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The  Gowf

 Earlsferry Links

 

Unlike the other coastal villages of the East Neuk of Fife, by the 19th Century, making a livelihood by fishing the waters of the North Sea and the Firth of Forth had long ceased to exist at Earlsferry.  History books tell of a disastrous storm at sea that sank the entire fleet of Earlsferry fishing boats and all of the fishermen drowned.  No doubt this event would cause the next generation of Earlsferry men to look to natural resources other than the sea in order to make a living.

 

To quote from the historical book, "The Kingdom", that's edited by Kilrounie, "The industry suffered a severe blow - that during a fearful storm all the boats of Earlsferry were lost and the whole fishing population perished. There's record of a storm that occurred on August 17th, 1579 when 60 fishing boats foundered near Dunbar.  In November of 1863 another fearful storm  sank 36 East of Fife fishing boats and all of the men aboard were drowned." In this same book Kilrounie also tells of the Eyemouth Disaster that occurred on Black Friday, October 14th 1881 when another storm took the lives of 189 fishermen.

 

To quote from the Reverend W. Wood's book, "The East Neuk of Fife,"  " In 1776 seven fishermen of Earlsferry were drowned in one boat and since that time it has ceased to be a fishing place."   For one fishing boat to have seven men on it and all of their fishing gear the fishing boats of that time must have been large vessels. Such craft would require a very good harbour which now does not exist at Earlsferry. In these days boats had only sails for propulsion.

 "Barkies" --- as shafts likely were shortly after the beginning of the game ---

My putter, driver and fairway all purpose cleek.

 

These are some clubs that I made many, many years ago that I still enjoy playing with. The shafts of all three are suckers that grew out of the ground from under a hazel nut tree that one day I cut while I was on a Sunday walk in parkland at not very far away Blebo Craigs, which is near St. Andrews. Hence my name "Barkies." The putter with the wooden head on the left and the driver in the middle I weighted with lead that I found at the Rumbling Goat near the Chapel at Earlsferry. The old rusty iron mashie head I found in the long bent grass of the links by the beach at the West Sea.

 

When exactly the gowf started on the Earlsferry links is lost in the mists of time.  During the 19th century there were several established businesses in Earlsferry that employed most of the available men in the business of making golf clubs. The need for men to work in the trade was so great that men from the neighbouring villages were traveling to Earlsferry to work in the shops of the Earlsferry golf club makers.

 

My dad Tom Reekie was born in the neighbouring village of St. Monans in 1880. In 1895 when he was 15 years old he became an apprentice golf club maker in Earlsferry. From the several golf club making establishments in Earlsferry to choose from he decided to join the firm of George Forrester. He chose George Forrester because Forrester was an inventor and an innovator. Forrester had constructed specialized labour saving machines for the making of golf clubs and golf balls. Forrester had brass molds that he used to make gutty (gutta percha) golf balls. Forrester invented and constructed a machine to wind rubber elastic ribbon into balls around which he molded a cover. Prior to George Forrester inventing the method of attaching the golf shaft to the wooden head by means of a tapered hole in the head and tapering the shaft to fit, golf club shafts had been attached to the wooden head by means of a long tapered and glued scarf joint. The long joint was then reinforced by wrapping the joint with pitched string.  Forrester constructed pencil sharpener type  machines to form the taper on the end of wooden golf shafts and also special machines to taper drill the wooden heads. George Forrester was granted his patent in 1898. Not exactly rocket science but clubs with a long scarf joint to attach the shaft to the head had been made that way for over a hundred years. From then on all clubs were made Forrester's way.

 

In the early 1930's, in my early days of playing golf on the Earlsferry links, after the gutty ball was long obsolete, gutty balls were still being found in the rough of the links and among the bents at the end of the West Sea Road at West Bay, especially when westerly winds and big tides bit into the grass banking of the shoreline.

 

George Forrester, my father's employer, lived in the house called Georgeville on Links Road near the corner of The Ferry Road in Earlsferry. The 19th. Hole Pub is immediately to the west of Georgeville. A very civilized and appropriate place! George Forrester's  golf club making business was carried on in a building just behind Georgeville.  He made available the living room of Georgeville for others to use as a golfers club house. The starting tee of the Earlsferry golf course was just a few steps from his front door at The Ferry Road.

 

What became the Earlsferry Golf Course is the links area of the common lands of the village of Earlsferry.  This is the ground that lays to the west of the Ferry Road. This land was more or less an area of wind blown sand on which bent grasses had taken a hold. The land was too poor for farming and was only suitable for the grazing of sheep that kept the grasses cropped to a low level. I remember one year in the lambing time that the links was still covered in deep snow and the lambs were all born in trampled out hollows made by the mothers. 

 

Sheep were the natural lawn mowers of the links. It's quite possible that a sheep herder was the first person to play what became known as the game of gowf.  Somewhere on one fateful day did a shepherd take his crook, turn it end for end, and for whatever reason take a swipe at a dried out sheep dropping?

 

One day while playing on the Ferry Links I hit a screamer of a drive but when my ball came down I saw that it hit a  sheep that was grazing in the middle of the fairway. When struck, the sheep leaped into the air then ran off to mingle with others of its kind. When I got to where the sheep had been my ball was no where to be found. I presumed that it must have become trapped in the sheep's long, matted wool. Wonder what the R&A rule is for an occurrence such as a sheep running off with your ball?

 

Since where and when the birth of the game of gowf began the world has never been the same since.  Several towns make claim as to their town being the birthplace of the game of gowf but as far as I know, no record exists as to who was the first person who actually played the game.  Earlsferry while making no claim, could just as well have been where the game started, not that it matters. Gowf has certainly been played on the links at Earlsferry for a very long time.

 

With the land that comprised the Earlsferry Golf Course being the common lands of Earlsferry, we Earlsferry people played our friendly games of gowf as and when we pleased. This was our prime pastime. Later as roads were developed and cars became popular, others from outside of the village came and desired to play on the links.  The number of people wishing to play increased as the town of Earlsferry had no method in place to charge out-of-the-village people to play on the links.

 

At some point in time the administration of the Earlsferry links  became  entrusted to a private group.

 

After my father Tom completed his apprenticeship in 1900 he continued to work for George Forrester until he received his call-up papers to serve in  World War I that began in 1914. When he returned in 1918 he went back to working with Forrester.  In 1919 my father Tom and Katie Ferguson, who also lived at St. Monans, were married.

 

Tom and Katie moved to Earlsferry where they bought the house, "The Cross," just across the street from the Earlsferry Town Hall.  From the back garden of The Cross a lane lead to Forrester's workshops, Georgeville and to the links.

 

In 1919 Tom left George Forrester and hung up his own shingle, "Tom Reekie Golf Club Maker."  Tom bought iron heads in the rough, that were forged on his dies, from either the iron golf  head blacksmith shops of Anderson or Brodie at Anstruther or from George Nicoll at Leven. Tom also bought beech and persimmon heads in the rough and hickory and greenheart golf shaft blanks mainly from the firm of Gibson at Kinghorn. In addition to making clubs Tom sold the accessories connected with the game. Tom loved to teach others how to play.  Later the teaching side of the business took all of his time during the summer months. Tom's star pupil who went on to become a champion play golfer was a lady by the name of Mrs Holms.

Waupin, some that I made about 1935 

 

When I was a young boy a job that my dad assigned me was the making of waupin. (whipping) Pitch coated twine.  This material was used to secure the leather grip to the shaft and also to strengthen and cover the transition of where the wooden hickory shaft joined the wooden head. This job I did by drawing fine string through an entry and exit hole in a can of molten pitch. I set up this job on the Links Roadway just as my dad had done when he worked for George Forrester.  As I pulled the string through the melted pitch I stretched it out along the Links Road to give it time to harden and become tacky dry before I wound it on to small spools.  Another job I did was paint golf balls. As a teenager in the summertime I helped out by selling anything and everything that was for sale in Tom's golf shop.

 

All wooden headed golf clubs were weighted with lead.  To fill the chiseled-out cavity in the head with molten lead an oval shaped clay dam had first to be formed on the head to keep the lead from overflowing as it was being poured into the cavity. Before the lead was poured in to the cavity, to keep the lead from ever becoming loose, three holes were drilled down into the base of the cavity  at oblique angles  and threaded such that when the molten lead hardened it was locked in place.  It was my job to keep the clay bucket filled with clay by going to Ruddons Point to get it.  Just below the high tide line at Ruddons Point at the east end of Largo Bay and right where the Cockle Mill burn meets the sea is a bed of the very best pure clay.

 

The preferred finish of the wooden heads was three coats of rosewood stain then four coats of shellac varnish. Between  each coating, except, the last, the head was lightly sanded by hand. Another of my jobs was to keep the varnish jars full and to always have on hand a new supply of applicators for the stain. The varnish I made by mixing dry shellac flakes with purple dyed mentholated spirit until it got to the right consistency. The stain applicators I made by wrapping a strip of cloth from an old flannel shirt around a flat stick. All of the ingredients to make the stain, which was primarily dissolved potassium permanganate crystals, and the ingredients to make the shellac varnish were bought from Gray and Pringles ironmongery shop in Anstruther.

 

 

John hand stamping the name,Tom Reekie. His assistant is me.

 

My brother John in his workshop.

 

The trickiest part of the whole job of making a wooden golf club, that at the very last minute could ruin the club, was the stamping on the head of the signature name, Tom Reekie.  The name was stamped in black. First the steel, hand held, signature stamp was held low down in the flame of a smoking candle until the name, Tom Reekie on the stamp was thoroughly coated with carbon black soot. The stamp was flat and the wooden head was curved. Contact with the stamp and the head had to be made at the end of the name. This took a very good eye and steady hand pressure. When alignment was thought to be perfect a light hammer blow was struck on the stamp. Then very carefully the stamp had to be rocked to follow the curvature of the head as between each movement the stamp was lightly struck with the hammer until the entire name was completely embossed. If the club moved only the slightest amount during the stamping and the name got slightly off angle or not centered properly or not marked evenly the club would not be sold.   Our garden was well supplied with hickory plant stakes!!!!!!

 

In addition to my dad Tom Reekie and my brother John Reekie, others who were in the business of making golf clubs in Earlsferry during the 20th century that I remember include the names Mc.Duff,  A.H. Scott, David Scott, Crowley, George Forrester, Jim Forrester, Jack Forrester, James Donaldson, Jack Ballantyne and no doubt others that I've forgotten. The business of A.H. Scott had been designated Golf Club Maker to the Royal Family and the trade mark stamped on Scott's clubs was a royal crown. Scott's golf club making business in Earlsferry grew to the extent that he used a stationary, horizontal steam engine to drive  overhead line shafting to power his many individual golf club making machines.

 

Among my collection of Earlsferry made old wooden shafted golf clubs are a Scott niblick and a Gem putter both stamped with the Crown, a Jim Forrester mid-iron, a Jack Forrester mashie, a Mc Duff driving iron and of course several old Tom Reekie clubs and the ones that I made from scratch by myself. One of my "barkie" clubs that I prize greatly is one that I made from an old  brass (most likely bronze) Tom Morris, St. Andrews, putter head, which, when I was a boy, I shafted with  a somewhat crooked  sucker from a hazelnut tree that was growing at Blebo Craigs, just a few miles from St. Andrews. Despite having a crooked shaft it has good "feel" and is a very fine putter.

 

  

 

To begin with my dad, Tom Reekie, made and repaired golf clubs, mostly for the local players of the game. However while Tom was good at making and fixing clubs and teaching others how to play the game Tom always went on about as to what was the real reason for playing golf which was spending time with friends or family. Always, on the course, you would hear words of praise and admiration for a well played shot and words of commiseration when someone's ball was buried deep in the rough or lost or a putt that there was no way could be missed, was.

December 26 2008. 

I recently received an email from Jiri Martinka of the Czech Republic. His purpose for writing was to tell me that a juvenile size, old hickory shafted brassie, with the name Tom Reekie stamped on it, had recently come into his possession.  By this web site Jiri found me.  If this wee club could talk what a story it could tell. In the course of its roughly 80 years of existence how many have used it?   Born in Earlsferry, how has it survived for all these years and now is in Prague?  But this lovingly hand made golf club's travels aren't over yet. The purpose of Jeri's email was to tell me that although he is a collector of old clubs he thinks so much of this little club and it being so far from Earlsferry that he generously offers to send it "back home" for safe keeping to one of the progeny of it's maker.  Now that's "feeling" for the game and others.

 

Jiri is an ardent player of the game as it was played in the days of the old hickory shafts. I bet Jiri, just like me, has a lot more fun playing the game  with old clubs that were made in the days of yore than someone who is equipped with a huge bag full of the latest graphite and titanium offerings, electric golf cart, etc. etc. etc.)

 

 February 5th. 2012

Today I received an email from Mike McClenan . Mike who lives in Warrington, Cheshire in England wrote to tell me that he has an old Tom Reekie Gem Putter and that he wishes to return it to me or to one of the Reekie family. What a beautiful gesture . You can be sure that in the days to come when Mike's gem putter is hanging on a Reekie wall that its story will be told. There certainly is a lot of sentiment and feeling for old golf clubs and their makers and the players who have used them for many, many enjoyable years. I'm sure my dad, Tom, would be flattered as to how he is thought of and remembered. Just think. Tom's old clubs will be hanging on Reekie walls and no doubt the walls of others for most likely hundreds of years.

 

Before the advent of the motor car, roads were relatively unimproved. Visitors who wanted to play on the Earlsferry Links who came from anywhere other than a few miles away were few and far between.

 

In my early days of playing on the Ferry links,  Earlsferry people played the game as a 14 hole course.  From the 1st tee the  fairway went west from The Ferry Road  and the 14th hole ended back at the Ferry Road.  Sometimes after playing the 14  we kept on playing and went around twice. All of the Earlsferry golf course was to the west of the Ferry Road. 

 

The West Sea Road is fortunate that it did not suffer the same fate as the Cadgers Road by being filled in and no longer visible. The West Sea Road paralleled the now 6th hole of the golf course. This road was well traveled by the public for vehicles to get from Earlsferry to the West Sea beach where there was a parking area at both ends of the road. 

 

Treasure trove.

The West Sea Road. How many hundreds of years, no, maybe thousands of years, has it taken to create this well worn, sunken, rutted roadway?

 It could well be that before the advent of gowf this track to the "Wast Sea"  was travelled by the people of old who made the under the ground, Elie, Ardross Souterrain, two miles to the east.

 

Straight out from the sea end of the West Sea Road was a commercial salmon fishing operation. Each day, when the tide was fully ebbed, vehicles traveled the roadway when the fishermen serviced the nets and removed the many huge salmon that were caught.  The Earlsferry villagers  used the road extensively to transport driftwood and sea coal that had been garnered from the West Sea beach. The roadway was also used to transport used building stone etc. to rip-rap the shoreline where the sea continuously caused erosion.

 

After World War II, Jems' brother, Sandy Linton, operated a wood storage and firewood cutting and bagging business near the sea end of the West Sea road. To power his wood cutting saw, Sandy jacked up one rear wheel of his lorry then attached a flat belt from the wheel to the saw before starting up the engine of the lorry and putting it in gear to get the saw blade spinning. Quite ingenious but highly dangerous.

 

The rocky area between the high and low tides from  Chapel Green and the West Sea Road produced a prolific amount of wulks (whelks/periwinkles) which materially contributed to the economy of Earlsferry people who made a business of gathering them. This was hard but healthy work.  Those  who were gatherers with all the fresh salt sea air were a  ruddy complexioned happy group. As the wulks were gathered by hand they were loaded into twenty pound gunny sacks which were then taken by the West Sea road to the railway station at Elie.  From Elie the local train took them to Edinburgh and the overnight train from Edinburgh took them to the Billingsgate, London wholesale fish market where they arrived the next morning to be sold at auction. As an item of interest  read my "Earlsferry Lobster" page about what can be done at the 11th., the Sea Hole.

 

The sixth fairway paralleled the much traveled West Sea Road and the tenth and twelfth fairways were at right angles to the roadway. This was a unique situation and both golfers and roadway users observed and gave way to the other as and when there was a need.

 

Most everybody, young and old, in Earlsferry played golf.  In these days golf was a very informal game as the game was completely unregulated. If there was a line up at the first tee to start play, players just walked out to start their game from any hole they pleased and finished the same way. Usually five clubs were all we carried, but sometimes seven.

 

In my early days of playing on the links the fairways were much narrower than they are today and weren't mowed like the present.  The greens, while the grass was kept relatively short, were tiny by today's standards. Putting to the hole was mostly done with a lofted putting cleek and of course we always putted and attempted to create a stymie.  Wooden tees hadn't yet come on the scene and at each designated driving-off tee site was a small wooden box filled with sand for the player to take a pinch to tee up the ball.

 My first club

 

In 1931 when I was five years old my dad made me my first golf club and I started to play the game. It was Tom's habit to make for each child in the village his first tiny club.  By the time my brother John was eight years old he was already a good golfer. 

 

Above on the left my lifetime favourite driver.

Someone marked this on my driver

 

The old and the new. Tom loved to teach children.

The wee white haired boy is Graham Johnston.

 

In all the years that John and I played together I don't think I ever beat John.  John had a beautiful and relatively slow but perfectly timed swing. At the end of his swing John held that position for at least five seconds before lowering his club as he watched his ball in flight. John's ball always went dead straight down the middle of the fairway. 

On the other hand I was a long hitter and lashed out at the ball like a Tiger Woods to the extent that my driver acquired the well deserved name, "The Terror of The Ferry."   As soon as I hit my first drive, which might end up many yards beyond John's drive, John would just smile and say, "Well, we know who'll be the winner of this game." How right he was!

 

John's advice to the golfer

 

 

After World War II ended in 1945 John joined our dad Tom Reekie in his golf business and the name changed to "Tom Reekie and Son, Golf Club Makers."  Their activity all winter long was to hand make sets of golf clubs all of which were sold by the end of the next summer. All summer long they both tutored others how to play the game, sold clubs and golf accessories and did club repairs.  Jenny, John's wife, also played an active part in the business especially during the busy months of the summer. After Tom retired John and Jenny carried on the business by themselves until John finally retired. After John and Jenny closed their business it was a good number of years before their old friends and customers finally stopped knocking on the door of their house with request such as,  "John, I have a favourite club that needs fixing.   Could you do it for me?"  John never refused. On being asked, "How much do I owe you?"  John, with a twinkle in his eye, would invariably smile and say, "That's all right ------glad to do it for you."

 It is a Gem and a gem of a putter.

 

I have many fond memories of my dad Tom Reekie and golf in Earlsferry but this is a happening that's given me many a chuckle.  One day I was standing on the Ferry Road with my dad Tom Reekie We were watching visiting golfers teeing off at the fourth.  One of the players sclaffed a miserable drive that skittered a short distance along the fairway about to the old well that is only about half way to the Cadgers Road.  As the player, with a disgusted look, returned his driver to his bag Tom, who'd been scrutinizing the player and his club, made the remark, "Man, that's an awfy looking bauchle (an old worn out down at the heel shoe)  ye're playing wi'." At this the gentleman retrieved the club from his bag and handed it to my dad for his inspection.  Great was Tom's astonishment and embarrassment as on looking the old club over the name stamped on the club's head was Tom Reekie.  For a moment there was silence then,  not to be outdone, with an innocent, nostalgic, reminiscent, faraway look, a pawky smile and a twinkle in his eyes, Tom saved the moment as he looked up, shook his head, and sighed,

"Aye,---- but it's been a braw club in it's day."

 

After about a hundred years the business of Tom Reekie and Son is now a part of  Earlsferry golfing history.

 

Now, memories on the wall.

 

Earlsferry produced a considerable number of excellent golfers, the most notable

being James Braid who, with Harry Vardon and John Henry Taylor, was one of the

famous trio that comprised the British Golf Championship Triumverate.

 

My father, Tom, and brother, John, taught many players the game of golf, some of whom also become world famous. You can read more about it on the History page of the Elie Sports Club.

 

Now that's  living.