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Many bridges around the world have become global icons.  

The Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco; the Sydney Harbour Bridge in Australia; Tower Bridge in London; the Rialto Bridge in Italy’s beautiful Venice. However, there is only one bridge in the world where its fame is so disproportionate to its size. At only eight feet wide, six feet tall and 30 feet long, this bridge is one of the most photographed landmarks in the world.

Named the Swilcan Bridge, this small stone crossing on the St Andrews Old Course is revered across the globe, so much so that a replica of it can be found in the World Golf Hall of Fame in Florida.

The Roman arch-styled stone bridge spans the Swilcan Burn that dissects both the first and 18th holes of the famous course and is believed to date back some 600-plus years. Clarity on its origins is difficult to find. Some maintain that the Swilcan Bridge was originally built to aid shepherds taking their animals across the water.

Others suggest it was a ‘packhorse bridge’, a style of bridge that traditionally consisted of one horse wide masonry arches, with low parapets, designed so as not to cause issues with the side bags or ‘panniers’ which were loaded on the ‘packhorses’ being led over the bridge.

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However, many believe that this is romantic revisionism, insisting that it was always designed for the purpose which it serves today – to take golfers across the Swilcan Burn as they play the final hole of the historic course.

Whichever take on history you ascribe to, it’s highly unlikely that anybody involved in its construction could have predicted the fame that such a simple stone structure would achieve all these centuries later.

The Swilcan is a watercourse, its source northeast of the village of Strathkinness, found three miles west of St Andrews, which then makes its way out to sea through the Old Course. The Swilcan Burn was less defined in its meanderings across the course in times gone by, winding its way across the fairways in channels influenced by the tide and floods.

In 1834, a brick retaining wall was added to the burn, defining its flow. Old Tom Morris made further improvements around 1869. For centuries, the bridge was simply known as the ‘Golfers’ Bridge’ before evolving to become the Swilcan Bridge, sometimes spelt ‘Swilken’ or ‘Swilkin’. As an example, Dr Alister MacKenzie, the celebrated golf course architect of Cypress Point and Augusta National fame, named the ‘Swilken Burn’ in his detailed map of 1924, the crossing simply noted as a ‘Stone Bridge’.

Today, professional and amateur golfers, celebrities, students and tourists alike all take the opportunity to have their photo captured on the stone crossing. The bridge has been the setting for everything from engagements to graduation photos, and victory celebrations to fond farewells from golfing greats.

Looking towards the 18th fairway and green, the bridge is framed in the background by the clubhouse of the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews and the Hamilton Grand.

The Hamilton Grand is a tall, striking, red sandstone building, originally built by Thomas Hamilton as a luxury hotel, a retreat which commanded views of the Old Course, West Sands Beach and the North Sea. The hotel opened in 1895, capitalising on the increasing attraction of St Andrews as a holiday destination for wealthy British tourists.

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It is reported that Hamilton built the property at that location with the intention of dominating the clubhouse of the Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews after failing to secure membership of the esteemed club. It was the first building in Scotland to have a pneumatic elevator, as well as hot and cold running water in every bathroom, setting a new benchmark for luxury accommodation. Famous guests are said to have included Rudyard Kipling, Bing Crosby, Mary Astor and King Edward VIII.

During the Second World War, the Air Ministry of the United Kingdom requisitioned the hotel to assist with the War effort and it was transformed into the training headquarters of the Royal Air Force. In its next evolution, it found itself as a hall of residence for students of the University of St Andrews and it remained as university accommodation for lucky students for 56 years. Today, it is a luxury apartment block, the Kohler Company breathing new life into the property and returning the landmark to its original splendour. The apartments have become some of the most expensive to acquire in Scotland. Others are available to rent for a luxurious St Andrews experience.

Swilcan Bridge Old

To the left of the Hamilton Grand in the background of the Swilcan Bridge is the clubhouse of the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews, formerly the Society of St Andrews Golfers.

The magnificent clubhouse, recognised throughout the golfing world, has evolved over the years.

Its original design was by George Rae, a St Andrews-born architect whose neoclassical style is evident in many parts of the town of St Andrews. The clubhouse opened in 1854 and, at that time, was a more modest, simple affair. Subsequent architects were responsible for the additional floors and bay windows.

Photographed in the opposite direction, the Swilcan Bridge is dominated by the Old Course Hotel, one of Europe’s most luxurious hotels. The imposing hotel dominates the approach into St Andrews. Opened in 1968, it enjoys an enviable location, overlooking the 17th hole of the Old Course. The hotel is now owned by the Kohler Company, owners of the Hamilton Grand. The five-star resort features, amongst other things, the ‘Swilcan Loft’, a fourth floor restaurant and bar which features floor-to-ceiling windows and uninterrupted views of the Old Course, the Swilcan Bridge, West Sands Beach, the Royal & Ancient clubhouse and the Hamilton Grand.

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As you look over the Swilcan Bridge to the Old Course Hotel, tucked away in the left-hand corner is a golfer’s favourite stop-off for a post round tipple, either to celebrate or to commiserate: the Jigger Inn. The Jigger is a historic building which dates back to the 1850s when it was the station master’s lodge. The old station clock is still on the wall, stopped at ten to two – the time of the last train to depart St Andrew in the late 1960s, following the infamous trainline closures implemented by the ‘Beeching Report’. Nowadays, the nearest station to St Andrews is Leuchars.

Many significant historical golfing photographs feature the Swilcan Bridge. During the 1929 British Ladies’ Amateur Championship, an image, inset, captures the moment that Joyce Wethered leads Glenna Collett Vare across the bridge, followed by a throng of adoring fans. Inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame in 1975, Wethered – later Lady Heathcoat-Amery – was the leading British woman player during the inter-War years, capturing four British Ladies’ Amateur titles and five consecutive English Ladies’ Amateur Championships. Bobby Jones, the influential American amateur golfer, who dominated the game during the 1920s and would go on to co-found Augusta National and The Masters, was a great admirer of her swing and game.

Swilcan Bridge Jack Nicklaus

In 1970, requiring only a par at the 18th to beat Nicklaus and take home the coveted Claret Jug, the flamboyant American Doug Sanders – chasing his first-ever major championship victory – agonisingly missed a two-and-a-half foot putt to wind up facing an intense 18 hole play-off with Nicklaus the following day. Sanders would birdie the 18th that time but so, too, would Nicklaus. Already one ahead going down 18, Nicklaus holed out and hurled his putter high into the air in celebration of his second Open victory and his first in St Andrews.

In 1978, defending champion Tom Watson was the 54 hole co-leader but had four consecutive bogeys on the front nine of his final round, opening the door for Nicklaus to claim the 15th of his eventual 18 majors.

Sir Nick Faldo, six times a major champion, waved farewell to St Andrews in 2015, having lifted the Claret Jug three times, the second, in 1990, on the Old Course. He posed for photographs on the Swilcan Bridge in his favourite sweater from his maiden Open victory at Muirfield in 1987.

Harry Vardon holds the record for the most Open Championship victories, winning six times between 1896 and 1914. Four others have claimed the title five times, including Tom Watson.

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Despite his extraordinary Open career, Watson never did manage to secure victory at St Andrews, although he came close on a number of occasions. For a man who would tame many a fine links course in his career, his love of the original form of the game was slow to emerge.

“I didn’t like links golf at all,” he would later admit. “I didn’t like the uncertainty of it. I played the ball through the air, very high. The biggest reason I played well was my ability to get the ball up and down. I first played St Andrews in 1978 and didn’t like it at all; blind, bumpy, it was not a lot of fun for me because of the uncertain bounces.” Watson, however, grew to love links golf and become one of the game’s most dominant forces.

In 2015, the American bid an emotional farewell in the fading light of a Scottish July evening. An earlier storm delay meant that Watson was playing late into the evening and, on the 17th green, there had been debate as to whether his party would continue that evening, officials offering the opportunity to stop play for the night.

They decided to press on, and after teeing off on 18, Watson paused on the Swilcan Bridge. Somehow it seemed so fitting. The twilight of a St Andrews evening capturing the twilight of Tom Watson’s career. As the night closed in, a chapter was closed on golf history. And what a chapter it was. Once again, the Swilcan Bridge provided the picture-perfect setting for another of the game’s greatest moments.

The Swilcan Bridge. Small and unassuming. Centuries-old. A witness to golf history. A part of golf history. A part of golf’s future.

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