Celebrating the female pioneers of golf

Professional golfer Karyn Dallas tells of her shocking experience in the documentary.

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Women’s golf is in good health on Arran, particularly in Shiskine, but the women’s game has not always had an easy time of it in the sport.

Now a new documentary, produced for BBC Alba by award winning independent production company purpleTV, explores the extraordinary history of women’s golf in Scotland and celebrates some of the little-known female pioneers.

Iron Women is the latest documentary created by filmmaker Margot McCuaig, whose slate includes Elena Baltacha, Tommy Burns, Rose Reilly and Jim Baxter.


Golf was traditionally regarded as a man’s sport, a protected male environment that was out of bounds to the so-called ‘weaker sex’.

From the early pioneers of the 18th century, to formidable role models who challenged the patriarchal constraints of male-dominated golfing arenas, this story celebrates the trailblazers who put Scottish women’s golf firmly on the world map.

The battle for visibility and access on equal terms has been a long and difficult journey and the heroes integral to the growth and recognition of the game in Scotland remain little-known.

The story begins in the 18th century in Musselburgh, with recorded evidence of fishwives playing golf and competing for the prize of a creel and silk handkerchiefs.


The game gathered momentum among the Victorian ladies of St Andrews from 1863, albeit under the watchful gaze of husbands and fathers, who controlled the spaces women frequented, and how they used them.

Over the centuries while some women were open about their love for golf, their space was often severely curtailed and distinctive male and female spheres came into play.

Transgressors such as Issette Pearson and Agnes Grainger developed strategies to create opportunities for women and thanks to their determination the Ladies Golf Union and the Scottish Ladies Golf Association were formed in 1893 and 1904, formalising the sport and creating competition and, fundamentally, a handicap system before men. Formidable golfers emerged, with several Scots leading the way at home and abroad.

Professional golfer Karyn Dallas gives a shocking account of arriving at a club to play a tournament and there was a sign that said ‘No Dogs or Women Allowed’.

While Dr Fiona Skillen says men ‘supervised’ women to make sure they behaved appropriately when they played golf in the 19th century and land was gifted to the St Andrews Ladies Putting Club.

Dr Skillen said: ‘It’s interesting that the land the women are gifted to play on is straight beside the Royal and Ancient Clubhouse so there’s an argument there that this is in order for the men to be able to keep a watchful eye on what the women are getting up to.

‘The men check to see if the women are behaving themselves in a circumspect manner. They are being encouraged to play but a very specific kind of golf, it’s putting, it’s not challenging.’

She also shares memories of being in a golf club as a child. She said: ‘I remember my dad getting very antsy if I ever went near the painted line or if I tried to step over the painted line; it was hugely controversial, and I was very aware of the gendered behaviour and the difference.’

Dr Fiona Reid had a similar experience and recalls a white line in the golf club where her mum played. She said: ‘Only the men could go over that line. There’s a place that the men can go and a place that the women can go.’

Gillian Kirkwood also remembers being prohibited from walking past the window of the men’s lounge at the golf club.

She said: ‘You weren’t allowed to walk past the golf club window, you had to walk on a path that was quite far away from the window so that the men didn’t see you and you can’t look in at the window to see the men having their drinks and cigars. Some golf clubs really had to be dragged into the 21st century.’

Brogan Clark said: ‘If you were in front of a group of guys at tee time you’d hear them huffing and saying “we’re at the back of these ladies and it’s going to be a five or six-hour round”. That kind of gave you the satisfaction to go up to the first tee and hit the ball and see their jaw drop!’

Writer, producer and director Margot McCuaig comments: ‘Women’s golf in Scotland has a long and prestigious history. Despite barriers, both in terms of attitude and physical structures, pioneers have continued to lead the way. Consequently, sporting celebrities have emerged as role models, on and off the green, ensuring that there has been a fairer way for women.

‘Whether playing professionally or competitively at amateur level, golf has a common theme. Friendships are created and cherished, time on the course is relished and Iron Women have continued to make their mark, and their own home, in Scottish golf.’

  • Iron Women is available on the BBC iPlayer until the end of January.