You would not think it possible to demolish a historic building in 2015 in Scotland without even the possibility of saving it being explored by the Council. But this is exactly what is happening in Musselburgh. ‘Mrs Forman’s’ is the oldest golf pub in the world, but plans are afoot to demolish it and turn it into a garage.
Forman’s was built in 1822, but achieved world-wide fame as Mrs Forman’s when Marion Forman began running it on her husband’s death in 1843. The quality of her fare was legendary and she figures in the first golf history book Reminiscences of the Old Bruntsfield Links Golf Club.
Musselburgh Old Course has been recognised as the oldest in the world and the site of the Open for many years in the 19th century. More Open Champions have come from Musselburgh than anywhere else. Mrs. Forman’s provided the hospitality to all of them. But now it is just a plot of extremely valuable development land which will create three ‘millionaire houses’, with unparalleled views over the Old Course to Arthur’s Seat. Recently the Council filled in 11 bunkers on the course to save money.
Mrs. Forman’s was the site of a major ‘Brookline’ golfing incident in 1870, when Old Tom Morris from St Andrews and Willie Park Snr were playing a close match for high stakes. Willie was from Musselburgh and the local crowd were interfering with Old Tom’s play. The umpire halted the match during the refreshment break in Mrs. Forman’s. Willie Park refused to accept that the umpire had the power to do that he went back and finished the match. The following day, when Old Tom walked the course and was declared the winner, Willie Park arrested the stakes. In the end the match was declared void.
The tavern is a mecca to all serious golf players. The list of famous champions who are said to have eaten there includes not just the old golfing champions but the 20th century ones as well – Harry Verdun, James Braid, Ben Sayers, Bobbie Jones and many of those around today.
However, all this is no more and the pub is now closed. An application was lodged last October with East Lothian Council to knock down the pub and build 3 houses facing the links, with a set of garages where Mrs. Forman’s itself now stands. The Council are negotiating with the developer, but access to the land requires demolishing the property so the prospects are bleak.
This has been described as a tragedy by many golf historians. Neil Laird of Scottish Golf History on the web, had just finished the research proving Mrs. Forman’s was the oldest golf pub in continuous operation when he discovered that it was closed. “It was a shock. And it will be big loss to Musselburgh,” he says.
Mr. Laird questioned the evidence that the pub was not viable. “Doubtless you can make more money from top-end housing, but that’s not to say the pub was not viable at a lower cost level. At the very least the Council should have investigated the possibility of a heritage group taking it over. It would pay its way and still contribute to the local economy. The National Trust own two pubs in London and Belfast – The George and The Crown. This pub is just as historic as they are.”
David Hamilton, renowned golf history author, said “I can’t believe that the Council are countenancing this. All it requires is some imaginative redevelopment in that corner keeping the heritage in some way.”
Heritage sells. As Mr. Laird pointed out “Musselburgh struggles to attract golf business and this will seriously reduce the visitor interest, which is much in this pub it is in the Old Links. I am sure that support could be raised to keep it going. You can build houses anywhere, but there is only one Mrs. Forman’s. Once it’s gone, it’s gone.”
“You cannot help feeling that people will come to regret this,” says Neil Laird.