The sport of golf came to Arran in the late 19th century, roughly 125 years ago, made possible by the new boats and the new trade that they introduced. Prior to that, the only means of travelling to Arran from Bute or Saltcoats was by ‘Wherry-built’ nutshells known as ‘Flyboats’ or ‘Packets’. These little sailing craft also carried two to three pairs of oars, and when weather conditions were not good for sailing, paying passengers were expected to man the oars. The service was irregular, and at best was weekly rather than daily.
Glasgow, however, was slowly developing as an international port. U.K. Legislation permitted merchants to import tobacco, sugar, timber and other goods from America, the Caribbean and other parts of the world, and the River Clyde was busy with sailing schooners coming in from distant places. It was all set for expansion, and two men born in Scotland were already working on a technical revolution that would change travel for all time.
The first was James Watt of Greenock (1736-1819), who improved the early Newcomen steam engine by inventing a separate condensing chamber and revolutionised the navigation of the world. The second was Henry Bell (1767-1830) who lived in Helensburgh. He and Watt can be said to have begun the industrial age of Britain. Watt commissioned the building of a timber craft powered by a steam engine, built by John Wood of Port Glasgow and named the P.S. Comet, which was launched in 1812 and named after the great comet of 1811, which was visible from March until September. John Robertson and David Napier of Glasgow built the steam-powered engine, which drove side-mounted paddles. This, the first of many paddle steamers, was introduced to the public in August and began a passenger service between Glasgow and Greenock. Later, she was chartered to sail north to Oban and Fort William via the Crinan Canal (designed by engineer John Rennie and opened in 1801.) The Comet was shipwrecked at Craignish Point in December 1820, but her success had inspired other shipyards in the upper Clyde to build steam-powered craft.
With passenger and freight services sailing from the Broomielaw to various locations in the Clyde estuary, entrepreneurs constructed piers and hotels or large boarding houses to accommodate the increasing numbers of holiday-makers from Glasgow. Small villages like Helensburgh, Dunoon, Rothesay, Millport and Largs soon became towns.
Arran was left out of all this development because of the controls exercised by the 8th and 9th Duke of Hamilton 1769 - 1819. At the turn of the 18th century there was no island road structure and visitors were seen as a nuisance rather than a potential asset. The Duke and his trustees discouraged excursion traffic and exercised controls on the number of people permitted to stay even for short periods. Fueing of land to people who wanted to build houses was also discouraged, which in turn delayed the development being seen elsewhere in the Firth of Clyde. Arran was at the time described as the most ‘unspoiled’ part of the Clyde area, but it was probably also the most disadvantaged. As Alan Paterson wrote, ‘The Duke is the absolute Lord whose word is undisputed.’ To be fair, the situation was not easy. The population of Arran was at an all-time high of around 6,000 persons and the island was in no position to support or feed additional people. Such pastimes as golf had never been thought of.
Things began to change in August 1825 when the Helensburgh began a scheduled service to Arran from Greenock, calling at Rothesay and Lochranza, then down the east side of the island to Lamlash, returning via Brodick, Millport and Largs. The trip took all day, and passengers and goods were ferried to the shore by local rowing boats. Four years later, in 1829, the Royal Mail Steam Packet Co began a weekly service from Greenock to all villages on the east coast of Arran, using with paddle steamers named Inverary Castle and Toward. That same year, a sailing brig left Arran for Canada, laden with people hoping for some new chance to make a living.
Twelve months later, the Ardrossan Steamboat Co commissioned the paddle steamer Earl of Arran to begin a daily service between Ardrossan, Brodick and Lamlash. By this time there were 66 piers and quays serving the paddle steamer traffic in the Clyde estuary
It was not until 1872 that the Estate built the first serviceable pier on Arran at Brodick. After a short-lived attempt to run a passenger service, it approached Captain Buchanan, who commissioned the PS Brodick Castle andalso built the house called Kinneil, which can still be seen in Lamlash. The pier at Lamlash, built with green heart timber, was opened for traffic in 1884, and five years later, the longest pier on the Clyde was built at Whiting Bay.
Tourism was at last developing. Hotels were being built on Arran to accommodate the holidaymakers and families made their homes available as guesthouses, offering part or full board. The visitors brought with them various types of sporting equipment including golf clubs. There were no golf courses, but the visitors practised on the village greens or on harvested fields. Any open area was seized on to strike the small white ‘guttie’ balls, and local people became curious. Very quickly, they, too, wanted to participate in this new sport.