One of the most northerly towns on the British mainland, Thurso is an historic town with a great heritage. The name derives from Thor, the Norse god of thunder, and is evidence that a settlement has existed there since the time of the Vikings.
Thurso is on the same line of latitude (53°) as Moscow, in the county1 Caithness which has an unusual geography. Scotland is split into highland (mountains) and lowland (no mountains). These are used to refer to the upper and lower parts of Scotland, respectively. So, Glasgow and Edinburgh are considered lowland, while Inverness is considered highland. Although there are no mountains there, Caithness is part of the highlands on any map, and is governed by the Highlands and Islands Council.
Being in the far north of Scotland, Thurso is surrounded by beautiful scenery. There are rolling fields as far as the horizon, no mountains to block the view and the ocean is the meeting place of two tidal forces, which produces dramatic wave patterns and colours.
Thurso is plagued with the KW postcode, taken from Kirkwall in Orkney. As a result, many companies that use the postcode (for purposes other than addressing letters), such as insurance firms and couriers, ask you for it and then say: 'Ah, you're in the Orkney Isles then?', or try to charge you for overseas postage.
Weather and Seasons
There is a conception that Thurso is cold. This is wrong. Thurso is cold to visitors. To the population that live there, it is quite mild.
There is a bad joke about Scotland: 'Just like everywhere else, Scotland has four seasons. Unlike anywhere else, you often get them all in the same day.' During spring, when the weather is all confused, this statement is regularly true in Thurso.
Winters can be quite harsh, but are equally likely to be mild. The Pentland Firth (an ocean current) that flows offshore is fed directly by the warm waters of the gulf stream, which moderates the weather quite well. The nearby Orkney Islands fare far worse during the winter. From the coastline at Thurso, the island of Hoy can often be seen covered in snow. Given that most of Hoy that is visible from Thurso is sheer cliff-face, this gives an idea of the severity of the weather in Orkney.
Summers are long, sunny and usually warm. Not as warm as the Riviera, but then Thurso is much further north. Due to daylight saving time, the summer days in Thurso last much longer than someone from the south would expect. Sunrise occurs at around 0300 and sunset around 2300. On the longest day of the year, the sun barely sets. It goes from evening to twilight then straight into morning.
Thurso has a population of around 8,500. The town is split into three main zones:
The old town which was built around the tidal river and harbour.
The new town, built by the UK Atomic Energy Authority to house all the workers brought in to build and work at Dounreay - it consists of easily recognisable buildings, which have a deceptive number of possible internal layouts.
The expanded town, consisting of new building developments still going on today and straddling the town on either side.
Thurso has three primary schools, Pennyland, Miller Academy and Mount Pleasant; one high school, unimaginatively named Thurso High School; and a college, the North Highland College, which is part of the University of the Highlands and Islands (UHI), the largest distributed university in the UK in area coverage.
Sites of Special Scientific Interest and Nature Reserves
Caithness itself is a haven for scientists. Although it may not look like it, large sections have been designated Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) because of the fossilised fish found there. The Caithness Fossil Group was founded by two local enthusiasts (one a world renowned expert of the local fossil fish species) to promote the SSSIs more. Achanaras quarry in particular contains species of fossil fish not found anywhere else in the world.
Caithness also has the largest single expanse of bog peatland in the world, at Forsinard. This may not sound like much to boast about, but it is the habitat of many species of animal, bird, plant and insect that are found nowhere else. It is run and maintained by the RSPB (The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds). As a result, Thurso is a natural base camp for them, being close to the centre of Caithness (longitude wise), but still having all the amenities they would need, like hotels, shops, camp sites and entertainment.
Accommodation and Tourism
Thurso has many hotels, including:
- The Royal
- The Park
- The Pentland
- The (New) Weigh Inn2
- The Central
- The St Claire
- Ormlie House Hotel
- The Station Hotel
There are also many B&Bs in the area, and a camp and caravan site which also has several huge permanent caravans for hire during the summer. The camp site is very popular, especially with European travellers, both coach party and individual families.
The proximity to John o'Groats (the furthest village from Land's End on the British mainland) also makes Thurso a tourism haven. Many tourists comment on the quality of the air and friendliness of the inhabitants.
In winter Thurso beach is a favourite for surfers and the world championships were held there a few years ago. The beach itself is unusual. At Thurso it is a sandy cove, but as you walk westward towards Scrabster, it becomes a pebble, and then a boulder beach. Just below the old Second World War pillbox, are the remains of anti-tank defences and beyond those can be seen an inactive geological fault line, but only at low tide.
The River Thurso has a significant salmon population and is popular among anglers. A license is required for anyone wanting to take the fish away, but anyone can fish for fun, as long as they practise 'catch and release'. An unfortunate battle against a family of seals took place in the summer of 2002, which culminated in an inflatable orca (killer whale) being towed up the river. Sadly the young seals had never seen one before and thus weren't frightened by it. If fact, they punctured and sank it.
Thurso has its own castle, Thurso Castle, owned by Lord Thurso, the local MP (who also owns the river), but it is in a bad state of repair and has been boarded up with the usual 'Danger! Unstable Building' signs for many years. It is, or was, a three-storey square tower, that many local artists continue to draw and paint. Another local ruin is St Peters Kirk in the old town. Its ruins are dominated by the remains of one wall with a segmented arch window.
The nearby harbour of Scrabster is the main port for Orkney, the other being near John o'Groats. The ferry travels to Orkney three times a day, and due to the company only just winning the contract, a new dog-leg pier is being constructed there. As with all major construction jobs in Caithness, it is almost nine months behind schedule and is still not finished3.
- A two-screen cinema
- A six-lane bowling alley
- A nightclub
- A skateboard park
- A swimming pool
- An 18-hole golf course (said to be quite challenging)
- A putting green
- Tennis courts
- Many excellent public houses
- A boating pond
It may not compete with the bright lights of the big city, but then again Thurso is fairly small. In comparison, the only other type of entertainment available in Inverness, the nearest city, is ice skating.
Thurso has many shops: Co-op, Safeway and Lidl stores are the main supermarkets, but there are many smaller shops. A Woolworths still manages to dominate the short pedestrian precinct, despite being at the far end of it. There are the usual electrical stores, several banks (Royal Bank of Scotland, Bank of Scotland, Clydesdale and Lloyds TSB) and several miscellaneous shops, including an occult shop and a strange shop that sells anything from briefcases to beds to telescopes.
Thurso's business park is home to a Manpower customer contact centre for BT, which handles calls for BT residential faults, Internet helpdesk, Internet billing and BT's internal IT helpdesk. The site also homes a high-tech battery factory making ultra light and thin batteries for military and civilian use. These companies came to Thurso because of its proximity to the Dounreay nuclear power plant, which has ensured a local powerbase of professional experts in technical fields.
More information about Thurso and Caithness is available at Caithness.org.