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History of Golf at Earlsferry – Part I

Part 1 – The Golf Course

On or about the middle of February or it may have been March 1812, Robert Carstairs the tenant farmer of the Malcolm family who owned Grange Estate in Earlsferry set out from Grange Farm down the road toward Earlsferry, no doubt with his trusted Clydesdale horses and his plough.  What he did within the next few hours was to have repercussions for at least 30 years events which were not eventually resolved until the 1850s at great personal expense and angst to the citizens of Earlsferry and considerable financial benefit to the lawyers. Indeed Earlsferry nearly became bankrupt as a result.

To understand the significance of what happened we have to go back a few centuries.  Earlsferry was not like it is now but consisted simply of two rows of houses one on the north and on the south side of Earlsferry High Street, which stopped at the end of the high street.

There was no building on the shore line and the houses on the north side of the High Street had gardens or more likely yards and middens which extended up a few yards and ended on an area of ground which was really just waste ground.  However, the citizens of Earlsferry used the area for a number of things. This is the first ordnance survey map of 1850 so it is reasonable to assume that prior to that date and certainly prior to 1812 there was somewhat less building on the north side.

This is what the area looked like in 1813 (above).

The tenant of the Grange ploughed roughly the area in the red box.  In effect he cut off the links beside the village from the links beside West Bay.

The contours and size of the golf course, the number of holes available to play, varied according to a number of factors.  It changed not only with the seasons but also when the playing of golf competed with so many other things happening or expected to happen on this hallowed piece of ground stretching from Ferry Road to West Bay. Sometimes cattle and sheep were grazed on it and sometimes parts of it were ploughed up by the tenant farmer of the Grange.   When it was, the golf course simply changed direction until after the harvest or the residents of Earlsferry made a path through the corn or drove the ball over it. Not that the ground actually produced much crop.

The locals said that Golf had been played on the links at Earlsferry for many centuries and the links area which borders on the north side of Earlsferry along Links Road was common ground used for a variety of purposes over the years.

It was always considered that this ground was common to the residents of Earlsferry and as such they had a right of access over it for whatever purpose they chose or so they alleged.  However, it was golf that predominated on this area.

The proprietor of Grange Estate, Sir Michael Malcolm in the 1810s, obviously took exception to the playing of golf on what he considered was part of his estate farm and he instructed his tenant, Carstairs, to prevent the good citizens of Earlsferry from playing golf there by ploughing up more land than had been done before.

Eventually in 1815, after no doubt considerable disruption to the games of golf, Malcolm raised an action in the Cupar Sheriff Court seeking interdict to prevent the citizens of Earlsferry from playing golf on his land.

The Magistrates of Earlsferry, as representing the people of Earlsferry, raised a counter action claiming that the citizens of Earlsferry had a right to play golf on their land and they owned it but lest they did not then they sought, a right which they claimed was enshrined in law as a servitude. [A servitude is a right to do something over a piece of land you do not own which attaches to the occupation or ownership of an area of land which you do own.One would have thought that the possession of a title deed might have been definitive of this dispute but as no one seemed either to have a title deed or, if they had at one time it had been lost, the litigation was necessary.

There was eventually a hearing of evidence which lasted in all two years during which there were witnesses led by both sides. There was a procession of the good, great and maybe not so great of Earlsferry including such luminaries as James Waddell the town clerk, James Forrester the golf professional and Admiral William Duddingston of Gaspee incident fame who had built Earlsferry House.  All were summoned to appear in Edinburgh to evince the fact that golf had been played on this bit of land for as long as they, and no doubt their fathers and grandfathers too, could remember.

Malcolm contended that the evidence of these witnesses for the burgh was tainted because they lived at or near Earlsferry and might be supposed to have been biased in favour of being able to play golf on as large an area as possible so no doubt the first question in cross examination was “Do you play golf? to which the answer seemed to have been invariably Yes thereby disclosing a vested interest.

The contention of Earlsferry was that the burgh had a servitude right on an adjoining land of commonty called Ferry Links of golfing, bleaching clothes, steeping lint, casting divots and perambulating over it.  And that they had a right to a piece of land called Coalbaikie but it, or part of it, had been ploughed up by Carstairs, Malcolms tenant, and in addition he had been taking stone from the quarry there.

During the process a map was drawn up showing the then position