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For the queen Balmoral Castle is home away from home; for you it's a great place to visit between rounds at Aberdeenshire courses.
For the queen Balmoral Castle is home away from home; for you it's a great place to visit between rounds at Aberdeenshire courses. (Courtesy Balmoral Castle)

In Scotland, a spot of castle-hopping goes great with your golf

Tim McDonaldBy Tim McDonald,

EDINBURGH, Scotland - So you're looking down the first fairway at the Old Course at St. Andrews, not believing your luck. Here you are, at the home of golf, and you're focused in like a laser beam.

Meanwhile, your wife is back at the hotel, bored to death, the kids running wild and driving her nuts.

Have a little empathy, golfer. Scotland is full of things to do besides play 18. One of the best is castle-hopping. For the sake of your family, or even to widen your pathetically narrow perspective, why not combine a lot of golf with a few moats and turrets?

It's easy to do in this ancient land. Here are some suggested trips, combining great Scottish castles with great Scottish golf courses.

Edinburgh Castle

The castle: The enduring symbol of the Scottish nation is known as the "castle of castles." There's more than 1,000 years of history inside these great walls perched atop a 70 million-year-old lump of volcanic rock where Bronze Age man lived and didn't play golf only because it wasn't invented yet.

The castle dominates the Scottish capital, with terrific views in every direction, which once made it a perfect defensive stronghold and now makes it a magnet for a million tourists a year.

It's always been a magnet for royals. Edward I of England captured the castle during his 13th- and 14-century Scottish incursions, but patriot Robert the Bruce captured it back. Mary Queen of Scots gave birth here, to Prince James. In 1688, the Duke of Gordon surrendered it to William and Mary, the last time the castle was seriously threatened. If you visit one castle in Scotland, make it this one.

The golf: Edinburgh has several city-owned courses, including Braid Hills, Craigentinny, Carrick Knowe, Portobello and Silverknowes. Nearby North Berwick Golf Links starts in the center of the namesake town and stretches west along the shores of the Firth of Forth (not to be confused with the Forth of Firth).

And, of course, there's fabled St. Andrews Links, with six golf courses including the Old Course, about an hour's drive from Edinburgh.

Drumlanrig Castle

The castle: Drumlanrig Castle in Dumfries is surrounded by 120,000 acres that encompass the Queensberry Estate, Country Park and Victoria Gardens. The estate offers some of the best fishing in Scotland - for salmon and sea trout on the River Neath, for instance. There are also Land Rover tours and wildlife walks.

Called "The Pink Palace" for the color of its sandstone walls, Drumlanrig was completed in 1691 by William Douglas, first duke of Queensberry. It is open to visitors daily from mid-spring to late summer, although security has been tightened since the sensational 2003 theft of a Leonardo da Vinci painting by two men posting as tourists.

The golf:

There are about 30 courses in the area, including Thornhill and Southerness Golf Club, designed by Mackenzie Ross in 1947.

Scone Palace

The castle: No, it's not a roadside attraction purveying baked goods to enjoy with your tea, but the place near Perth where Scottish kings were crowned for centuries. The present structure was built in 1608 for the Earls of Mansfield and extensively remodeled in 1776.

Made of red sandstone, Scone Palace is a classic example of the late Georgian Gothic style. In the Middle Ages it was the site of a major Augustinian abbey; about 1,500 years ago, it was the center of the ancient Celtic church. Enough history for you?

The golf: There are quite a few courses in surrounding Perthshire. Murrayshall Golf Course in Scone is an undulating, wooded parkland course with tree-lined fairways; large, white-sand bunkers; big, tricky greens and natural stone bridges over water hazards. Famed Gleneagles and Carnoustie are 20 and 45 minutes distant, respectively.

Stirling Castle

The castle: Like Edinburgh Castle, Stirling Castle sits atop a plug of high volcanic rock, affording great views over the central Scottish plain. Stirling guards the lowest crossing point of the River Forth; some trace the legend of Camelot to a castle sited here in King Arthur's day.

Dating to the late Middle Ages, Stirling Castle hosted royal births, deaths (the eighth Earl of Douglas was done in by King James II here in 1452) and coronations (Mary Queen of Scots' in 1543). It's been attacked or besieged at least 16 times. With the exception of the outer defenses, most of it was built in 16th century. It's open to the public year-round.

The golf: You won't have to go far: Stirling Golf Club lies in full view of the castle, on a slab of the same ancient volcanic lava, known for centuries as the Kings Park. It too offers fine views of the Forth Valley and the mountainous Trossachs.

The course was redesigned by Henry Cotton in 1966, and Young Tom Morris was the first pro (appointed in 1873). But history of golf here goes back much further - the locals just marked 500 years since King James IV walked out of his palace at the castle to have a round with the Earl of Bothwell in the Kings Park. Mary Queen of Scots, who lived in Stirling Castle as a child, was Scotland's first recorded female golfer.

Balmoral Castle

The castle: When the queen comes north, Balmoral Castle in Ballater is her hang. Queen Victoria loved the joint and bought it in 1848; it's been the royals' Scottish home ever since. The estate is set amid 50,00 acres of heather, ancient woodland and the River Dee.

The golf: Ballater, a town of 1,300 on the north bank of the Dee 42 miles west of Aberdeen, has the Ballater Golf Club. Aberdeeshire is home to several memorable courses, including scenic Cruden Bay, Banchory, Duff House Royal and Inchmarlo.

Braemar Castle

The castle: Seat of the Farquharson family since 1632, Braemar sits on the Invercauld Estate, which fans out over 200 square miles in the Cairngorm National Park Area, known as the Royal Deeside. There are grouse shoots, deer hunting and salmon fishing; Scottish pines, heather and all that abound.

The golf: Braemar is also in Aberdeenshire, within range of the courses listed above and many others.

Veteran golf writer Tim McDonald keeps one eye on the PGA Tour and another watching golf vacation hotspots and letting travelers in on the best place to vacation.

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