Thurso is a town in Caithness on the far north coast of Scotland, with a population of 7390 in 2020. 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 M-Sa run north from Inverness via Dingwall, Tain, Golspie (for Dunrobin Castle), Brora, Helmsdale and Georgemas Junction (for Halkirk) to Thurso, taking four hours. There's only one on Sunday. The train then returns south through Georgemas Junction and branches off to Wick, another 30 min. The southbound trains from Wick likewise double back via Thurso. It is advisable to book tickets in advance as carriages are often full.
1 Thurso railway station is 200 yards south of town centre. The ticket office is staffed M-Sa, no machines, and waiting room and toilets only in office hours. There is step-free access to both platforms.
By bus: Stagecoach Highlands X99 runs M-Sa at 14:15, £23 (as of Sep 2022) from Inverness via Tain, Dornoch, Brora, Helmsdale and Wick to Thurso (4 hours) and Scrabster.
By boat: NorthLink Ferries car ferries sail between 2 Scrabster, two miles from Thurso, and Stromness on Orkney. They sail 2-3 times per day, taking 90 min and passing close to the Old Man of Hoy. Stromness has buses to Kirkwall and elsewhere on the Orkney mainland.
See John o'Groats for the ferries to Burwick, and those between Gills Land and St Margaret's Hope.
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 takes 55 min from Wick via Halkirk to Thurso, hourly M-F, every two hours Sa, only four on Sunday. You can also use the X99 or train to reach Wick.
Bus 80 runs M-Sa every couple of hours from Thurso via Dunnet, Mey and Gills Land (for Orkney ferry) to John o'Groats (one hour), which also has Bus 77 from Wick.
Bus 73 / 74 runs three times a day along the main road to Dounreay, Reay village (for Forss) and Bettyhill.
Bus 803 runs from Durness on Saturday, via Melness, Tongue and Dounreay (2 hr 30 min). A couple of other buses ply mid-week between Thurso and Tongue.
Car hire: nothing in town, but Hertz are at Wick Airport.
- The river mouth and harbour in summer is a good place to watch for seals, otter, sea birds, boats and sunsets. In winter look for the Northern Lights (Aurora borealis) - summers here are never dark enough.
- Old St Peter's Church, Wilson Lane, Thurso KW14 8AZ. 24 hr. This ruined parish church dates back to 1125. It was abandoned in 1832. Free.
- St Peter's and St Andrew's is the replacement church on Princes St completed in 1832, in Gothic style.
- Meadow Well is a cute little "house" on Manson's Lane just off Traill St the main road. It was completed in 1823 and housed the well which for centuries was the town's main water supply. It remained in occasional use after 1876 when Loch Calder became the main supply.
- Bishop's Palace or Scrabster Castle on the coast west of the caravan site is maybe 14th century. It's well-ruined, with just a few earthworks and courses of masonry.
- 1 Thurso Castle is the ruin of a Gothic pseudo-castle built in 1872, over the site of 12th and 17th century predecessors. It was part-demolished in 1952, although the 3rd Viscount Thurso (b 1953) somehow inhabits what's left. Harold's Tower a mile east is their family mausoleum.
Further east and south
- 2 Castletown has a sandy beach. Castletown Heritage Centre is a small museum open W Sa Su 14:00-16:00.
- See John o'Groats (and continue on A836 east) for Dunnet Head the mostly northerly point on the British mainland, Castle of Mey former home of the Queen Mother, and Gills Land for the ferry to St Margaret's Hope on Orkney. You can give tourist-trappy John o'Groats itself a miss.
- 3 Braal Castle is the ruin of a 14th century tower house. The same name is given to the adjacent 19th century Baronial mansion / hotel, nowadays apartments.
- 4 Ben Dorray (or Dorrery, south, 244 m) and Beinn Freiceadain (north, 239 m) are twin hills by Loch Shurrery. Their slopes are dotted with megaliths and prehistoric cairns, the most prominent being Oscar's Grave, a chambered cairn on the north hill. A track leads to a radio mast on the south hill.
- 5 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".
- 6 Things Va is a broch, a fortified dwelling. The name is Norse, Thing-vollr a local assembly place (like Dingwall or Iceland's Þingvellir), but brochs are typically many centuries older than the Vikings.
- 7 Brims Castle is a tumbledown 16th century tower house, unsafe to enter. (The cattle and the ghostly lady don't heed this, or each other.) An old cemetery lies on the Ness beyond.
- 8 St Mary's Chapel at Crosskirk is 12th century. It's free to explore any time, reach it via the lane from Forss. Only a memorial cairn marks the large Iron Age broch adjacent - the cliff became eroded and unsafe, so after excavation the site was demolished in 1972.
- 9 Dounreay is the 42 m white sphere away to the west, the covering for a nuclear reactor. 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. Dounreay 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 at least until 2033, so a large workforce remains. They don't offer tours, try Torness near Dunbar or Hunterston near West Kilbride. Dounreay Castle is the ruin of a 16th century turret within the site perimeter, so it's off-limits until decommissioning is complete.
- 10 Cnoc Freiceadain Long Cairns are a pair of Neolithic burial cairns which have never been excavated. They're free to explore any time. "Cnoc Freiceadain" means "lookout hill" and there are several, such as the one south next to Ben Dorray, but Satnav will try to drag you away west to the mountain of that name near Tongue.
- Sandyside Bay is a sandy beach just north of Reay Golf Club near Dounreay.
- 11 Puffin Cove is a scenic gully on the coast 8 miles west of town. The approach footpath starts from the Sutherland-Caithness county boundary on A9.
- Walk onto Holborn Head, the peninsula just north of Scrabster, for great sea views. 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.
- Golf: Thurso GC[dead link] is 1½ miles southwest on B874. Reay GC is five miles west at Dounreay.
- Thurso Leisure Centre has a gym, fitness classes and swimming pool. It's on Millbank Rd on the east riverbank, open M-F 07:30-12:30, 14:00-20:00, Sa Su 10:00-13:30.
- Merlin Cinema on B874 Ormlie Rd shows mainstream relases.
- Rugby: Caithness RFC scuffle away in the lower amateur leagues. Caithness Sevens is a local 7-a-side league playing throughout winter, not a one-day tournament like better-known Sevens. The playing fields are next to the Leisure Centre.
- Halkirk Highland Games are held in that village on the last Saturday in July, with the next on Sa July 2023.
- Lidl is on Castlegreen Rd opposite the caravan site, open M-Sa 08:00-21:00, Su 08:00-20:00.
- Co-op Food is on Meadow Lane by the corner of Traill St, open daily 07:00-22:00.
- Tesco is on Millbank Rd east of the bridge, by Park Hotel and the Leisure Centre. It's open M-Sa 08:00-22:00, Su 09:00-20:00.
- J A Mackay, 4 Traill Street. an off-licence open M-Sa 09:30-16:00.
- Reid's of Thurso make excellent oatcakes, shortbread and cakes.
- Caithness Summer Fruits based in Halkirk sell berries, jam and marmalade.
- There's a cluster of eateries where the A9 makes a zigzag through town (Traill St and Olrig St), and on Princes St one block west.
- Bydand, 2 Traill Street, Thurso KW14 8EJ, ☏ . M-W F Sa 18:00-22:00. Small European-style restaurant, the beef cheeks are popular.
- Town pubs are Grove Lounge, Inn at Y-Not (has rooms), Top Joe's and Mr C's.
- Skinandi's, Sir George's Street, Thurso KW14 7AW (just west of bridge), ☏ . 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 is standard UK nightclub fare. It's also used for live music.
- 1 Wolfburn Distillery, Henderson Park, Thurso KW14 7XW, ☏ . M-F 10:00-16:30. This distillery started production in 2013 and released the first whisky in 2016. Tours remain suspended but the shop is open.
- 2 North Point Distillery, Forss Business and Energy Park KW14 7UZ (turnoff to Business Park, not to St Mary's Chapel), ☏ , email@example.com. M-Sa 10:00-17:30. They produce rum, gin, and whisky on the former US naval station at Forss. Tour £15.
- 1 Sandra's Backpackers, 24 Princes Street, Thurso KW14 7BQ, ☏ . Well-run hostel open all year, dog-friendly, prices include breakfast. Hot showers, free Wifi. Four-bunk dorm £44, double rooms from £100.
- 2 Thurso Bay Caravan & Camping Park, Smith Terrace, Thurso KW14 7JY, ☏ . Clean breezy site looking out towards Orkney, open April-Oct. Facilities include a cafe/restaurant, lounge, TV, hot showers and a laundry, with a clothes-line. Double tent £19, hard-standing £24.
- Premier Inn is a reliable chain hotel next to the railway station.
- Muthu Royal Hotel is in town centre on Traill St, the zigzag in A9.
- 3 Pentland Lodge House, Granville Street, Thurso KW14 7JN, ☏ . B&B in 18th-century Manse, with 8 contemporary-style rooms all en suite. Effervescent hostess, dog friendly (£5), free parking. B&B double £90.
- 4 Pentland Hotel, Princes St, Thurso KW14 7AA, ☏ . 42 room trad hotel with restaurant. B&B double £100.
- Holborn Hotel is on Princes St next to Sandra's Backpackers.
- 5 Pennyland House B&B, Thurso KW14 7JU (On main road west of town just after Lidl), ☏ . Charming house built 1780, birthplace of Sir William Alexander Smith (1854-1914) the founder of the Boys' Brigade. Spacious rooms, filling breakfast and no dawn bugles. Minimum stay May-Sept is two nights. B&B double £80.
- Weigh Inn is at the junction of A9 and A836 west edge of town.
- 6 Forss House, Forss KW14 7XY (On A836 five miles west of town), ☏ . Lovely stylish 1810 mansion house with 12 upmarket rooms in main building. Pets only in the two annex rooms. B&B double from £180.
- Park Hotel is east of the river by the Leisure Centre and Tesco.
As of July 2022, Thurso and its approach roads have 4G from EE, and a basic mobile signal from Three and Vodafone; nothing from O2. 5G has not reached this area.
- The Orkney Islands lie north, with a choice of three ferry routes: Scrabster-Stromness is best for sights and public transport across Orkney Mainland. From Kirkwall the main town 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.
- North Coast 500 is a 500 mile circuit of the coast passing though Thurso.
|Routes through Thurso|
|ENDS ←||N S||→ Helmsdale → Inverness|