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History of golf in Elie & Earlsferry – Part III

Part III – Elie and Earlsferry Golf Club

Researched and compiled by Graham Johnston

In Part 1 we explained how the traditional golfing tract of Earlsferry became an official golf course subject still to the rights of the owner and tenant of the Grange estate. With the amalgamation of Earlsferry Abbey with Dumbarnie/Hercules in 1838 or so there appeared to have been little organised golf at Earlsferry. The landed gentry and important players of the area played at Dumbarnie twice a year and once as the Hercules Club at Earlsferry in addition, of course, to the strong attachment to St. Andrews. In part 2 we reported on the litigation with Sir Robert Malcolm concluded in 1833 but it had cost the Town Council and Earlsferry residents dearly.

With the finalising of the golfing tract one can imagine that the permanence of the golf holes meant that more people would have played. But would there have been a necessity for club? We rather doubt it. The Earlsferry men continued to play on their golfing tract without the red jackets. The land was owned and managed by the Town Council and although the coffers were somewhat depleted with legal expenses they still had an income to enable such maintenance that may have been required. A formal club with subscription etc. was unnecessary. It might well have been called the first municipal course. A clubhouse was not a vital part of the scene. The players were all local and presumably just picked up their club/s and wandered to the first tee looking for a game. There was no need for special golf shoes or red jackets. In any event the Golf Tavern was very close to the first tee and operated as a semi clubhouse and it served drink of course. Later part of Georgeville the house built by George Forrester next door to Golf Tavern was to have a sort of clubhouse facility but this was not until much later in the 1880s.

As the game started to catch on with the locals, competitions were sought. Various local worthies would put up prizes for competition amongst the Earlsferry golfers but there was a need for some sort of organisation to manage the competition, police them and award prizes and trophies. We imagine that the formation of the Earlsferry and Elie Golf Club was such a vehicle. By then the residents of Elie had taken an interest in the game and since only Earlsferry residents had a right to play over the course it made sense to form a club with members from both villages and of course make the Elie players pay a subscription! That we speculate was what happened in 1858.

It is perhaps a little surprising that a formal golf club did not emerge until 1858.

In 1865 a newspaper report is in the following terms “Earlsferry. The managers of Earlsferry* having sometime ago agreed [to] present a silver medal to the Earlsferry and Elie Golf Club, to be competed for annually, they, along with the captain and a few members of the club, met in the Town Hall on Friday last week, when Sunter, [in] a suitable speech, presented the medal, hoping that it would always fairly and honestly [be] played for and honourably won. Mr Proudfoot [The Captain] returned thanks in a very complimentary manner to the managers for the excellent gift which they had conferred upon the club. The medal was played for on Saturday, and won by Mr Andrew Rolland. Sir Robert Anstruther and other players were upon the ground, and also a pic-nic party from Andrews. *i.e. the Town Council

It would appear therefore the the club was flourishing because in the same year came this report.

EARLSFERRY. Golf Competition —On Saturday last, the members of the Earlsferry and Elie Golf Club met on the Links here, to compete for a very elegant silver Quaich presented to the Club by L. C. Browning, Esq….. In accordance with the wish of Mr Browning, the Quaich is to be competed for annually in a handicap match for the purpose of putting all the players on an equal footing. This was accordingly done on Saturday, and from the nature of the match, the competition was all the more keen and exciting. Two rounds of the Links —consisting of twenty-two holes*—were played, …..In the evening the members of the Club entertained Mr Browning to supper, in Aitken’s Hotel Elie. Mr Proudfoot, Captain of the Club, occupied the chair, and Dr Robertson officiated as Croupier [old term for vice chair traditionally sat at the bottom of the table] ……In the course of the evening toast and song were given alternately; and altogether a very pleasant and agreeable evening was spent. The supper was served in Mr Aitken’s very best style, and gave unqualified satisfaction.

*this was before any holes were built on the east side of Ferry Road.

In 1866 there was a competition organised by the club for 18th August. The prizes were a set of clubs donated by Colonel Babbington and the Club Medal. We know from a newspaper report of the proceedings that present were Sir Robert Anstruther, Patron of the Club, Babbington himself and the Dean of Faculty of Advocates. The great Tom Morris who had made the clubs which Babbington donated as a prize was also present. This seems to us to be a fairly prestigious gathering for a small golf club but the article also says “and others from St. Andrews”. By October of that year they were also competing for the Balcaskie Medal donated by the patron Sir Robert Anstruther. Things were indeed increasing in pace.

It seems that by 1872 things were firmly established and the list of medals was Browning Quaich, Burgh Medal, Robertson Cross, Club Medal, Baird Medal, Balcaskie Medal and the Henry Gold Medal. These had been presented to the club for competition and one of the stipulations of the club was that no player could win more than one medal in each calendar year. At that time the Patron of the club was Sir Robert Anstruther (Balcaskie), Captain was W.R. Ketchen the town clerk of Earlsferry, the secretary was James Davidson the schoolmaster. Significantly the approved professionals were Bob Mackie who was given the task of Greenkeeper and Andrew Rolland (Dougie Rolland’s father).

The membership was an interesting selection. There seems little doubt that many of the office bearers and movers and shakers were those members of the gentry who would have been members of Hercules and R and A.

We hazard a guess here that the playability of Earlsferry golf course was an attraction to these gentry members and would have shown a preference over Dumbarnie which by then was rather a boring and flat golfing area not exclusively dedicated to the sport, and St Andrews which was probably, as now, rather over subscribed. It is true that there was a thriving club at Crail but the convenience of Earlsferry seemed to attract the hardened golfer. By 1872 therefore there was a solid thriving club at Earlsferry and it seems from later remarks that it contained not only the “locals” but also some members from Edinburgh and further afield. Of course the arrival of the Railway line in 1863 made Earlsferry golf course that more accessible to Edinburgh aficionados. It may well have been that which attracted the higher social echelons of Edinburgh.

At this point the course comprised of 11 holes and a standard round was twice round the course. The club aspired to a larger area but it was to come a little later.

In 1873 there was another E.G.M. and this time we know that W.R. Ketchen resigned as Captain giving way to Mr. Henry, a gunmaker who lived in Chapel Green House. The significance of this resignation was to be made clear in a few years time.

Again the club had no recognised premises but to all intents and purposes it seemed to be in good fettle. It used Earlsferry town Hall for its meetings.

In the background however there must have been some tension because we know that Mr Ketchen, having resigned as captain, wooed the local landowner, William Baird, to grant him and three others a lease over the Melon Park an area lying to the east of Ferry Road and therefore in Elie (the only area of the golf course which was not and is still not in Earlsferry). He established a golf club in 1875 and a number of wealthy and well-to-do patrons were invited to subscribe funds to build a clubhouse (the one that stands today) and thereby incorporating the holes on the east side of Ferry road into the course.

Now one can imagine how this might have been received in the Earlsferry side of things. Firstly the Town Council were the owners of the golfing tract in Earlsferry and could very much control its use. It had no authority however over the part of the course on the other side of the town boundary. This was the new Elie Golf House club (GHC) and in due course they had a very commodious and substantial clubhouse from which to meet and socialise. It took a couple of years to build but by 1877 it was ready for action. It might have been thought that at that point the GHC held the upper hand but William Baird in granting a lease over the Melon Park stipulated that any golf club playing over the Earlsferry part was to have the right to play over the Elie part. There was therefore a reprieve for Earlsferry and Elie golf Club.

There was one other and much more significant consequence of this move. Because the GHC controlled the Melon Park and a spanking new club house the founder members could choose which worthies they would allow to become members. A number of the former members of Earlsferry and Elie club threw their lot and money into this fledgling but important new social hub. Equally as a number of members of the original club were by reason of their social and economic standing excluded from membership of the new entity it left most of the joiners, fishermen and masons still attached to the Earlsferry and Elie club. By 1877 the players of Earlsferry had become extremely proficient in the game, some were playing for money – not just a casual sweepstake but serious money -and this was unlikely to be appreciated by the members of the Golf House Club.

There were two other factors which ultimately led to the withering of the Earlsferry and Elie Golf club. The first was the loss to the GHC of these wealthy and influential members. There was a view that by that stage many, if not most, of the members of the Earlsferry Club were from outside the area and the “clubiness” of the GHC was far more likely to enhance their social standing than remaining with the old club.

There was another factor which had a considerable bearing on the outcome. Sir Robert Malcolm and his tenant at the Grange complained and raised another court action in 1878 against the Earlsferry and Elie club, the Town council, and George Forrester the Greenkeeper, complaining that the club by cutting the course to make it suitable for golf was depriving the tenant of the the Grange from the grass for his cattle. See part 2. Earlsferry having recently been subject to the hazards of the legal process not to mention the costs by the original litigation must have been extremely concerned. However on this occasion they did have the more powerful and financially more stable GHC to look to for some financial assistance with the defence. The GHC agreed, mindful of the consequences of losing this court action, to help fund the defence. This was a more formidable opponent than the Town Council and one suspects in the back ground the might of the GHC persuaded Malcolm to come to an amicable settlement and, as we shall see, this involved leasing a larger part of the Grange estate for the golf course. Obviously Earlsferry and Elie Golf club were very concerned about the costs and their individual liability therefor. We suspect this led to further defection to the other side of Ferry road. The action was speedily settled. One wonders if this was because Sir Robert Malcolm realised the muscle socially and financially of the new GHC. By then 1879 the GHC has demonstrated its power and it then started its own competitions.

One of the thorns in the side of the good golfers of the former club was that the rules stipulated that one player could not hold more than one of the club’s medals in each year. There was some concern about this rule. A further concern appeared to be the proliferation of “professional” golfers in the ranks. We suspect this intimidated many of the members of the former club who in any event were unlikely to be local. At the same time as the GHC was starting its affairs it became clear to a number of the Earlsferry and Elie members that they were not of a social standing to be admitted to the new club on the Elie side. In 1875 therefore the Earlsferry Thistle golf club came into existence – it gathered in those really good golfers from the Earlsferry lads and it proved to be a very strong club challenging a number of surrounding clubs to matches. See part 4

Symptomatic of the increased “clout” of the GHC was their reaction in 1877 to the visit of Prince Leopold (the youngest son of Queen Victoria) to the area. He was visiting Balcarres.

Despite this setback he did indeed visit the villages and spent some time in and around Ruby Bay and the Ladies Tower. But the accolade of having invited royalty obviously marked the GHC with the correct pedigree.

In 1881 there is a report that the scheduled competition for the Robertson Cross by Earlsferry and Elie golf club did not take place owing to lack of players. This was a foretaste of what might come. It seems that after this failure the club became moribund prompting this article in August 1883.

There were other significant advancements in the golfing scene in Elie and Earlsferry at this time. With the huge increase in interest in the game the manufacture of golf clubs became an important business and George Forrester having returned from USA in 1872 started a business making these clubs. The business flourished and he eventually acquired property in Links Road and built Georgeville part of which he let out to the Earlsferry and Elie Golf Club as a clubhouse. George Forrester’s business rapidly became so successful that he employed many of the young Earlsferry golfers as apprentices in his “shop”. These apprentices in the main were excellent golfers in their own right and after an apprenticeship with Forrester many became professional golfers* all over the world. However a mere golf club maker was hardly the pedigree to become a member of the GHC so these golfers joined the Thistle – the “artisan” arm. The Simpson family and James Braid were attached to the Thistle rather than the Earlsferry Club. * see article on professional golfers on Elie History website.


The club seemed to survive however and there is a report in these terms in 1895.

It is interesting that the Outhwaite family of Craigforth seemed to have taken an interest in the Earlsferry club whilst one would have thought with their pedigree the GHC might have seemed more attractive. The Outhwaites were very good golfers but perhaps the younger brother was not GHC material because he owned and ran a garage and car business in Cupar.

About this time the muscle of the GHC was also felt in the acquisition of more areas of ground for the golf course. At this point the management of the golfing tract was by agreement handled by a joint green committee of Earlsferry and Elie golf club, the Town Council and GHC. After the compromise of the litigation in 1878 the GHC courted the Malcolm estate at Grange for more land resulting in a lease agreement in 1886.