I have been sharing recently stories related to where I live back here in Perthshire. Scotland is the home of golf due to the first 18-hole course opening in St Andrews in 1764 and I’d like to share a local golfing tale.
A short distance from my home is the ‘Mary Celeste’ of golf courses. It is located next door to the Gleneagles hotel with three world class golf courses. When unveiled in 2007 the intention was ambitious but simple: To create an ultra-exclusive, private community in the heart of Perthshire.
Original planning permission gave Scotland’s richest person Mahdi Al Tajir, with a fortune of close to £2 billion, the right to build 170 new homes on the site, a boutique hotel offering world-class dining, a destination spa and leisure facilities.
The project would be built on his 25,000-acre Blackford estate and it was agreed that 120,000 trees would be planted throughout the estate. The championship golf course was the centre piece and would be designed by Scottish course architect David McLay-Kidd who said, “without question, the best inland site I have ever seen for a golf course”.
To understand the history behind the project we must go back to Dubai. Mahdi Al Tajir, originally from Bahrain, was appointed head of Dubai customs back in the 1960s before becoming the first UAE Ambassador to the UK in 1971.
In 1975 he paid £2m for Keir House and estate north of the city of Stirling. The house and the estate have a rich history and David Stirling, founder of the Special Air Service, was born there in 1915.
Four years later Al Tajir founded the bottled water brand Highland Springs and subsequently acquired Blackford Estates with 25,000 acres surrounding the company’s plant. This provided complete control over the water supply and made Highland Springs water certifiably organic.
By 2009 the course was completed and in 2012, the adjoining clubhouse was completed. It was built in homage to Mereworth Castle, a Grade I listed Palladian country house in Kent, designed by 18th century Scottish architect Colen Campbell, and owned by Mahdi Al Tajir.
With the course and clubhouse ready by the start of 2013 the decision was taken to start selling the property plots with a view to launching the resort properly around the time of the 2014 Ryder Cup at neighbouring Gleneagles.
In early 2013, a group comprising Scotland’s foremost businesspeople were invited to play the course. By the summer of 2013, they had a big problem none of their prospective buyers were biting. In fact, never mind biting, they didn’t have so much as a nibble of interest in the resort.
It’s believed that Al Tajir hoped to attract investors from overseas but with Scotland possibly leaving the UK prospective buyers weren’t prepared to take unnecessary risks. Concerns were unwarranted as the Scottish voted in September 2014 to remain part of the UK.
When I passed the resort a few days ago it remains a ‘ghost’ golf course lying untouched. During the Covid-19 lockdown local residents requested access for exercise but they say they are being warned off by security guards.
When it will open is still unknown but until then it remains one of Scottish golf’s most intriguing enigmas.
Gordon is the former president and chief executive of BMMI. He can be reached at [email protected]