F A Fairlie’s Golf Club

Although F A Fairlie only lived in Sri Lanka a short time, he had a considerable impact on the local sporting scene

In the late 1860s, the British colonial authorities decided that the Dutch Fort in Colombo needed to be demolished. In the course of destroying the walls, they also removed the glacis, the artificial sloping embankment providing a clean field of fire for the defenders on the ramparts, across the canal from the gate leading to the road to Galle. They then joined the levelled ground to the promenade, which lay between the sea and the Beira Lake. The resulting green rejoiced in the name “Galle Face”.

Galle Face Green swiftly became a venue for recreational activities, including sports. A grandstand enabled the enjoyment of horse racing on the green, while polo, cricket, rugby and hockey became regular features. In 1879, several British colonials were determined to introduce the Scottish game of golf. A Dutch version of golf had apparently been played in the Fort in the 18th century, but had died out by then. Enthusiasts of the Scottish game started playing despite lacking a clubhouse or even a proper golf course. A year later, nine golfers met at the Colombo Club (the building now a part of Taj Samudra) to formalise their club. At this, the first annual general meeting of the Colombo Golf Club (which became the Royal Colombo Golf Club in 1928), they elected W Law as captain, R L M Brown as secretary, and W Somerville, R Webster and F A Fairlie as committee members.

Playing golf in front of the Royal Golf Club’s first clubhouse

The last named, Francis Archibald Fairlie, born in 1854 at the stately home of Coodham in Ayrshire, Scotland, came from a golfing background. His father, Calcutta-born Colonel James Sports Golf in Ceylon Ogilvie Fairlie, helped found Scotland’s Prestwick Golf Club and the Prestwick Open. He won the gold medal of the Royal and Ancient Club of St Andrews in 1857 and 1862, and the Silver Cross in 1840, 1854 and 1860. The Earl of Dalhousie acclaimed him as the “Champion Amateur of Scotland” when, in a single season, he held the medals of St Andrews, North Berwick and Prestwick, at a time considered the “Grand Slam”.

Fairlie’s sister Margaret Ann Alice married Sir Graeme Hepburn Dalrymple-Horn-Elphinstone, the fourth Baronet Dalrymple-Horn-Elphinstone. His uncle, George Augustus Frederick Dalrymple-Horn-Elphinstone, owned estates in Sri Lanka, and Sir Graeme followed in his footsteps. He commenced planting at the Logie and Belgravia estates in Lindula, coming to be known as “Logie”. He also owned estates in Perak, Malaysia. “He was all-powerful,” reported Times of Ceylon at Christmas 1909, “and had interests in a huge extent of property in the coffee districts”. Fairlie, in his turn, came to Sri Lanka, and opened up the Kowlahena and Conon estates in Lindula, which he owned jointly with his elder brother William Frederick Fairlie. The plantations, reeling under the impact of coffee blight, had begun the transition from coffee, via cinchona, to tea.

Although this must have been a hard time for planting, Fairlie appears to have made time for other activities. Apart from planting, he had many other interests. A keen amateur biologist, he sent a case of plants of the climbing shrub Willughbeia coriacea to the Peradeniya Royal Botanic Garden from Singapore. He also collected various animals and insects. He gave the Colombo Museum a specimen of the true chameleon (Chameleo zeylanicus – Bodiliya in Sinhala), an extremely rare reptile found in the forests and

The founding committee members elected to create a set of rules to handle the affairs of the club

scrub jungles of the north and northwest of the island, which he found in Puttalam. He also collected rare butterflies: Catachrysops lithargyria (silver forget-me-not) from Nuwara Eliya; Spindasis nubilis (clouded silverline) from Iranaimadu; Chliaria nilgirica (Nilgiri tit) from Jaffna; and Baspa melampus from Manipay. In Manipay, he also discovered a new sub-species, Cigaritis lunulifera fairliei (scarce shot silverline). He also discovered the sub-species Tajuria jehana ceylonica (plains blue royal). He also excelled in sports. In the 1880s, playing for the upcountry team against Colombo, and in upcountry inter-club matches, he made a name for himself in cricket. He played for the Ceylon team that toured Mumbai in 1886, bringing home the scalps of the Bombay Gymkhana, the Parsees and the North-West Province. It appears that Fairlie also had enough leisure to travel back to Britain to take part in tennis matches. In 1882, he was runner-up in the men’s singles event at the Scottish Championship. That same year, he entered the men’s singles event at the Wimbledon Championship, losing out to Otway Woodhouse in the second round.

However, his great passion was undoubtedly golf. Following the formation of the Colombo Golf Club, he became “the crack golfer of the period”. He won the first competition in 1884, the club’s gold medal for one round of eighteen holes, with a score of 87. He won the club gold medal twice thereafter, before leaving the island.

Back in Britain, Fairley became “one of the first flight of amateur golfers”. He won the Silver Cross at St Andrews in 1892 by holing the course in 86 strokes. St Andrews, considered the “home of golf ”, created the standard 18-hole course. In addition to his membership at Prestwick, he became a founder member of the West Drayton Golf Club in 1895. The expanding middle classes of London needed a new course, and the train from Paddington gave easy access to the growing suburb of West Drayton. Fairlie laid out the course, with the River Colne forming the boundary on two sides and crossing it, so well, wrote Garden Smith in his 1898 The World of Golf that “the green must rank as one of the best near London”. Fairlie instituted the club’s Fairlie Challenge Medal, which appropriately enough, he won in 1896 with a score of 82.

His greatest contribution to golf, though, lay not in his playing abilities, but in his efforts to prevent golfers from shanking their shots. He invented a “wry-necked” golf iron, having a slightly crooked neck or hosel, so that the club head is fixed somewhat off the line of the shaft, reversing the side of the club presented to the ball. He achieved the “wry-neck” by giving a sudden twist to the neck while the metal remained supple during the production process. This did the trick.

West Drayton Clubhouse, London

In 1894, Fairley married Ursula Maria Gordon, daughter of Carlos Pedro Gordon of the Scottish and Spanish family that owned Gordon’s Sherry. The couple lived in Nairn, where Fairley joined the Nairn Golf Club, becoming captain. In Nairn, in 1902, Failey built Beldorney, named for the Gordon family home of Beldorney Castle in Aberdeenshire. It is now a listed house, and visitors can see the initials of the couple, FAF and UMG, carved on the lintel above the front door. They had two children, Consuela Elena and Francis Gerard Fairlie. The latter joined the British Army in 1918 and served for the next six years, during which he met “Sapper” (Herman Cyril McNeile), who later authored the Bulldog Drummond series of books. “Sapper” modelled the character of his fascistic, anti-Semitic and xenophobic hero on Gerard Fairlie. In 1937, “Sapper”, on his deathbed, asked him to continue the series, which he did, modifying the agent’s unpleasant character to make it more likeable and the women less submissive and sluttish. F A Fairlie died in 1939, just after his son’s first Bulldog Drummond novel came out.