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Cullen Links: A Short Course with a Big Heart

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Set along the rugged Moray Coast of northeast Scotland lies Cullen Links, a course revered by generations. With its seaside location offering stunning views across the Moray Firth, Cullen Links immerses players in the quintessential Scottish links experience. Despite being the shortest 18-hole “true links” course in the world, this par-63 layout presents a formidable test.

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What sets Cullen Links apart is how the course is seamlessly woven into the local community and landscape. The routing flows through the quaint village of Cullen, with homes and buildings lining several holes, transporting golfers back to the humble origins of the ancient game. This intimate connection and the ever-present coastal winds give Cullen Links an unmistakable charm and character that has captivated golfers for over 150 years.

In this post, we’ll learn the story of Cullen Links, its origins, and connections to the local village. We’ll also explore the course’s unique characteristics and discover why it plays much harder than its modest length. Finally, further reading suggestions and videos will help bring the course to life. The course is mentioned in almost all of the suggested readings, including A Course Called Scotland, When Revelation Comes, The Confidential Guide, and True Links, and will also be in my upcoming book.

If you enjoy these course writeups, consider subscribing to our weekly newsletter to receive updates on new posts, partners, and discount codes. For more information, check out the other courses featured in our Legendary Links series, which will soon be published in a book, “Links Around the World.”

Origins and History

The origins of Cullen Links can be traced back to 1870 when Old Tom Morris laid out the original nine-hole course on the Cullen Estate lands. His design philosophies of strategic bunkering and natural terrain features are incorporated throughout the course. They are still evident on the inward nine, running along the coastline with views of the sea stacks, although one of the original nine was lost. Morris’ involvement gave Cullen Links an auspicious start, and the course is considered one of the best remaining examples of an authentic Old Tom Morris design, retaining much of the original character, strategic bunkering, and use of natural terrain features he incorporated.

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In 1905, local golfer Charlie Neaves expanded Cullen to an 18-hole layout by renting additional lands from the Cullen Town Council. Neaves’ design brilliantly used the natural links terrain, incorporating existing dunes, burns, and coastal irregularities. His routing is considered one of the most natural and organic in Scotland.

Over the following decades, Cullen Links matured and evolved through the stewardship of the Cullen Golf Club. Legendary Scottish golfers like Eric Brown, winner of the 1970 Madrid Open on the European Tour, honed their games on these links from a young age. The course has hosted numerous prestigious events, including the Scottish Professional Championship in 1924 and the Northern Open Amateur Championship on multiple occasions.

While updates have been made over the years, the essence of Cullen Links remains true to its roots. The greens have been enlarged slightly, bunkers revetted, and new tees added to increase the overall length to 4,623 yards. However, the fundamental character of these revered links has been carefully preserved, allowing Cullen to retain its classic charm and unique ties to the local community.

Today, Cullen Links is a living museum celebrating the origins of golf in Scotland. Its heritage design, scenic seaside setting, and links turf conditioned by centuries of coastal winds offer a glimpse into how the game was played in its purest form centuries ago. Cullen Links is a must-play for any golfer seeking an authentic and unforgettable Scottish links experience and is the essence of what has made the British golf experience so often imitated.

Village of Cullen

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Cullen is located 2 miles southeast of Portknockie in Northeast Scotland. The course sits on the Moray Coast, with the village of Cullen offering an array of local hotels, restaurants, and activities like watersports at the Cullen Sea School. After a round, visitors can stroll along the beautiful Cullen Bay beach, famous for its impressive “Three Kings” rock formations and potential dolphin sightings. Cullen’s rich maritime history is evident in its old harbor, once a thriving center for fishing and trade.

The village has strong ties to its golfing heritage, with Cullen Links an integral part of the community for over 150 years. Many locals have learned the game on these links from a young age, passing down knowledge of every bump and slope. Several famous Scottish golfers started at Cullen, including Eric Brown, who won the 1970 Madrid Open on the European Tour.

Did You Know?

Cullen is world-famous for its local delicacy, “Cullen Skink” – a hearty, delicious soup made from smoked haddock, potatoes, onions, and milk. This dish originated from Cullen’s 500-year history as a thriving fishing village specializing in exporting smoked haddock across Europe.

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The name “skink” derives from the Scottish word for the knuckle or shin of beef. When people in northern Scotland could not find beef scraps due to economic constraints, smoked haddock was abundant and served as a substitute. Meat stews transformed into fish-based soups, but “skink” stuck.

In 2004, the European Union granted Cullen Skink Protected Geographical Status, meaning only “skink” made within a tight radius around Cullen can be called authentic. While the soup’s popularity has spread, with recipes and ready-made versions available worldwide, locals insist the best and most authentic Cullen Skink is made fresh in Cullen itself using locally sourced ingredients from the village’s coastal waters and farms.

Another unique fact about Cullen is its historic royal charter granted in 1455 by King James II, designating it as a ‘royal burgh’ due to the town’s increasing importance in European sea trade. This allowed Cullen to establish a merchant guild and borough laws. Remnants of Cullen’s maritime heritage can still be seen in its old harbor area.

The Course

Cullen Links plays to a modest 4,623 yards with a par of 63. The course packs a thrilling challenge with ten unique par-3 holes, with elevation changes and tee shots ranging from a steep 125-yard shot to a daunting 240-yard downhill one-shotter. The most memorable stretch is holes 11-14, which take you across incredible raised slopes and breathtaking views of the North Sea.

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The course is routed up and down the escarpment that overlooks the bay, with red-stone outcrops providing a stunning backdrop. Wide greens and stunning views of the Moray Firth add to the overall experience.

The course features blind shots, tight lies, and undulating fairways – all the classic links traits that require creative shot-making and local knowledge to score well. The wind is also a major factor, with coastal breezes frequently swirling across the exposed layout, making club selection paramount.

Cullen Links has hosted several major events, including the Scottish Professional Championship, Northern Open Amateur Championship, and Saltire Energy Paul Lawrie Match Play tournament. Despite its short length, the course record 59 has stood for over 30 years, a testament to its challenging design.

Visit Cullen Links online at https://www.cullenlinksgolf.co.uk

PuttView Golf Books

PuttView Books are detailed yardage and green maps designed to help golfers save strokes, especially under tournament conditions. They offer precise visual representations of courses, including topographic slope percentages, fairway arrows for slopes over 4%, and a dual view of greens accurate to the millimeter. The books are printed on high-quality waterproof paper, sized to fit traditional yardage book covers, and are USGA legal. 

Customers praise PuttView Books for their stunning detail, stylish presentation, and confidence in decision-making on the course. With 30,000 courses represented, your home course is bound to be available, as is Cullen Links.

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Further Reading

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Classic Golf Links
by Donald Steel

Summary: Classic Golf Links of England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland by Donald Steele is a guidebook featuring 75 spectacular links golf courses in the British Isles, covering their history, design, and challenges. The book includes scorecards, hole maps, photos, and playing tips for each course, providing key information for golf travelers while celebrating these revered seaside tests.  With writing by Donald Steel and photos by Brian Morgan, Classic Golf Links is considered an essential reference for experiencing the best of links golf.

This book is a must for anyone with an affinity for links golf. I bought this book years ago and still return to it often. The pictures are amazing and they alone will make you fall in love with these courses.

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Sand and Golf
by George Waters

Summary: “Sand and Golf” explores how sandy terrain uniquely suits golf, studying similarities and differences between courses worldwide with sandy features. It examines all aspects of the relationship between sand and golf, from the sport’s origins in Scottish coastal dunes to its global spread onto sandy sites. Written by golf architect George Waters with a preface by renowned designer Tom Doak, it details through examples and illustrations why firm, rugged, windy sandy terrain makes creative shot-making integral to the game. The book appeals to knowledgeable golfers interested in course design and architecture, analyzing the art and science behind why golf belongs on sand.

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The Confidential Guide to Golf Courses
by Tom Doak

Summary: Tom Doak has assembled a brash, coffee-table volume of observations and analyses that’ll have golfers salivating and pulling their hair out at the same time (when they’re not debating his findings over refreshments at the 19th hole). Not only does Doak rate and review hundreds of courses throughout the U.S.–by region and state–and around the world, he offers a “Gourmet Guide” to the 31 layouts he’d personally like to play with friends: Anyone not up for the likes of Pine Valley, Merion, St. Andrews, Riviera, and Ballybunion? 


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A Course Called Scotland
by Tom Coyne

Summary: For much of his adult life, best-selling author Tom Coyne has been chasing a golf ball around the globe. When he was in college, studying abroad in London, he entered the lottery for a prized tee time in Scotland, grabbing his clubs and jumping the train to St. Andrews as his friends partied in Amsterdam; later, he golfed the entirety of Ireland’s coastline, chased pros through the mini-tours, and attended grueling Qualifying Schools in Australia, Canada, and Latin America. Yet, as he watched the greats compete, he felt something was missing. Then one day a friend suggested he attempt to play every links course in Scotland, and qualify for the greatest championship in golf. 

The result is A Course Called Scotland, a hilarious golf and travel adventure throughout the birthplace of the sport and home to some of the oldest and most beloved courses in the world, including St. Andrews, Turnberry, Dornoch, Prestwick, Troon, and Carnoustie.

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When Revelation Comes: A Journey Across the Sacred Links of Scotland 
by Jim Hartsell

Summary: When Revelation Comes by Jim Hartsell is a memoir chronicling the author’s journey across the golf courses of Scotland to find peace after the tragic loss of his 21-year-old son Jordan to an accidental drug overdose.  Processing his grief through rounds at classic links across Scotland, Hartsell finds solace and revelations about continuing life’s journey through interactions with compassionate strangers met along the way.  With raw emotion, Hartsell shares how the search for meaning on Scotland’s windswept links helped him cope with unimaginable grief and loss.

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Golf Courses of the British Isles
by Bernard Darwin

Summary: “Golf Courses of the British Isles” by Bernard Darwin is a classic text that explores and celebrates the unique beauty and challenges of golf courses throughout the British Isles. Darwin, a revered golf writer and grandson of Charles Darwin, provides insightful commentary on the architecture, history, and character of iconic courses, blending personal anecdotes with expert analysis. His vivid descriptions transport readers to the very greens and fairways of famous venues, highlighting their natural beauty and the intricacies of their design. The book, illustrated with evocative drawings by Harry Rountree, remains a timeless tribute to the game of golf and is considered a must-read for enthusiasts of the sport and its storied landscapes.

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True Links
by  Malcolm Campbell & George Peper

Summary: True Links by Malcolm Campbell and George Peper profiles over 240 of the world’s top links golf courses across the British Isles and beyond, examining their history, design features, and status as an authentic “true links.” Organized geographically, the book offers photos, maps, scorecards and playing tips for renowned seaside tests like Royal County Down, Ballybunion, Cabot Links, Barnbougle Dunes and others that meet the authors’ criteria.  For links golf aficionados, True Links serves as an illustrated guidebook for experiencing the unique joys and challenges of the game’s most revered coastal courses.

Videos

Cookie Jar Golf – Cullen
No Laying Up – Cullen
Golf Mates – Cullen

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