The Golf Clubs of Earlsferry and Elie – Part I
By Graham Johnston
In the beginning in Earlsferry ….there was not very much. But what there was, was an area of ground to the north of the houses in Earlsferry High Street that at least in part was of not much use to man nor beast. It was bents, dunes grass of poor quality, sand and perhaps gorse.
The village itself developed along a main street (High St) with those houses on the south side of the street reaching down to the high-water mark of the beach and those on the north side reaching a little bit further north to this infertile ground.
It became a recreation area principally where the locals would walk, hang out their washing, collect divots to thatch their houses and most importantly, as a recreation, to play golf.
For many years, even centuries, it was used by the young and older men as a playground to hack about a golf ball. The club and feathery balls were hand made by the local residents and a very rudimentary golfing tract was established probably between Ferry Road – the western boundary of the village – and the sea, some half a mile to the west. However, this ground was not exclusively barren waste land since the tenant farmer of the Grange Farm had certain grazing and other rights over parts of it. It was this that gave rise to the notorious litigation between the Malcolms of Balmedie & Grange and the villagers of Earlsferry which lasted from 1813-1832 (of which more later).
The young men of the time would use the area of ground to play golf or a form of the game just as waste areas of ground in the West of Scotland became rudimentary football pitches.
Thus the tradition of golf was established in that area of ground affectionately known as the golfing tract. The practice was said to go back to the 14th Century or “time immemorial…..” It was not a formal golfing area and the start and conclusion of various holes depended upon the other demands of the area and there was nothing like an organised golf club. The actual outline of the course was fluid, changing direction and holes depending on the demands by others for the ground in question and indeed what crops were grown on some of it.
At that time elsewhere golf was a rich man’s sport. A suitable area of ground – many, many acres – was required to form any sort of golf course and the golf clubs were hand made by craftsmen whose other job was usually carpentry. This meant that the aspiring golfer would need a good finance background before indulging.
The young men of Earlsferry became quite proficient at striking a feathery golf ball on this ground. Competition was intense and their skills were keenly honed on this common piece of ground belonging to all the residents of the area.
In the chronological list of golf clubs established in Scotland, Earlsferry comes very high up the list because of the discovery of a newspaper advertisement of 1787. The clubs claiming earlier existence are:
The advertisement is in the following terms:
No other evidence has yet to be unearthed to increase the profile of this Golf Society. However further analysis of the advertisement can, we submit, give some clue to its existence.
So far as we know it was not the habit of the young golfers of Earlsferry who played on the golfing tract to form themselves into an organised club. Indeed, there was no real need for it. The combatants were well known to each other and head-to-head matches were presumably simply fixed in the local hostelries or the first tee. The need for organisation into a club may well have come later but in the latter half of the eighteenth century it is difficult to find any reason for these Earlsferry golfers to form themselves into an organisation of Society.
In contrast it was the practice of the gentry, to whom golf was also a pastime, to form themselves into organised golfing societies especially if they were not resident locally in the golfing area. The existence of the society gave rise to the practice continuing to this day of using the golf course for networking. We can surmise that this Earlsferry Golf Society might have been composed of a number of landed and wealthy persons who may not have lived locally. It is significant, we think, that the advertisement was published in a newspaper with a main circulation in Edinburgh and surrounds. We can take it that if these golfers who lived in Earlsferry wished to have a meeting it would have been advertised by word of mouth rather than in a posh Edinburgh newspaper. In 1787 the probability is that most of the young golfers of Earlsferry would hardly read a newspaper like the erudite and socially important Caledonian Mercury. We calculate therefore that the Earlsferry Golf Society may well have been one which was not based locally but which used the golfing tract for its meetings. Later, Dumbarnie/Hercules Club would have a similar profile.
Despite fairly robust searches there is no further evidence of this golf society. We do though have some clues. It seems to be the only advertisement that we can find, suggesting that the society whatever its pedigree was not long lasting. It is significant that whilst it is clear from the advertisement that the members are expected to attend it does not specify the actual place in Earlsferry that the dinner will be on the table at 3 o’clock. Subsequent advertisements for such meetings of other clubs and societies tend toward specifying Earlsferry Town Hall at the preferred venue. It may well be that no other establishment in the village could accommodate these members and it was well known that their preferred meeting place would have been the Town Hall. There certainly was no recognised hotel at that time in the village. The P. Plenderleath mentioned is highly probably Patrick Plenderleath, who was born in Elie in 1750 and the son of Benjamin Plenderleath, who was factor to Sir John Anstruther* (1st Baronet) who at that time would have been resident in Elie House. It seems that Patrick went on to become a writer/lawyer in Pittenweem and died in 1798. Furthermore he became the factor to the Balcaskie side of the Anstruther family*.
It is conceivable that this is the correct gentleman with his Elie/Earlsferry connections and learning sufficient to be a secretary for the Society.
The advertisement also says, “by order of the Captain..”. We know nothing about him but if, as we surmise, he would likely be aristocracy it would not be too far-fetched to suggest that the captain might well have been Sir John Anstruther, the second baronet, who succeeded to the title on the death of the first in 1783. Or indeed more likely Sir Robert Anstruther of the Balcaskie line of baronets to whom Patrick Plenderleath was, inter alia, the factor. His successor (5th baronet) is mentioned as being “on the links” for the inaugural competition for a medal presented by Earlsferry Town Council – therefore subscribe to Sir Robert – the third baronet – as being the captain. He also became head of Earlsferry and Elie Golf Club (q.v.). Patrick himself died in 1798.