The spooky private world of Scotland’s all-male clubs

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By Kenneth Roy
 
The Royal and Ancient Golf Club, which draws up the rules of the game, has treated a former prime minister with ill-disguised contempt. When Gordon Brown made a speech calling for women to be admitted to this all-male enclave, and others of its type in Scotland, the R & A could not be bothered dignifying Mr Brown’s remarks with a reply. It simply re-issued an earlier statement that its men-only policy was a matter for the members.

This casual arrogance tells us most of what we need to know about the ‘gentlemen’ of the R & A. They consider themselves rather above the likes of Gordon Brown and are more accustomed to being fawned over by the Pringle sweater brigade and the toadies of the golfing press.

Another of the exclusively male clubs, the self-styled ‘Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers’, based at the Muirfield course in East Lothian, likewise dismissed Gordon Brown’s suggestion that it should follow the example of Augusta National, a collection of American blazers notorious for their Neanderthal policies but which recently admitted women for the first time.

Unlike the ghastly R & A, the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers thought it prudent to give a former prime minister a little consideration. Its secretary, one Alastair Brown (no relation), insisted that single-gender private clubs could not be classed as discriminatory since equality legislation specifically allows them. ‘Are you not allowed to have a ladies’ gym club?’, asked Mr Brown (no relation). ‘As the law stands at the moment, yes you are, and I see no sign of that changing. There will be no imminent change here at Muirfield. To the best of my knowledge it is not even on the agenda’.

There is, however, a profound difference between a ladies’ gym club and a golf course on the Open Championship rota. The secretary at Muirfield might as well have compared Crufts with the waggy tail contest won a few weeks ago by Kip, the springer spaniel in the office next door, who is now officially the dog with the waggiest tail in Ayrshire. Good for Kip. But it would be fair to say that the eyes of the world were not on the waggy tail contest.

Predictably, Mr Brown (no relation) echoed the R & A’s position that the club’s policy on membership is a matter for the members to decide. He added: ‘It is not an issue for the outside world’.

Not an issue for the outside world. What a wonderfully spooky insight into the mindset of the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers. So there are two worlds: the ever-so-discreet one inhabited by the sort of men who frequent the clubhouse at Muirfield – a place which could loosely be described as the Edinburgh establishment at sea – and the ‘outside’ one in which progressive policies on such matters as gender equality are bravely sponsored by the present Scottish Government and supported by many of the common people. Do these worlds ever collide?

They did once. A man called George Pottinger, a senior civil servant at the Scottish Office and one of the ‘Honourable Company’, was having dinner with three members of the Scottish bench – a judge and two sheriffs – at Muirfield one evening in June 1973 when he received an unexpected telephone call from his wife. The message was terse: ‘We’ve got visitors. You have to come home at once’.

Pottinger did not have far to walk. He had built a house overlooking the course, the Pelicans, a showy affair complete with a grand piano set on a marble plinth and a large walk-in drinks cupboard; very seventies, a bit tasteless, but terribly expensive. If his distinguished friends in the Honourable Company ever wondered how a civil servant, even a senior one, could afford such a house, they kept their misgivings to themselves.

When he got to the Pelicans, the fraud squad were waiting for him. He spent the night in the police cells in the High Street of Edinburgh, not far from his place of work, St Andrew’s House, where he was known as ‘Gorgeous George’ on account of his impeccable suits and lofty manner. The following morning he was driven to Leeds where he appeared in the dock with his friend, the architect John Poulson, on corruption charges.

Poulson had helped to pay for the Pelicans, bought the suits and picked up the bills for Gorgeous George’s many foreign holidays. Pottinger’s entire lifestyle was supported by a businessman hungry for government contracts in Scotland and actively soliciting for a knighthood. ‘He was a very wealthy man’, Pottinger explained. That certainly rang true.

Pottinger too longed for a knighthood. He would have got one had he become head of the civil service in Scotland, a job for which he was being tipped. Instead he got four years. Five, actually, but they reduced it on appeal. He could not be tried in Scotland because he knew all the judges. He was a member of the Honourable Company, after all.

Ever since then, I have not been able to take this all-male den entirely seriously. If the members prefer to inhabit their own closed little world – distinct from the ‘outside’ world familiar to the rest of us – precedent suggests that there may be very good reasons. But why should such a club, which excludes half the population of Scotland as a matter of policy, be allowed to host one of the world’s greatest sporting events? Why should Troon? Why should the R & A? Until they are dragged into the early years of the 21st century, by legislation or public pressure, these clubs should be classified as pariahs.

But there is a problem. It is simply this. The Open Championship is owned by the R & A. How convenient.

Courtesy of Kenneth Roy – read Kenneth Roy in the Scottish Review