The Royal Burgess Golfing Society of Edinburgh traces its origins back into the eighteenth century with the first publicly recorded explicit reference to its existence in 1735 appearing in a nineteenth century edition of the Edinburgh Almanac. It is unlikely that the worthy founder members – merchants, writers, bankers and others – realised that they were forging such a rich and colourful part of the history of Edinburgh and the game of golf. As they played their golf on Bruntsfield Links and drank their ale in the Golf Tavern, they lived for the enjoyment of the moment and were somewhat unconcerned about recording their activities for posterity.
On 2 July 1800, the Town Council granted to the Society a Seal of Cause whereby it became a legal corporation with power to hold property, make its own by-laws and regulations and promote the game of golf amongst its members. Shortly afterwards, the Burgess Society changed its motto from “Long and Far” to “Far and Sure”. From about 1787, the Society was known as the Edinburgh Burgess Golfing Society until by Royal Edict dated 30 September 1929 His Majesty King George V commanded that the name be changed to The Royal Burgess Golfing Society of Edinburgh.
The Society originally played golf over the Bruntsfield Links but, because of increasing congestion and traffic on the Links, the members moved to Musselburgh in 1874 where they shared a course with The Honourable Company, Bruntsfield Links Golfing Society and the Royal Musselburgh Golf Club. However, golf had become so popular that by the 1880’s Musselburgh was overcrowded. The Honourable Company moved to Muirfield in 1891. The Burgess Society also looked around for a home of its own and in 1894 the Society Council were instructed to negotiate for their own private course.
Barnton (1894- )
Accordingly, after considering a number of possible locations, Barnton was chosen, partly because there was a local railway station which allowed members easy access from the city centre some six miles away. Before finalising the purchase the Council invited the legendary Tom Morris, “Nestor of the Royal and Ancient Game”, to travel over from St. Andrews to pass judgement on the suitability of the land. Tom Morris went over the ground and declared to the Council’s satisfaction “that the turf was so good that there would be no need to lay greens.” Indeed, he said, a round could be played that day and, in his opinion, it would make one of the finest courses in the country. The design was placed in the hands of Willie Park Jnr and the course was formally opened on 3 May 1895 and the clubhouse was completed two years later in May 1897.
During the 1920’s and 1930’s both the then Prince of Wales and the Duke of York, whenever they visited Edinburgh, played over the course.
HRH The Duke of York, later King George VI, applied for membership of the Burgess and accepted honorary membership on 4 July 1929. When later he became King he awarded the Society his patronage.
In 1935 HRH the Prince of Wales, later King Edward VIII and Duke of Windsor, agreed to be Captain of the Society. When he acceded to the throne in January 1936, he resigned his captaincy.
The Society’s Royal connection continues to the present day and HRH the Duke of York accepted honorary membership in March 1991.
The History of the Barnton Course
It is not possible in such a short space to detail all the major events which have affected the development of the course and the Society.
Some mention, however, should be made of the Second World War when the Council agreed that sheep should continue to be allowed to graze on the course, and four fairways were turned over to agriculture.
Following the cessation of hostilities James Braid, a former Open Champion and noted golf architect visited the course and made a number of recommendations for course improvements which were subsequently completed. Braid had earlier redesigned the course in the 1920’s.
Other famous designers and architects have left their imprint on the course, among them Willie Park Jnr in the early days and later Philip Mackenzie Ross.
The course has played host to a number of notable tournaments. The current course record of 62 was established by Fintan McKenna during the Scottish Boys Open Stroke Play Championship in 2015. The current amateur record of 64 was scored in 2003 by Burgess member Fraser McCluskey, whilst playing in a Society medal.
Successive Councils have carried out programmes of enhancement and improvement of what is undoubtedly one of Scotland’s finest parkland courses. Constantly aware of the Society’s link with the history and tradition of the game, they have endeavoured to adopt progressive policies, which achieve a pragmatic balance between the past and the needs of members and visitors in the 21st century.