MORNING dawns afresh from the past. Children
went out ere the dew was off the grass, the girls—slender basket in hand—to
gather nuts, the boys to show their prowess, by leaping from the turf into
the sandy and half-weird depths of "Corbie’s hole." The dew lies on the
memory of that morning.
It was a stretch of
bent-covered blown sand, somewhat north of the Forth and south of the Tay.
Fife, as all the world knows, is a peninsula, with more of sea coast than
any other county on the east of Scotland, and for that reason is a paradise
of links. It is the olden golfing land when golf was young, to which all the
new-sprung links look back as children to their home, as colonists to their
native country. Golf was younger then.
Wind-spun dunes rose rank
within rank; the outer and younger facing the sea, the older and inner
rolling and softening, as waves soften into ripples and lose themselves on
the shore. Here and there the turf was lifted, and the farm carts bore away
the sand, leaving deep or shallow pits. Of such was "Corbie’s hole."
The lark sprang from the turf
to carol over the heads of the nut-gatherers, the linnet sang the song of
the whins. Far between were the nests, where was space for all. The
wandering feet disturbed the sitters. A scream at the rising of the mallard
softened into murmurs of delight, as was laid bare a clutch, full as that of
the sitting hen at home. Girl hands brushed down the panicles of grass, lest
the boys should take the dusky eggs of the moss-cheeper.
Through the years I hear the
plaintive pipe of the golden plover, the wail of the lapwing, the querulous
scream of the summer tern; just as I see the glow of whins, the sheen of the
blue seaside butterflies, and the bent girl forms. Ah! those forms. How
charming human nature looks through the haze of distance, how the beauty of
The village stood on the
north-west corner; a simple community then, with many unspoiled characters.
When trade was slack of an afternoon, the shopkeeper would take down his
somewhat primitive clubs, to knock the balls about over the untamed course.
Golf was an escape from the narrowing influence of barter, an outlet for the
sporting instincts cribbed behind the counter, a breezy and healthful
element in village life. It led into the fresh air, fostered the love of
space, of sky, and sea, of the glow of whins, the carol of larks. No less
did it teach the love of fair play, and was at the making of true men. The
golfer was an accident lost in the sheen, dwarfed in the largeness,
wandering half-hidden through avenues of tall blue grasses and dusky bushes.
No longer are the links wild with untamed bent grasses.
The whins are passing ; at most they glow as solitary tapers in untenanted
corners. The nut-gatherers are visions undying. The simple men are memories,
or to be seen in pictures. From an accident the golfer became the main
feature. Blight fell upon the scene.
And lifelessness. In lessening numbers lark and linnet
sing. Lapwings scream and golden plovers pipe elsewhere. Nesting sites were
trodden down. Of the rarer species none were left. Space and air to sing in
must be found elsewhere. For these the exiles sought in one of two
directions. Further along the coast, on some other stretch of bent-bound
sand, the natives might have retained the simple habits of their
forefathers. But where? To the west, across a stream, was one of a circlet
of Fife courses of date unknown, a miniature St. Andrews.
To the east was a ruder scene. For two miles the links
ran on, skirting Largo Bay. It was a wild walk. At the end whereof was a
sleepy hamlet; in very deep sleep indeed. This hamlet awoke to the
possibilities of the links and claimed its share. There, too, the whins are
passing, the bents are tamed or replaced by smoother turf; an olden nesting
site is a putting green; its olden birds, so long undisturbed save by the
nut gatherers, are gone.
The two hamlets have entered into partner ship. The
outgoing players from the one pass the players from the other, and on
returning pass them once again. So they circle round. And this is but the
beginning. Whatever wildness there is remains to be subdued.
Elsewhere, in this golfing county, men are equally busy.
Dunes, the natural outworks of such a scene, are being softened, and the
bents which waved in the sea breeze over the nests are shorn; until, as far
as I can think, only one stretch is left where breeding may be done in
peace. Happily, it is great and ample. Thither the ousted birds have
directed their flight, and there the olden tenants of many a links must have
Even that has been threatened. The eyes of golfing clubs
have been upon it. These attentions will not cease. It is too tempting to be
let alone. Should it be invaded, the last refuge will be indeed gone. The
good sense of the proprietor, with a little backing from such as care for
these things, may put off the evil day-has put off the evil day.
The nearest village, just on its edge, must have its
golf-course. The stretch of blown sand between it and the sea, bore the same
relation as other links to other villages. It seemed but fit that they
should enter on possession of as much as would lay out into the orthodox
eighteen holes. After all, it was but a little corner from a vast area.
Still it would have been the thin end of the wedge. I assume that was why
the course was laid out, not on the seaward, but on the landward side.
Last season I was crossing the moor, as I do more than
once every year. I stood in the midst of the vast environment, absorbing the
charm and the weirdness of the scene; listening to the many wild calls, and
more particularly watching the play of a pair of dunlins. A voice startled
me-as voices other than those of birds do in such places-and asked me if I
had any eggs. "For," said the perfectly courteous interrogator, "the
proprietor wishes to protect the birds." "I am glad to hear it," was my
reply. One of such tastes is scarcely likely to let loose the golfers.
The tenure changes, the tenant passes. Other men, other
ideas. The place is not safe. Some restraint more permanent than a life,
more tangible than sentiment, more generally understood than a love of
nature, may have to be applied.
This movement must modify the wild life of our coast; to
quite an appreciable extent, alter its distribution. A single coast
golf-course will disturb the balance to its degree; the combined effect of
many golf-courses is hard to estimate.
Where was a breeding place, and is one no longer, the
summer fauna must be altogether different and infinitely poorer. The olden
birds which lived all the year round will be no more seen. Visitors from the
south-time out of mind -will cast a glance from the wing and pass on. Summer
terns which splashed in the lit waters will scream maledictions. Bright
eider drake and dark duck will find no place among the trodden heather
Winter birds, which pass the short days on the shingle
and the sandbank, or feeding in the weed-fringed pools of the rocks, may go
in summer and return in autumn. But that depends on how far they have to go.
After a while they may find coasts as rich and sheltered, nearer their
Of course, golf must go on. Were it the old delightful
game, and the players sportsmen, it is well that it should go on. No one
loves sport more than I do. I love it well enough to wish that it may not
kill itself out, which, granting rope, it seems bent on doing. All who
frequent the links know that it is not the old game, and two-thirds of the
new contingent of players are not sportsmen. Golf is no longer sincere. And
like other insincere things is in danger of passing. Men play to win, and
are crabbed when they lose, deny every merit to another's game, think the
turf in league with their opponent to rob them of their just rights.
Rudeness is common where only courtesy prevailed. The very atmosphere is
Signs are not wanting that the better class are disposed
to retire from the game. To the olden sportsman, golf is memory's guest, and
he would rather have the unsullied remembrance of it than the coarse
reality. If he be tempted down to the tee-box and be not jostled out, he
will have an unhappy round, in which rude words may be addressed to him. He
has left no successors. The modern school have no traditions. They ask for
no environment and get none. They play a bare game in a keen way, as bare as
they who play on a billiard table in a heated room. No charm is left, nor
wandering outline. Many are not to be distinguished from professionals. I
beg the professional's pardon, for certain of whom I have a great respect,
and whose position is at least plain. Why make distinctions? The name of
amateur has ceased to have any meaning. Links there are, being increasingly
shunned. St. Andrews is one of them. Men come, but not they who were wont to
come. In summer there is a rush, but it is an ugly rush. Ugly or not, their
money is good. The turf is an asset of the town. Such is the modern gospel.
So much by the way. It is no immediate concern of mine.
My theme is not the ousting of the olden golfers-who disturbed as little as
they could-sad as that may be. The contrast is great. The fowl in possession
are not interesting. And those who have a little horizon behind, a few years
of retrospect, sigh for still older tenants, who shared what was once all
Many birds that winter by the sea, when spring comes
round, seek the country for choice. The curlew's whistle is heard alike from
the fisherman's and the peasant's cottage. It is a matter of suitable
nesting site, wherever found. May not coast breeders go along with them and
share in the boundless possibilities? The inlands of Fife have many
moorlands. Many whin-covered knolls of igneous rock, many stretches of
barren sandstone, many heathery peat wastes.
Once upon a time this would have been all very well. In
the olden days, golf was a coast game; and they who cared to play turned
their faces to the sea. In the evening the ring of quoits was heard on the
inland village green. But the craze spread. It was not enough to have a
fortnight in the summer, or an afternoon at the end of a long railway
journey. Men must have it nearer home; ay, and women too.
Would-be golfers looked out for some eligible piece of
land. The barren place was the cheaper. From the rabbit borings, it had
probably the lighter soil. Whin and heather, those best of natural hazards,
abounded; a ditch or old quarry lent variety. A burn ran through, which
might be crossed more than once. The stretch was leased : some green-keeper
of note was summoned, to tell how it might best be laid out. The rough
parts, where the wader nested beside the grouse, were tamed. The moist
places, where the mallard raised her brood near the water-hen, were drained.
And so it came about that the coast birds arrived in
March or April to find the secret avenues among the glowing whins invaded by
men running after balls. The curlew rose higher in the air, or took a wider
sweep to spy the land, and find where next to place its great dim eggs. The
new-comers were as much at a loss as where they came from.
Only last night, I heard the pipe of a redshank mingling
with the scream of a lapwing. For want of a better place, it was nesting on
the pasture land, among the feet of the grazing sheep. A rustic sat by the
stream watching the restless flight. Even to his bucolic wit, it seemed away
from home. The bird would not light while the man was there. The man's work
being over for the day and his dull curiosity awakened, he was in no hurry.
I left them to their trial of patience.
Nor do the elevated moorlands, along the hill slopes, any
more offer a free nesting site for the brooding birds ; whether by the
prescriptive right of long usage, or as a refuge from persecution elsewhere.
The ingenuity of the golfer is astonishing. The complaisance of the
proprietor is equally great. No special care for the rarer species seems to
deter him, or is likely to do unless they have sporting possibilities.
Opposite the window where I write, is a long ridge of
upper old red sandstone, sufficiently steep to make a stiff climb or a swift
roll down. Against its side, cattle cling, with ever and anon their heads
down to the grass. No! they are not cattle. I can just make out the figures
of little hill-scrambling men, as now they stoop to tee, and anon follow
their balls. These shallow dumb wounds through the thin sprinkling of soil
are bunkers. The putting greens, like little niches for images, are cut into
the hillside, or sunk like grassy bunkers below the level, so that the ball
which reaches them will stay. About it is an element approaching the
grotesque. No wonder if the redshank, whose whistle used to come from there,
is now piping beside the lapwing on the pasture.
Not a single inland course that does not, in some way,
alter the wild life. In villages - as is so often the case - where is only
one rude stretch the loss must be irreparable. All the rich variety of
moorland birds will go not to return, and calls and flights once familiar
will be no more seen or heard.
Of course, the villagers will not care: they have not
been taught to care. Their wants are enough. For the rest, their ears are
dull that they do not hear, and their eyes that they do not see. But,
somehow, I think no loss is without a gap. The stream by the cottage door is
no more than a trickle, save in flood time; but one would not like to be
told that the tail of the water had gone past, or to look on the dry course.
So with the stream of life.
The old woman, framed in the little square window, drops
her stocking in her lap at that plaintive moorland call. Perhaps she knows
that it comes from the bird of the golden coat with the black breast. In her
vague way it sets her thinking-it was so when she was a girl. At that
rippling whistle, after the blinds are drawn, she gathers the children round
her, in the candle light, and tells them the story of the bird with the long
bent beak, that was made so because there is in it something fateful. In
this, or some other way, is loss.
The sum of many courses, by many villages, legions of
them, each village aiming at a course of its own, will be very great indeed.
Many streams of life flowing one way in the spring, and another in the
autumn, and trickling throughout the winter, will cease. Only the dry stones
will be left. The tenants of the moorland or common may find elsewhere to
go, and other places will be richer as they become poor. Or they may be
driven to change their natural wild nesting places for the homelier pasture
Such is the redistribution going on through the agency of
golf. Whether for good or evil boots not. Only it is needful, in any account
of the wild life of Scotland, to distinguish the present from the past, and
show how things are tending. So marked is this as to strike the bucolic
sense of the rustic by the streamside; who, all innocent of theory, only
knows that a new cry is in the air, a new form has joined the lapwing, a new
tenant has come to the pasture.
On the whole, the change is greatest on the coast, where
is only a narrow strip very much sought after, because of its light dry
bottom, its sparse grass, and sandy bunkers. And in the case of birds whose
habits compel them to breed near the sea. Such, for instance, as the various
terns which dive for a living, and even feed their young on fish. Driven
from one coast moor they must find another, which may take them so far away
that they will no longer come and go. The alternative of breeding on the
sand outside the dunes is not always possible. The range of high tides is an
objection. The immediate neighbourhood of a golf-course is a busy and
What the end will be, when wild life will come to
something like its old balance, were hard to say. If the modern movement is
allowed to spend itself, then we must just wait to see how much it takes and
how little it leaves. But some restraint may be exercised. A spirit of fair
play, a desire to give the birds they are hunting out a chance, may awaken,
not too late. A line may be drawn from the outside. Unless, as a people, we
adopt his lordship’s philosophy that golf pays, and we cannot afford links
for birds to breed on. "I cannot see that terns are of any use."