The long and washed-out road: Getting to Machrihanish is nearly half the thrill

The long and washed-out road: Getting to Machrihanish is nearly half the thrill

A Case of the Bends -- It's never easy to get to Machrihanish. But it's always worth the effort.

A Case of the Bends -- It's never easy to get to Machrihanish. But it's always worth the effort.

If you’ve been following along at home, you’ll know that Machrihanish is very near and dear to my heart. You can click here for a full review and here for the story behind the story. But the short answer is that I’ve made the trek to this Old Tom Morris masterpiece every May since 2002. As such, spending two months in Scotland without paying the Mull of Kintyre a visit—albeit an absurdly short one—was just unthinkable.

That being said, there was another compelling reason for making the 230-mile, six-hour-plus journey there and then immediately back again: I’ve written a novel set largely in this rugged and remote corner of the world. Though a work of fiction, the club has graciously granted me permission to refer to its pride and joy by its real name—after some back-and-forth via email. But I very much wanted to deliver the full manuscript to the club secretary the old-fashioned way, in hard copy and in person. Along the way, I also sought to add to my collection of photos, the best of which will find their way into the finished product.

Ferry Thee Well -- One way to get there from Glasgow is to board two ferries, including this one that spans Lunderston Bay from Gourock to Dunoon.

Ferry Thee Well -- One way to get there from Glasgow is to board two ferries, including this one that spans Lunderston Bay from Gourock to Dunoon.

The latter required me to take on a rather ambitious routing from our rented cottage in the Borders to Machrihanish in Argyll. I’d start off on a relatively benign two-lane country road that feeds into dual carriage motorways around and/or through Edinburgh and Glasgow (the latter at the height of morning commuter traffic), which would ultimately deposit me at Gourock, the jumping off spot onto a ferry across Lunderston Bay. From there, I’d climb back in my car for more driving, this time mostly on a single-track road (envision a very long driveway with occasional blips in the pavement for pulling over and letting ongoing traffic by). And then, at Portavadie, I’d board another ferry. This one would carry me to the Sausalito-like town of Tarbert and the stretch run to Mach on the A83.

Perhaps that’s why this part of the world inspired Paul McCartney to write, “The Long and Winding Road.” True story.

Slip Sliding Away

I set off at 6 a.m. in darkness and a downpour with high hopes of crossing the finish line by 1 p.m. All went swimmingly until traffic screeched to a halt in Port Glasgow, about seven miles east of Gourock—at which point I would have made faster progress if I had donned a wetsuit and, literally, swam. Two hours later, the delay revealed itself: the road was flooded. I must confess I uttered more than a few words normally elicited only by wayward golf shots. Why now? Why me?

Calm After the Storm -- Serenity settles upon Tarbert after the morning's bluster. The large vessel in the distance was my second ferry en route to Machrihanish.

Calm After the Storm -- Serenity settles upon Tarbert after the morning's bluster. The large vessel in the distance was my second ferry en route to Machrihanish.

But looking back on it now, I can see that the tedious delay was all for the best. As I carefully guided my little red Fiat onto the first ferry, the rain had subsided and the skies had begun to clear. And by the time I boarded the second ferry and set sail across the southern expanse of Loch Fyne, the conditions were positively idyllic. As the sampling of photos in this post attests, I have no doubt my book will be much better off for it.

Homeward Bound

I certainly was. The last leg of my journey, from Tarbert to Machrihanish, was absolutely stunning. Dramatic rocky coastline. The islands of Islay, Jura and Gigha beckoning in the distance. The setting sun painting the clouds in pinks and purples. And, to seal the deal, Mark Knopfler’s haunting soundtrack to Local Hero pouring through my Fiat’s stereo speakers.

I was home again!

Originally, I had planned to meet with the club secretary before she called it a day at 3 p.m. (darkness starts to fall here around 4 p.m. this time of year), but the rain had washed that out. Instead, my first move was to secure my room at the Warren, an 1890s-vintage B&B just a flip wedge across the street from the links. Then I dropped into the pro shop to arrange a game for the following morning and ended up chatting for more than an hour with Ken Campbell, the club pro, and his assistant Margaret.

“You’re a wee bit early,” joked Margaret.

“It’s not May yet?” I said. “Still learning how to read a calendar, I guess.”

Sky's the Limit -- The Argyll coast bordering the North Atlantic looks west to Ireland and, beyond, America.

Sky's the Limit -- The Argyll coast bordering the North Atlantic looks west to Ireland and, beyond, America.

At that point, the only option for an early dinner (or a late lunch, given that my lone meal of record was a bowl of cereal at 5:30 a.m. back in the Borders) within walking distance was a pub managed by the same folks who built the new links in town, Machrihanish Dunes, and the first-class accommodations to go with it. In keeping with its U.S.-based owners, I inhaled an authentic American-style cheeseburger and took advantage of the free Wi-Fi to see if I’d missed anything of significance in the real world. As usual, it was getting on just fine without me.

Back at the Warren, I took comfort in the guest lounge, made myself an instant latte and began sorting through the day’s photos. That’s when the B&B’s only other two guests for the night made an appearance, intent on consuming beverages of a more adult variety. I soon learned that Stewart and Harry were both retired, having served on the Glasgow police force.  More importantly, they’ve been making an annual pilgrimage to Machrihanish even longer than I have. So we quickly determined we were kindred spirits. By the time we decided unanimously to call it a night, they had made a very gracious invitation to join them for their morning round.

Starting Line -- Here's the view from the first tee. Many in the game consider it to be the best opening shot in golf. You'll get no argument from me.

Starting Line -- Here's the view from the first tee. Many in the game consider it to be the best opening shot in golf. You'll get no argument from me.

Pleasure Before Business

And what a morning. Calm and clear—the complete opposite of the day before and highly unlikely for the last week of October. Better yet, we had the links essentially to ourselves, allowing us to make our way around at a leisurely yet highly efficient pace. Stewart was clearly the stick of the two with a low single digit handicap and wide array of shots in his bag. Harry, meanwhile, served as comic relief. It started with his attire (a green Bavarian hat better suited for scaling the Alps and salmon pink pants that specialized in calling attention to themselves), continued with his bag (filled in part with hickory-shafted antiques and, in sharp contradiction, a soon-to-be-illegal broomstick putter) and was finished off with his amusing color commentary delivered in a husky Scottish brogue somewhat akin to the dwarf Gimli in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings film trilogy.

But then his approach to the 6th hole, a delightful short par 4, found the green. The ensuing silence was deafening.

“Harry must have hit a good shot,” I whispered to Stewart. “He didn’t say a word.”

At which Stewart let loose a hearty laugh, betraying my cheekiness.

B&B Buddies -- I met Harry, left, and Stewart at the Warren the night before this photo was taken. In between, we toured the links. After, we shared a pint.

B&B Buddies -- I met Harry, left, and Stewart at the Warren the night before this photo was taken. In between, we toured the links. After, we shared a pint.

After the round, the Scots invited me to join them in the clubhouse for lunch and a pint. I wisely assented, with the club secretary’s copy of the manuscript in tow. Stewart read the cover page and proclaimed, “Hey, we might be related. My last name is Miller, too.” Turns out his father’s family, like my father's, traced their origins back to Germany. Small world.

Harry, meanwhile, regaled me with stories about his current home links: the utterly transcendent Dornoch, where Donald Ross (who designed Pinehurst No. 2, among dozens of other American classics) was born and raised. He handed me his card and encouraged me to look him up for a game should I ever travel north to the Scottish Highlands. Wonderful world!

Eventually, my newfound friends made their way back to the first tee for their afternoon round. A part of me longed to join them. But a bigger part was anxious to finally meet with the club secretary to discuss my not so little side project. Her warm reception and hearty support for the book that—for simplicity’s sake—is entitled Machrihanish, was exactly the injection of adrenaline I needed to make the arduous journey home.

Recalculating, Again

Once again, though, weather forced a mid-course correction. My intent was to forego the ferry crossings and drive up and around Loch Fyne and then down along Loch Lomond toward Glasgow. But the locals, thankfully, made it clear that such a maneuver was currently not possible. The previous day’s rain had unleashed a landslide, taking a portion of my intended route out of commission. But with my Machrihanish clan’s guidance, I was still able to bypass one of the water crossings. That made the return trip a wee bit less complicated and—with better road conditions—three hours shorter.

Last Light -- The tidy town of Inverrary on the shore of Loch Fyne, captured while under the moon's watch during my journey home.

Last Light -- The tidy town of Inverrary on the shore of Loch Fyne, captured while under the moon's watch during my journey home.

Quantitatively speaking, I’d spent close to 40 hours, covered more than 500 miles, boarded three ferries, played 18 holes and delivered one manuscript. But qualitatively? The experience was off the charts.

Want to know more? You’ll just have to buy the book, coming to an Amazon.com link near you in 2015!

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