Tucked away in a peaceful pocket of the Highlands, you’ll find one of Scottish golf’s most mysterious and exclusive courses – Skibo Castle’s Carnegie Links.
Most have heard of it. Few have seen it. Fewer still have played it. It is, quite simply, one of the country’s best-kept golfing secrets.
Earlier this summer, I was lucky enough to be invited to get the full Skibo experience by the estate’s Director of Golf, David Thomson.
A former European Tour pro, Aberdeen-born Thomson has been at Skibo for over 17 years and has overseen major changes both on and off the golf course, including its ownership changing hands, celebrity weddings, golf course renovations and much more besides. He’s more than just an employee. He’s a big part of what makes the place tick.
The par-4 12th hole.
“Why don’t you come up and see us?” he said. “Bring your wife, stay in the castle and we’ll get a round of golf in, too.” He didn’t have to ask twice.
The history of Skibo Castle is fascinating. It dates back to 1212 and, until 1545, it was used as a residence for the Bishops of Caithness. It was subsequently gifted by the Catholic church to John Gray in order to, as one account puts it, ‘reinforce its alliance with a powerful family’ and, in turn, help to ward off the Protestant uprising from spreading into the north of the country.
In 1897, it was acquired by Scottish industrialist Andrew Carnegie on a one-year lease
It has remained in private ownership ever since but had fallen into disrepair when, in 1897, it was acquired by Scottish industrialist Andrew Carnegie on a one-year lease, with an option to buy. He took up that option the following year, shelling out a reported £85,000 – around £10m in today’s money.
He spent more than double that on improvements, almost quadrupling the size of the estate, building its own loch (Loch Ospisdale), adjacent to which he commissioned a conservatory-style swimming pool. It’s still there, incidentally, and has to be seen to be fully appreciated.
The 17th is a superb driveable par-4.
The castle, meanwhile, had turrets, towers and battlements added to give it the look of a baronial mansion house, with the latest domestic appliances and cutting-edge American tech installed throughout.
It was a significant investment but loose change to Carnegie, who, at the height of his career, was reckoned to be second only to John D. Rockefeller of Standard Oil as the richest man in the world.
Carnegie lived out his remaining years at the estate, which he often described as ‘Heaven on Earth’
Legend has it that Carnegie’s first and only child, Margaret, was the inspiration behind his decision to buy Skibo. Despite having lived in the US since the age of 12, when his family emigrated to Allegheny in Pennsylvania, Carnegie remained a proud Scot and wanted his daughter to be brought up in his homeland. “Margaret must have a Scottish home,” he is said to have told his wife, Louise.
The family moved there and Carnegie lived out his remaining years at the estate, which he often described as ‘Heaven on Earth’. Those words live on, embroidered onto the shoe bag gifted to all golfers who visit the Carnegie Links. More on that later.