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  • Alistair Tait

My heart's in the highlands

Updated: Feb 4, 2021

No surprise my heart's in the highlands on this day of all days. Like all Scots, I'll be celebrating Burns Night tonight, albeit a wee bit differently than other years for obvious reasons.

Still, any day's a good day when there's promise of a wee dram at the end of it. Or even a big yin.

Robert Burns's Farewell to the Highlands reads:

"Farewell to the Highlands, farewell to the north, The birthplace of Valour, the country of Worth; Wherever I wander, wherever I rove, The Hills of the Highlands for ever I love."

The chorus speaks for many exiled Scots like me.

"My heart's in the Highlands, my heart is not here, My heart's in the Highlands, a-chasing the deer; A-chasing the wild deer, and following the roe, My heart's in the Highland's wherever I go."

I know what you're thinking: there's nothing sappier than an exiled Scot looking through rose tinted glasses back to his homeland. Yes, we're guilty at times of shovelling on the nostalgia with a large trowel. That was especially true when I lived in Canada. Visiting the homes of fellow Scottish emigrants was sometimes like stepping into some giant shortbread tin. Basement recreation rooms would often be decorated with crossed claymores on the wall, coats of arms, clan tartans and other paraphernalia to remind visitors that although said owner had upped sticks for a new life, Scotland was definitely still very much home.

I'm a wee bit guilty of that same nostalgia, but then absence really does make the heart grow fonder.

Unlike Burns I'm not thinking of the deer: I'm thinking of the gowf and the hills. If this series of lockdowns has hammered anything home to me it's how much I've missed both playing my favourite sport in its birthplace and exploring Scotland's hills. This pandemic meant I didn't play one round of golf in Scotland last year. I only climbed two Munros. I was fortunate to climb Creise and Meall a'Bhuiridh with my daughters in September.

No wonder I'm pining for my homeland.

Needless to say, I've been making lists and checking them twice of hills I intend to climb this year, and golf courses I want to play. The latter list might not include the courses many associate with the Home of Golf. Yes, I want to play the Old Course, Muirfield, Carnoustie, etc., but I long more for quieter places, wee gems off the beaten track. I want to return to places where it's not about ticking championship courses off a list, but experiencing golf in fantastic surroundings.

Not many reading this will list Comrie Golf Course (pictured) at the top of their places to play after a pandemic, but it's on my list. First time I played this wee gem was while covering a Scottish Open at Gleneagles. It was my first experience of an honesty box. I deposited my green fee in the box and had the course to myself on a summer's evening. The setting amid the Perthshire Hills is fantastic. My only regret? I didn't put another green fee in the box when I finished and play another round. There was certainly plenty of light to have gone round again at that time of year.

Fortrose & Rosemarkie (below) is also on my must play list. I played there once when the Scottish Open was at Castle Stuart. It was a dreich evening to be sure, but such is the joy of this course that the rain didn't dampen my spirits. I've booked a holiday near the course in August. I'm looking forward to a glorious summer's evening on this wee jewel of a links with fantastic views of the Moray Firth.

Braemar is on my list. For some stupid reason I've only played nine holes on this highland gem. It was on one of those press trips when the organiser tries to cram in as many visits to as many places as possible, and tries to add 20 pounds to your frame by feeding you huge breakfasts and three-course meals twice a day. I wish I'd said "I'll pass on the distillery visit and lunch, I'd prefer to play the back nine, thank you."

I aim to throw in the wee 9-hole course at Tarland when I'm in the Braemar area. I played it years ago on my own on another glorious Scottish summer's evening and thought: it really doesn't get any better than this. As 1999 Open champion Paul Lawrie says: "It's a bonnie spot."

Shiskine on Arran at Blackwaterfoot is also on my list. I've only played this unique 12-hole course once. Aside from being blown away by the stunning scenery, I remember thinking, if only golf's forebears had agreed on 12 holes as the norm then the game would probably be far more enjoyable for so many more. Another 12 holes at Shiskine can't come fast enough.

I've been fortunate to play The Machrie on Islay twice. On my first trip I thought, links golf doesn't get more quintessential than this. I haven't had the pleasure of playing this wild, windswept links beside The Atlantic since former European Tour player DJ Russell made course changes. I've heard great things about Russell's alterations, and can't wait to see them. Perhaps the fact there are so many distilleries on the island has something to do with pining for a return.

Hmmmm, whisky and golf? Now if you can't dream of Scotland's two best inventions on Burns Night, then you don't deserve to be called a Scot.

#JustSaying: "Here's a bottle and an honest friend/What wad you wish for mair man?" Robert Burns

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