Orkney hosts International Island Games

16 April 2024 Feature Article

It’s a little early to be handing out medals for an event that isn’t happening until next year, but Chris Rae and Stewart Fotheringhame surely deserve one.

The duo have been pivotal in preparing Orkney Golf Club for the 2025 International Island Games, which will be staged in the British archipelago next July, two years later than initially planned. Covid put paid to the 2021 edition and Guernsey retained hosting duties for 2023, affording a little more breathing space for the substantial redevelopment of Orkney GC, which will share responsibility for staging the golf action with Stromness Golf Club.

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Issues to address

Head Greenkeeper Rae and Orkney 2025 Golf Co-Ordinator Fotheringhame, along with a small team of dedicated volunteers, have transformed the oldest of the island’s seven courses in readiness for the big occasion. Golf Architect Stuart Rennie was brought in to draw up a masterplan and work to execute that began in 2020, though 13 new bunkers and six new tees had already been built by then, while widespread drainage was undertaken.

Among the issues that needed addressing was the state of some of the greens, particularly the 1st and 3rd, which posed challenges likely to tax even the most proficient of putters. “Those two greens had a 7% fall across them – just a straight line down, no flat areas,” explained Rae. “Some days we wouldn’t mow those greens or roll them if it was too windy because the prevailing wind blows the same way as the slope did. I think one lady recorded 27 putts on the first – we really didn’t want to have a situation where we embarrassed ourselves by having greens that were basically unplayable.”

Exceeding expectations

The extensive renovation of what is a compact site located on the west side of Kirkwall, Orkney’s capital, has also included relocating the 2nd tee to a safer location, as it previously sat in a landing area for the 9th hole, while other work has added definition to a course that is now winning warm praise from members and visitors alike.

“We had a group of about 40 Americans and a few other nationalities come and play here on a PerryGolf tour,” explained Rae. “They’d played Carnoustie, Gleneagles and Royal Dornoch and we just happened to be mixed in with that lot. They couldn’t believe the standard of the course and for the price they’d paid – we put on sandwiches and soup and provided caddies; we felt like we were out of our depth really, but we managed to achieve it, and they booked for another two years, so I guess you’d call that a success.

“But that’s what I set out to achieve when I came here 11 years ago – I want to surprise people and I want them to be impressed with the quality here.”

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Fresh eyes, new ideas

Projects on such a grand scale are always likely to raise eyebrows among the membership, but it didn’t take long to win over the majority at Orkney, some of whom even volunteered their time to help get the work done. Temporary greens were required for up to a year while some of the work was carried out and areas of ground under repair were commonplace, but, beyond the odd grumble, most were understanding and supportive.

The results have been as surprising and impressive as Rae could have hoped for, with the upgrades providing for not only a more aesthetically pleasing track but also one that rewards strategy rather than dumb luck. And Rennie’s vision wasn’t all about more of everything – in many cases, his plan called for elements to be removed. “It wasn’t a case of adding things in,” said Fotheringhame. “He was seeing bunkers in positions on par threes and saying, ‘How do high handicappers play this? Take that bunker away and there’s an opportunity to run it in.’.

“Through his fresh eyes, we were able to see things we hadn’t noticed before.”

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A helping hand

Rae’s experience in golf construction has enabled him to do a significant chunk of the work himself, though he readily acknowledged an undertaking on this scale is not a solo enterprise. He had the help of another greenkeeper and two summer labourers while working on the greens, and Fotheringhame is among the small army of volunteers who have willingly chipped in. Some haven’t even had to get their hands dirty in order to help move things along, as one member proved by donating machinery and manpower to the club.

“He had a civil contracting company, and they wanted to keep their boys working as there wasn’t much on coming out of Covid,” explained Rae. “He sent up his best digger operator, an eight-ton digger, five-ton digger and a six-ton dumper all for free for three weeks – we couldn’t have done it without them.”

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Not remotely a problem

Orkney’s remote location is largely mitigated by the resourcefulness of its people, and the golf club is no different, though Rae does sometimes meet with the odd issue.

“We’re pretty well serviced up here,” he said. “The hardest part of my job is getting machinery and parts as there’s usually a bit of a wait, but that’s more on the greenkeeping side. On the construction side, we’ve got a large industrial area near us and if there’s anything we need, we can get it.

“We have a few members who own construction companies, so if we need any topsoil we give them a shout – we pay the haulage, and the topsoil is donated to the club. We also own a 25-acre field next to the course, which we rent to a farmer, but we’ve fenced off 5,000 square metres to create our own turf farm.”

Don’t go, Laura!

It’s trickier to find workarounds for the scarcity of potential recruits, however. Rae put a young prospect called Fergus McIvor through his apprenticeship, but after a few years he moved on to other things, though he still returns to help out now and again.

So Rae relies on summer labourers and his own broad skill set to keep everything in order, though he does have the help of greenkeeper Laura Sayer-Hall for the next year. Sayer-Hall worked at Ardfin on the Inner Hebridean isle of Jura and Rae is hoping to keep hold of her for as long as possible.

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“She’s a great attribute to the club. The members have embraced her attitude, she’s really positive,” he said. “We don’t have a mechanic, so I’ve got to do all the work myself – we try to remain self-sufficient, so she’s been learning all about it over winter and she’s really embracing it.

“But other than that, I don’t think we can ever really lure anyone here in the greenkeeping world. It presents some challenges, and it won’t be for everyone, but I love it.”

Let the Games begin

More than 2,500 competitors and officials are expected to attend across the duration of the International Island Games, which it is hoped will attract up to 3,000 visitors to Orkney. It makes the event an incredible platform for Orkney to enhance its reputation on a global stage, and Fotheringhame is aware of the potential to create something that endures well beyond the seven-day sporting spectacular.

“Legacy is a big thing with these big sporting events,” he said. “We’re hoping that general interest in golf in Orkney will go up, and the work we’ve done on the course will certainly leave a legacy. The fact we’re hosting this will leave a legacy with regards to marketing the golf club to tourists. We get a huge number of cruise liners in Orkney, well over 200, and that represents a big opportunity for us.”

About those medals...

Rae and Fotheringhame may have to settle for being content with a job well done rather than having the honour of a medal hung around their necks, but what are the chances of an Orkney local laying claim to some precious metal? The top player on the island is a guy called Steven Rendall, who came sixth in Guernsey last year,” said Fotheringhame. “We’ve never won a medal in the golf, but I’d like to think we’ve got a chance this time.” GI

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Chris Rae, head greenkeeper, Orkney Golf Club

Rae hails from Australia and started working in the industry in 1998 at Sydney’s Pennant Hills Golf Club. He undertook his apprenticeship at Concord Golf Club before building a varied CV, which includes golf construction work alongside his experience in greenkeeping. He got the Orkney job in 2013, having lived on the island since 2008.

Stewart Fotheringhame, golf co-ordinator, Orkney 2025

Fotheringhame was instrumental in forming the Golf Committee in 2018, with fellow host course Stromness, and has been its chair ever since. Rae credits him as being vital to the course renovation project and playing a key role in the logistics of running a tournament, liaising with the Orkney Island Games committee, Sport Scotland, Scottish Golf and the Orkney Islands Council.

Orkney 2025 mission statement

  1. Provide a competitive sporting programme in excellent facilities
  2. Create a meaningful legacy for local sport and communities
  3. Involve communities and businesses as much as possible
  4. Celebrate the best of Orkney: place, produce, and people
  5. Make the 2025 Games as environmentally friendly as possible

The history of the Island Games

Orkney 2025 will be the 20th edition of the Games – a remarkable feat for something that was intended to be a one-off. The inaugural event, then titled the Inter-Island Games, was held in the Isle of Man in 1985 as part of the self-governing British Crown Dependency’s International Year of Sport. Such was the success of the Games, it returned bigger and better in Guernsey two years later and has continued as a biennial spectacle ever since, with the 2021 Covid-enforced cancellation the only exception.

From those humble beginnings four decades ago, when 700 athletes from 15 island groups competed across seven sports, the renamed International Island Games has since regularly hosted over 2,000 competitors from up to 25 island groups, with as many as 15 sports on the programme.

The sports

Lawn Bowls


Golf events

Women’s individual 72-hole scratch
Men’s individual 72-hole scratch
Women’s team event 72-hole scratch
Men’s team event 72-hole scratch


Orkney 2025 in numbers

7 days of competition
24 island groups represented
12 sports
2,500+ competitors and officials
3,000 visitors




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