Thurso is a small town in Caithness on the north coast of the Scottish Highlands. The name probably refers to the deity Thor, and this area was Norse until the 13th century. The present town was laid out on a grid pattern in the 19th century when the railway arrived; its population boomed in the 1950s when Dounreay nuclear power plant was established 9 miles west. It's long been a fishing port, and its harbour at Scrabster is a route to the Orkney Islands: many visitors are just passing through to catch a ferry. The main reasons to stay here are for sea-sports especially surfing, and to explore the rugged scenic coastline.
By plane: Wick John O'Groats Airport has flights from Edinburgh and Aberdeen.
By train: Four trains a day M-Sat run north from Inverness via Dingwall, Tain, Golspie (for Dunrobin Castle), Brora, Helmsdale and Georgemas Junction to Thurso, taking four hours. There's only one on Sunday. The train then returns south through Georgemas Junction and branches off to Wick, 30 mins. 1 Thurso railway station is 200 m south of town centre.
By bus: Stagecoach Highlands X98 / X99 runs four times daily from Inverness via Tain, Dornoch, Brora, Helmsdale and Wick to Thurso, 4 hours; two on Sunday. Buses continue to Scrabster to meet the ferries.
By ferry: Northlink car ferries sail between 2 Scrabster, two miles from Thurso, and Stromness on Orkney. They sail 2-3 times per day, taking 90 mins and passing the "Old Man of Hoy". Stromness has buses to Kirkwall and elsewhere on the Orkney mainland.
See also John O'Groats for the ferries between Gills Land and St Margaret's Hope, and between John O'Groats and Burwick.
By road: the A9 from Inverness crosses Kessock Bridge and Black Isle, running north via Tain, Dornoch, Brora, Helmsdale and Latheron to Thurso and Scrabster. It's 110 miles (180 km) of undivided highway, reckon three hours. The historic A9 used to continue along the coast from Latheron via Wick to John O'Groats, but that's nowadays A99.
Bus 82 runs between Thurso and Wick, hourly M-Sat and every two hours Sunday, taking an hour.
Bus 80 runs M-Sat every couple of hours from Thurso via Dunnet, Mey and Gills Land (for Orkney ferry) to John O'Groats, which also has Bus 77 from Wick.
Local buses go south as far as Latheron and Dunbeath. There's nothing west except the works bus to Dounreay nuclear power plant.
- 1 [dead link] Caithness Horizons (Thurso Heritage Centre), Old Town Hall High St KW14 8AJ, ☏ . W-Sa 10:00-16:00. Small museum with info & displays about Thurso and area: Viking remains, the nuclear plant, wildlife, culture, and town history. They formerly hosted the TIC but this has closed. As of August 2020, it's closed for renovation. This was delayed due to the difficulties relating to Covid-19. The shop next door, Eye Candy, provides some tourist information. Adult £4.
- Down by the river mouth and harbour in summer is a good place to watch for seals, otter, sea birds, boats and sunsets/sunrises. In winter look for the Northern lights (Aurora borealis) - summers here are never dark enough.
- 2 Old St Peter's Church. This ruined parish church dates back to 1125.
- 3 Holburn Head Lighthouse (Just east of Scrabster Harbour). 19th-century Stevenson lighthouse to an unusual design, incorporated within the keeper's cottage instead of on a separate tower. It was taken out of service in 2003. Note spelling, the lighthouse is "Holburn" but the headland is "Holborn".
- Follow A836 east to John O'Groats for Dunnet Head the mostly northerly point on the British mainland, Castle of Mey former home of the Queen Mother, and Gills Land ferry terminal for St Margaret's Hope on Orkney. You can give tourist-trappy John O'Groats itself a miss.
- The 42 m white sphere away to the west is the covering for one of the nuclear reactors at Dounreay. These were built in such a remote spot because this was an experimental facility, both for civilian fast reactor designs (to replace the inefficient Magnox) and for navy submarine nuclear engines. It did supply electricity to the National Grid, but was never intended to be a mainstream power station. All the reactors have closed down but decommissioning will take decades, so a large workforce remains. No, they don't offer tours, try Torness near Dunbar.
- Walk onto Holborn Head, the peninsula just north of Scrabster, for great sea views. The "Clett Rock" just below the north edge is a sea-stack swirling with birds. Dunnet Head is seen to the east and cloud-wreathed Hoy to the northeast.
- Surf: the bay in front of town gets 3 m waves, often hollow, surfable on all tides but best when incoming. You'll need a thick wetsuit.
- Halkirk Highland Games are held in that village on the last Saturday in July. The 2020 event was cancelled so the next are probably on Sat 24 July 2021, tbc.
- Groceries are available at
- - 1 Lidl, Castlegreen Road (across the road from the Campground on the Scrabster Road). M-Sa 08:00-21:00, Su 08:00-19:00.
- - 2 Co-operative, Meadow Lane. Daily 07:00-22:00. Also at Mountpleasant North Road
- - 3 Tesco, Millbank Rd, KW14 8PS. M-Sa 07:00-21:00, Su 09:00-20:00. Supermarket, with cafe that closes at 17:00.
- J A Mackay at 4 Traill Street is nowadays principally an off-licence, open M-Sa 09:30-17:00.
- Caithness Biscuits make excellent shortbread and other biscuits.
- Reid's of Thurso make excellent oatcakes, shortbread and cakes.
- Caithness Summer Fruits make excellent jams and marmalades.
- 1 Bydand (formerly Le Bistro), 2 Traill Street. Small European-style restaurant, the beef cheeks have been popular. Tu-Sa 10:00-15:00, 17:30-21:30.
- There's a cluster of eateries where the A9 makes a zigzag through town (Traill St & Olrig St), and on Princes St one block west. Pavilion Restaurant is a good sit-down fish & chips place on the prom at Pentland Cres (Tu-Sa 17:00-21:00).
- 1 Skinandi's, Sir George's Street, KW14 7AW. F Sa 23:00-03:00. Thurso's only nightclub and it's a nice enough place. Two dance floors, not unreasonable prices for drinks, hot food snack bar, free cloakroom. Music's standard UK nightclub fare. It's also used for live music. £8 entry.
- 2 Wolfburn Distillery, Henderson Park, KW14 7XW. Tour M-F at 14:00. This distillery started production in 2013 and released their first whisky in 2016. There isn't a "visitor centre", you're straight into the guts of it. Adult £10.
- 1 Sandra's Backpackers Hostel, 24/26 Princes Street, KW14 7BQ, ☏ . One of two backpackers places in town. Prices include breakfast. Hot showers, free internet. Reception is the chip shop underneath! Beds from £20 per night, rooms from £46.
- 2 Thurso Bay Caravan & Camping Park, Scrabster Road, ☏ . The campground has an excellent, if potentially windy, location overlooking the Bay to the Islands of Orkney. Facilities include a cafe/restaurant, lounge, TV, hot showers and a laundry, with a clothesline. from £9.50 for a tent, £14 for a campervan + £3.50 per person.
- 3 Pentland Lodge House, Granville Street, Thurso KW14 7JN, ☏ . In 18th-century Manse, B&B with 8 contemporary-style rooms all en suite. Dog friendly, free parking. B&B double from £90.
- 4 Pennyland House B&B, KW14 7JU (On main road west of town just after Lidl), ☏ . Spacious rooms and filling breakfast. Minimum stay May-Sept is two nights. B&B double from £70.
- 5 Forss House, KW14 7XY (On A836 five miles west of town), ☏ . 1810 mansion house with 12 upmarket rooms in main building. Pets only in the two annex rooms. B&B double from £180.
Mobile reception / 4G / Wifi is decent in town and west to Dounreay - lots of maritime and nuclear workers depend on it. It gets scratchy further out.
- North are the Orkney Islands, with a choice of three ferry routes: Scrabster-Stromness is best for sights and onward transport on Orkney Mainland. From Kirkwall the main town there you can take an overnight ferry to Lerwick on Shetland, or return south to Aberdeen.
- West on A836 follows the wild north coast to Cape Wrath, Durness and Kinlochbervie.
- Or return south via Wick towards Inverness.
|Routes through Thurso|
|ENDS ←||N S||→ Helmsdale → Inverness|