The History of Kingsbarns Golf Links

By Bobby Burnet, Golf Historian

The early history of golf at Kingsbarns is illuminated by one shaft of light. On September 4, 1793, a year after their near neighbor Crail Golfing Society had adopted an official uniform of a scarlet jacket with a plain yellow button, Crail’s minutes “agreed that members of the Kingsbarns Golfing Society be allowed to appear on the links at Crail in the uniform belonging to their own society, Blue Jackets.” It would suggest that, like Crail Golfing society (1786), Kingsbarns formed its Society at least as early as 1793.

There is one piece of evidence pointing towards the 1790’s as the likely date of the institution for Kingsbarns. The earlier of their two medals is 1829 and on the obverse side it has a scroll bearing the motto “Palmam qui meruit (spelled ‘meriut’) ferat,” meaning, “Let him who has won the palm bear it.”

Now, this was the motto of First Lord of the Admiralty during the Napoleonic Wars, Horatio, Lord Nelson, who was at the height of his fame in the 1790’s. He had entered the navy in 1770, lost his right eye at Calvi in Corsica in 1794, taken a prominent part in the battle of Cape St Vincent in 1797, and lost his right arm at Santa Cruz in the same year.

Dalrymple wrote of the 1829 motto, “but whether it formed the Society’s motto I have not been able to ascertain.” But then he didn’t know of the Nelson connection. Strangely enough, the first winner of Kingsbarns’ 1841 medal, Mr. Robert Haig of Seggie, was the grandfather of a famous soldier, Field Marshal Earl Haig, Captain of the Royal and Ancient Golf Club in 1920.

The article, which carried the information I have used about these Kingsbarns medals appears in Golf Illustrated in 1909 and tells us that the club was wound up by August 3, 1849.

Yet the second edition of Farnie’s Golfer’s Manual (1862) has the club still flourishing thirteen years later. “KINGSBARNS – this links is small and of a sandy soil. The grass grows rather coarse for the finer shots of the game and there are few, if any, hazards. The Kingsbarns GC was instituted in 1815; and members meet four times a year, on the first Fridays of February, May, August and November. In May, the “Bachelor Medal” is played for, open to regular members only, and in November, the Feilden Medal, open to members of the St. Andrews, Leven, Hercules (i.e. Colinsburgh) and Crail Golf Clubs: Post Town, Kingsbarns.”

The Kingsbarns name itself goes back to the 11 th Century, its royal connections genuine and documented. King Malcolm of Scotland visited St. Andrews to collect his dues; in the case of grain, he would store it on land at Cambo-in, of course, the “King’s barns.”

As I have said, there was golf at Kingsbarns before Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo in 1815. Other later battles took their toll on the links, for, at the outbreak of World War II in 1939; the nine-hole course was taken over by the Ministry of Defense. They saw the beach at Kingsbarns as a natural invasion point and used the land for maneuvers for the duration of the War. In 1945, the 40 or so members of Kingsbarns were unable to finance the course reconstruction, so joined nearby Balcomie Links at Crail, where they still play today.

Kingsbarns lies on one of the many East of Scotland areas where, it is safe to assume, links golf originated, with its feature, which distinguishes our club-and-ball game from all others – the hole. That never figures in the Old Dutch paintings adduced as evidence that we borrowed our game from Holland . In any case, these 17 th century works, however beautiful, are utterly irrelevant, since the famous Statute banning golf and football dates from 1457. The only valid evidence available at present is in a Book of Hours at Bruges, published in 1510, and containing a picture which includes a player hitting a ball with a club towards what is undoubtedly a round hole, four or five inches in diameter. Now Bruges is a Belgian seaport, in the Flemish or Flanders area, and from at least the 14 th century it was engaged in trade with many Scottish ports, right up our East coast. Included are, of course, St Andrews, whose first Provost, in the 12 th century, was Mainard Fleming, and Crail, whose north barns came to be called “Kingsbarns.” The main authority on Scottish surnames, Black, begins his entry on “Fleming with: “a surname sufficiently indicative of the nationality of its original bearers.”

He goes on to list bearers of that name in many parts of Scotland, from 1147 onwards. I am not suggesting for a moment that our game probably originated in Fife or Angus – although the current number of “Flemings” in the residential section of the Tayside and North Fife telephone directory stands at 262! But surely it is reasonable to argue that our game with a hole was taken back by a Fleming to Bruges, and Belgium.


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