Baillie, George L. (c. 1848 – 1922)

On 5 November 1881 a letter was sent out for a meeting being held on 9 November in the Chamber of Commerce, Belfast. One of the seven signatories was G. L. Baillie, a native of Musselburgh, who was on the teaching staff of the Belfast Royal Academy and who was referred to Thomas Sinclair by the ten headmaster of the Academy, Dr W.F. Collier. Together it was Sinclair and Baillie who searched for a sight for the Belfast Golf Club and finally opting for Kinnegar, Holywood. Baillie was nominated Honorary Secretary a role he would also take up a the Royal County Down Golf Club when it was formed eight years later. The evidence points to G. L. Baillie has having been the course designer of the course at Newcastle as the minutes of the club approved a sum of £5 with a further £5 authorised two months later for preliminary expenses.

According to the census George Baillie marrried a Scottish lady in c.1872 and together they had nine children. They had likely travelled to Belfast not long after the Royal Academy had moved to Cliftonville Road.

Though not a golfer myself, never having taken to the game in earnest, or played on more than, perhaps, twenty occasions in my life, I may yet, I think, in a humble way, venture to claim inclusion amongst the pioneers of golf in Ireland, where until the year 1881 it was unknown. In the autumn of that year the Right Honourable Thomas Sinclair, Dr. Collier, of “British History” fame, and Mr. G. L. Baillie, a born golfer from Scotland, all three keen on the game, set themselves in Belfast to the task of establishing a golf club there. They succeeded well, and soon the Belfast Golf Club, to which is now added the prefix Royal, was opened. The ground selected for the links was the Kinnegar at Holywood, and on it the first match was played on St. Stephen’s Day in 1881. That was the beginning of golf in Ireland. Mr. Baillie was the Secretary of the Club till the end of 1887, when a strong desire to extend the boundaries of the Royal game in the land of his adoption led him to resign the position and cast around for pastures new. Portrush attracted him, engaged his energies, and on the 12th May, 1888, a course, which has since grown famous, was opened there. About this time I made his acquaintance and suggested Newcastle, the beautiful terminus of the County Down railway, as another likely place. On a well remembered day in December, 1888, he accompanied me there, and together we explored the ground, and finished up with one of those excellent dinners for which the lessee of our refreshment rooms and his capable wife (Mr. and Mrs. Lawrence) were famous, as many a golfer I am sure, recollects. Mr. Baillie’s practised eye saw at once the splendid possibilities of Newcastle. Like myself, he was of an enthusiastic temperament, and we both rejoiced. I remembered the shekels that flowed to the coffers of the Glasgow and South-Western from the Prestwick and Troon Golf Courses on their line, and visions of enrichment for my little railway rose before me. Very soon I induced my directors to adopt the view that the railway company must encourage and help the project. This done the course was clear. They were not so sanguine as I, but they had not lived in Scotland nor seen how the Royal game flourished there and how it had brought prosperity to many a backward place. Mr. Baillie’s energy, with the company’s co-operation to back it, were bound to succeed, and on the 23rd March, 1889, with all the pomp and ceremony suitable to the occasion (including special trains, and a fine luncheon given by the Directors of the Company) the Golf links at Newcastle, Co. Down, were formally opened by the late Lord Annesley. From that time onward golf in Ireland advanced by leaps and bounds. Including Newcastle, there were then in the whole country, only six clubs and now they number one hundred and sixty-eight! The County Down Railway Company’s splendid hotel on the links at Newcastle, with its 140 rooms, and built at a cost of £100,000, I look upon as the crowning glory of our golfing exploration on that winter day in 1888. To construct such a hotel, at such a cost, was a plucky venture for a railway possessing only 80 miles of line, but the County Down was always a plucky company, and the Right Honourable Thomas Andrews, its Chairman, to whom its inception and completion is chiefly due, was a bold, adventurous and successful man.

Extract: Fifty Years of Railway Life in England, Scotland and Ireland

The railway of the Belfast and County Down Railway is no longer in operation, it was nationalised in 1948, as it viability to the private companies who operated it could no longer be justified. Since the nineteen fifties when passenger number were declining and the government thought that the money to the develop railway would be better served in improving the infrastructure of the roads as the car was quickly becoming the preferred mode of transport of the consumer. The line was disbanded and little of it exists except was has been ressurected by railway entusiastists.

A Scottish schoolteacher called George L. Baillie originally laid out the first nine holes here and in the very same year, Old Tom Morris extended the course to a full 18 holes. It is said that when Old Tom Morris was engaged to lay out the links there, he is reported to have said of Mr. Baillie’s work on the course: “I wonder why they send for me; this Mr. Baillie kens mair aboot laying golf links than I dae.”

The development of the course is described in fascinating detail in Richard A. Latham’s excellent book, “The Evolution of the Links at Royal County Down Golf Club” (Radial Sports Publishing Limited, 2006). George L. Baillie, a Scottish schoolteacher who came to Belfast and quickly embarked on a personal crusade to establish golf courses, was mainly responsible for the original nine-hole layout.

The Club’s Official Handbook of 1930 recounts that early in the year of 1888 two Scottish-born golf entusiasts, George Baillie and Tom Gilroy visited Portrush. They were struck with the evident adaptability of the sandy hills and dunes in the vicinity of the little railway station as a golf course. Several members of leading families interested themselves in the project; before long suitable land was obtained from Lord Antrim through the auspices of the London Midland and Scottish Railway Company (“Northern Counties Committee”) and a nine hole course was started.

On the occasion of the opening of the Portrush (County Golf Club) links on the 12 May 1888 (over forty competitors) Baillie won the Silver Cup. Baillie was the first Honorary Secretary of the Portrush Golf Club.

Narin & Portnoo golf club is the fourth golf course in this beautiful part of Southwest Donegal since 1899. The area has two towns, Ardara and Glenties which are about six miles apart. The twin villages of Narin and Portnoo lie six miles equidistant from both towns along the coast. The noted golf course designer George L. Baillie, originally of Musselburgh, near Edinburgh had designed the nine-hole course at the Sandfields, twenty minutes walk from Ardara. Opened in 1899, its patrons stayed at the Nesbitt Arms Hotel in Ardara itself. Ardara Golf Club limped along until the time of the Great War when civil unrest in Ireland put paid to tourism and so-called ‘foreign’ sports for a time.

In all George Baillie had alleged connections with a further six further golf clubs; Leopardstown (1891), Lisburn (1891), Bundoran (1894), Larne (1894), Knock (1895), Magillian (1896), Greenore (1896), Castlerock (1900), Scrabo (1907) and Omagh (1910). Each of which he played a part in designing or promoting the golf clubs.

Baillie may well have been acting on behalf of the Great Northern Railway (“GNR”), Belfast and County Down and London and North Western railway (“LNWR”) companies probably on the back of the success of Royal County Down. It was on one of his reconiscense mission that he identified Greenore as an ideal location for a golf links and acted by issuing a circular to convene a meeting about created a golf club in September 1896. It is understood that he laid out the twelve hole golf course and extended it the following year at the expense of the Dundalk Newry and Greenore Railway Company (“DNGR”), a wholly owned subsidiary of the LNWR. First class tickets were being offered to members between Dundalk/Newry and Greenore at 1/- each to promote the venture with early membership being struck a one guinea and doubled for entrants after November 1896. Baillie organised a very professional meeting and drew up the rules and regulations of the golf club which would be under the control of the DNGR. A report in the Irish Times appeared as follows:

“The London and North Western Railway Company have for some time been at work laying out a golf course and erecting a club house at Greenore, Co. Louth. On Saturday, a meeting of the leading residents of Dundalk, Newry and district was held in the Railway Hotel for the purpose of forming a golf club to be called the Greenore Golf Club.”

Baillie’s fee for laying out the links at Larne Golf Club in 1894 was five guineas. The founding committee at the Omagh Golf Club “decided to get Mr G. L. Baillie, golf professional, to come and inspect land and, if approved, to lay out same.” There is little evidence that Mr Baillie had ever actually become a professional golfer. Baillie fee as the first course designer at Bundoran Golf Club was £15, a copy of one of the cheques (£4-11-0) from the then treasurer, Ralph Hall Reid, is in the club’s centenary book. His charge at Bundoran wasn’t limited to course design as he brought in membership subscriptions.

Mr. Baillie arrived at New Galloway Golf Club on April 1st 1902 and after inspecting the two fields proceeded to mark out the proposed course. That same evening he drew a plan of the projected layout and with the committee went carefully into the cost. He estimated that on the most economical lines it would take about £50 to start it and suggested an annual subscription of 10/6 (52.5p) for gentlemen and 5/- (25p) for ladies. Visitors should be charged 1/- (5p) per day, 3/- (15p) per week and 7/6 (37.5p) per month.

The contrast between this very basic approach to the design and construction of a golf course and modem practice could hardly be greater. All work had to be done manually and yet the course was opened for play within weeks of work commencing with playing surfaces considered perfectly acceptable and attracting favourable comment in contemporary accounts. MrBaillie’s expenses totalled £4 and there was expenditure of £17 11s. 9d. including labour on laying out the course.

Many of the holes laid out on golf courses at that time are still in play today with only minor changes. One can only admire the ability of George Baillie and his like in using the natural contours of the land and contrast it with the methods of some modern course designers whose layouts seem to depend on extensive earth-moving operations for any success achieved.

Mr. Baillie, in writing recently of the links, says: – “Few nine-hole courses, not lying along the coast, will compare with the one at present being laid out close to the town of New Galloway. From start to finish nature has provided both teeing grounds and putting greens, and the rabbit has during many years – perhaps centuries – so nibbled and patted the intervening turf that it resembles that of a seaside links, rather than an inland one. The ‘coney’ is, however, as all golfers know, not an unmixed blessing, but his scrapes and holes are being dexterously dealt with under the superintendence of a local expert, and before a few weeks are over, only the wild driver will have cause for complaint on that score. The course, though desolate of yawning sand bunkers, has a great variety of hazard. The water ditch in front of the first tee, the dyke to be carried for the third flag, the knowe in approaching the fourth, the bracken at the sixth, the bunker at the eighth, and the gully to the ninth, will keep the golfer, if not elated or dejected, at least interested from the time he drives off his first ball till he holes out on the lovely sward of the final green.”

Extract from Early History of New Galloway Golf Club

Reading Sources:

  • The Project Gutenberg eBook, Fifty Years of Railway Life in England, Scotland and Ireland, by Joseph Tatlow
  • Harry McCaw and Brum Henderson: Royal County Down Golf Club – The First Century
  • J. L. (Ian) Bamford: The Royal Portrush Golf Club – A History
  • Narin and Portnoo Golf Club
  • Beatty’s Guide