Missing links: The battle of Askernish

On a remote Hebridean island, developers want to resurrect what was once a famously idyllic golf course. But a handful of angry crofters are determined to stop them
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For golf enthusiasts around the world, it is news that should send them reaching for their clubs, argyle sweaters and plus fours: a 'lost' course designed by one of the sport's legendary names, Old Tom Morris, has been found and is in the process of being restored.

It has already been described as the "jewel in the crown of world golf". But this isn't Carnoustie, Prestwick or any of the other famous Tom Morris courses. It is the tiny Askernish Golf Club – a one-time nine-hole pitch and putt course on South Uist, an Outer Hebridean island with a population of less than 2,000.

But, while the golfing world has been vocal in its appreciation of the resurrection of Old Tom's lost course, and many of the islanders say it is a chance to provide a much-needed boost to the island's flagging economy, not everyone on South Uist is pleased about the proposals to restore the links course of Askernish to its 18-hole glory.

A small band of local crofters has started legal proceedings against the golf club, claiming that the expansion of the course will leave them with less land on which to graze their animals. They say that their rights to the land on which the golf course is situated – known as Askernish machair – were enshrined in 1922.

The club claims that isn't correct and that the golfers have more rights to the land than the crofters. The argument over who has the better claim has divided the small island community and has now spilled into the courts.

Both sides are confident they will win, the golfers so confident that they have already set a date for the official club opening – 22 August – and have named an honorary president, the former Liverpool and Scotland footballer Kenny Dalglish.

The crofters, meanwhile, are vowing to go to the highest courts possible to stop the golf course going ahead on land they believe is rightfully theirs.

It's fair to say that the rugged but beautiful island of South Uist, a tiny, windy speck on the north-west corner of the UK map, has never seen such a bitter divide.

With only one road in and out of the island, it's the type of place where people leave their front doors open and their keys in their cars. Arguments like this are not the norm but this particular row has seen friends fall out and families at odds with one another. Even the local hotel seems to be affected, with crofters making the bar their base, while the golfers drink in the lounge. Two wooden doors separate them, but on both sides the golf club appears to dominate drinkers' conversations. You almost get the impression that if Old Tom were alive today he would be wishing he hadn't bothered visiting South Uist.

He arrived there in 1891 as a four-time winner of golf's oldest championship, The Open, and as the man known as the father of the modern game having designed numerous championship-standard courses. Old Tom Morris had been invited by the island's then owner, Lady Cathcart, to design a golf course. It became a course he later declared as "second to none".

The 18-hole course was initially private and only used by the island's gentry of doctors and teachers, and the occasional aristocrat. However, they lost use of much of the course in the 1930s when the land was set aside to be turned into an airstrip to help in the war effort.

The runway was never built but, over time, the holes on the course had become so overgrown with flowers and weeds that they were lost. They were replaced by a new, municipal, nine-hole course which remained there until 2005.

It was then that Gordon Irving, a golf course consultant, visited the island after hearing rumours that South Uist was home to an Old Tom Morris course. He played the nine holes and set off looking for the fabled 18-holes designed by Old Tom. By the end of his trip he was convinced that the island was home to the only "lost" Tom Morris course and set about making sure it was restored.

Funding from as far afield as Canada has helped pay for the restoration work and now, with only two holes left to complete before the August opening, excitement about the resurrection of the once-lost course is building. Twelve life-memberships at £2,500 apiece have already been sold and the club has had more than 1,500 enquiries about the £125-a-season memberships.

The hope is that golfers will travel from across the globe to play Askernish, although once they've experienced the nerve-shredding plane journey that is required to get there it's up for debate as to whether they'll be brave enough to return.

Donald MacInnes, 42, is the club captain. He said: "The potential of this for the club and the island in general is huge. We really can take this as far as we want; lack of imagination is the only thing that can stop us. Speaking from a golfing point of view, the course is incredible. It has been described as one of the most natural courses in the world and the location makes it a really tough course to play; you've got the incredibly high winds beating in off the Atlantic, and the beach is actually in bounds on one hole. It's something people will want to test themselves with."

Allan MacDonald, 32, is the head greenkeeper. He added: "Old Tom Morris was the Tiger Woods of his day. He is so well known in golf that as soon as people start to hear about this they will want to come to the island and play. There are golfers that see it as a challenge to play every Tom Morris course and we can benefit from that. We are already building a club house and there is talk of a hotel and bar. It will bring money to the island."

In fact, £1m a year is the figure that the club is suggesting will be generated by the opening of the Old Tom course. But the fringe benefits of the course, according to the community company in charge of the island's purse strings, will be felt right across South Uist.

Huw Francis, the chief executive of Storas Uibhist, explained: "Visit Scotland estimates that something like 15 times what is spent on course fees goes back into the local economy through money spent on things like hotels, bars and shops. At the moment, tourism and construction are probably the two biggest industries on the island but we think that golf can be up there too; we would love South Uist to be known as the home of one of the best golf courses around.

"We hope it will help regenerate the island and give our young people something to come back to. Like everywhere else, the young people in South Uist usually leave at some point to go to the mainland to study. The problem we have is getting them back. There is nothing for them to come back for – there are no jobs here for them. The golf course can hopefully change that."

It might sound – from speaking to these three – as if there were no downside to the golf course. But some of the local crofters will tell you differently. Angus Johnstone, 71, is one of them. He says the course will infringe on his rights to the machair – an area where he grazes his cattle. But he is adamant that he is not opposed to the golf course per se.

"It's not the building of the golf course we are against," he said. "It's the amount of land they are using. To me an 18-hole course should be twice as big as a nine-hole course, but they are using five times the amount of land. I graze my animals on that land, that's what it's for and they are trying to take it off us."

But while he insists he is not opposed to the course, Angus seems far from impressed at the golfers' boast that it will be the envy of the golf world once complete. He continued: "This won't be the jewel in the crown that they make it out to be. Sometimes I think these people have never seen a decent golf course like St Andrews or the like. Askernish is a mess and I can hardly imagine Tiger Woods playing there."

The crofters also take issue with the claim that it will rejuvenate the island's economy. Roddy Steele, 52, another crofter, said: "In some instances, it might bring in a bit of money to a few shops and a couple of hotels but it is businesses like this that will benefit, not the community. No one is going to knock on my door and offer me money. I make my money through crofting and that land being used for crofting is more important than a golf course. Crofting is how we put food on the table and it's our industry. They say that the course will bring in £1m a year – that's nothing. Crofting brings in that and more every year."

Of course, the golfers have their own counter-arguments to such claims. They say that crofting is a dying industry on the island, one which nowadays fails to turn a profit, and that the crofters are simply resistant to change.

"This isn't about crofting," said Donald MacInnes. "Half of the guys that are complaining don't even have any animals. Years ago, people would make a lot of money from crofting but nowadays you can't make a penny from it – it's just a hobby. And to try to make it out as golfers versus crofters is wrong. I'm a crofter, and so are four of the five members of the golf club committee. It's not golfers versus crofters, it's golfers versus the same sad people who seem to object to every new venture on this island.

"Most people I speak to are in favour of the golf course. The people that are objecting to this are scared of change and want things to continue the way they are. But that's not the way things work. We have to use this opportunity for the island, because it's a massive one."

Sitting around the table to resolve the dispute has already failed, with each side, predictably, blaming the other for the breakdown in the search for an amicable solution. So, the battle for Askernish machair will be won and lost in the courts; it is as inevitable as it is sad, and the acrimony will linger for some time.

But, Ralph Thompson, the golf club chairman, assures me that the rifts left by the bitter argument will eventually heal. "It is sad, because we've all known each other for a long time," he said. "I've known some of the crofters since I was knee-high. But we were all friends before this and I'm sure we will be again."