taking this to the Land Court.” They have recruited a specialist crofting lawyer.

Angus Johnstone, 71, another crofter, said: “We’re not against the golf course but they are wanting a massive area. They are saying we can’t feed the cows near the fairways or the greens but we were feeding them there before most of them were born.” Gilbert Walker, 69, added: “Common grazing will never be the same if this goes ahead. This is a point of principle.”

When Old Tom Morris, a four-times Open champion, visited Askernish in the late 19th century, he laid out a course at the invitation of the landowners. Although there are few records of his visit, an article in the August 1891 edition of Golf: The Weekly Record of “Ye Royal and Ancient” Gamesaid: “The veteran Tom Morris, of St Andrews, the other week visited South Uist at the request of Sir Reginald and Lady Cathcart, and laid out a course which he pronounces second to none.”

The course has not been played since the 1930s, when part of it was turned into an airstrip. Although no map of it exists, a golf course consultant investigated after hearing rumours of its existence. Since then Gordon Irvine and Martin Ebert, a golf course architect, have attempted to resurrect Old Tom’s creation using the natural topography of the dunes to create a course as close as possible to the design that they believe he would have used. It is now only two holes from completion.

The club has already received more than 1,500 inquiries from golfers around the world and predicts that it will be generating £1 million for the local economy within five years. Annual membership will cost only £125. Although the club has won the first round in the courtroom, it intends to begin its own proceedings in the Land Court to clarify the course’s legal status and, it hopes, settle any dispute once and for all. Ralph Thomson, 53, the club chairman, hopes this will finally put an end to what he calls the “schoolboy behaviour” of his opponents.

Even some of the crofters on the land are strongly in favour of the course. Donald MacPhee, 50, one of several supporters, said: “There’s a quiet majority in favour. In my opinion it’s the best development that ever happened on this island.” He accused his fellow crofters of talking nonsense. He said: “If you were at the other end of the village giving away bars of gold they would be saying that they were too heavy and complaining about having to carry them home.”

By David Lister - timesonline


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