This very engaging and amusing talk was given by Ailsa Fortune, known to many of us through her articles in East Lothian Life and her column in the East Lothian Courier. It was the story of the establishment of women’s golf in North Berwick in tandem with the development of the town as a summer golfing and social haven for the aristocracy and professional middle classes in the late 19th and early 20th centuries: the ‘Biarritz of the North’.
In a male-dominated pastime, women golfers were at best tolerated and at worst derided by their male counterparts. Indeed, women were considered only capable of fairly short drives off the tee due to the restrictions of their clothing. Moreover, it was considered unseemly for a woman to be seen raising her arms above her shoulders as would be necessary to make a decent swing. However, the golfing women of North Berwick were a determined lot, gradually loosening the restrictions of male prejudice ( and, indeed, of their clothing) and a ‘ladies’ course was developed on the West Links just behind the Marine Hotel. It was a 9 hole course, perhaps considered as much as ‘proper’ ladies could manage! The North Berwick Ladies Golf Club was founded in 1888, and the committee was, of course, male only. This astonishing state of affairs, at least from the perspective of 21st century mores, continued until after the first world war. Women were not represented on the committee until the 1920s.
Over the period, a considerable number of very notable female golfers found local and national fame. We were first introduced to the Misses Gillies-Smith, from Edinburgh, as founder members still playing in 1906. Then there were the six Tennant sisters among others. Note that they and young women like them were all daughters of aristocrats or very successful men of finance, commerce and the law. Of particular note were the three Orr sisters who, on entering the Scottish Ladies Championship for the first time became, respectively, champion, runner up and semi-finalist!
The heyday of development of womens’ golf in North Berwick covered the 1920s and 30s, with post second world war consolidation and the gradual establishment of what we would consider modern attitudes to women golfers. However the passage has not been smooth. When the NB Ladies Club merged with the Men’s Club, in the 30s (I think), they became fully accepted as players on the West Links course. But there was one concession to male dominance: the new combined club was to have 300 male members and 150 females, in which the women would have the status of ‘associate members’. This situation was only rectified in 2005!!
We were left with a picture of North Berwick in the late 19th and first half of the 20th centuries as a major social hub for the great and the good, based on holiday-making and golf: graced by the Asquiths, Margo Asquith being a decided summer presence on the golf course and in the town, AJ Balfour, Winston Churchill, Nancy Astor and other notables.
But behind all of the glitter, North Berwick produced, and still produces, women golfers of great renown.