Welcome to Thurso
Just short of 700 miles north of London and about 290 miles north of Glasgow, Thurso is the most northerly town in mainland Britain. Nonetheless, as home to Scotland’s most northerly railway station, it may be remote but it is far from isolated. Thurso is in the county of Caithness, a county with an area of about 618 square miles, bounded in the north by the Pentland Firth, to southwest by the county of Sutherland, and to the southeast by the North Sea. It is a county famed for its dramatic coastline and towering sea cliffs. From the cliffs of Thurso one can look down at the ferry terminal, a little to the west at Scrabster, and out over the Pentland Firth at awe inspiring views of the Island of Hoy, a southern Orkney Island. It is this location which gives Thurso its claim to fame: it is the ‘Gateway to the Orkney Islands’ and the priceless prehistoric treasures they hold.
Dunnet Bay, Thurso
Photograph courtesy of Mary Snell
Caithness itself is the area in Britain which can best compete with Orkney in terms of prehistoric sites. The abundance of Iron Age forts, or ‘duns’, is especially impressive in the county, in particular the common occurrence of ‘brochs’. Brochs are tall circular towers, with three metre thick walls and sturdy wooden doors, which began to appear at vantage points along the Scottish coasts at some point before 1000 BC. It is impossible to say how many brochs there were in Iron Age Caithness; while 14 have recently been excavated, there remain many more which have not yet offered up their archaeological treasures. Regardless, what has been discovered in Caithness and Orkney make the northern extremes of Britain unmissable for anyone interested in Britain’s primeval past.
While people came to Caithness over 8000 years ago, the origins of Thurso Town are nowhere near as ancient. The locally discovered ‘Pictish Skinnet Stone’, on display at Thurso’s interesting Heritage Museum, is testament to the area’s involvement with early Pictish kingdoms. Still, the first real clue to Thurso’s true origins lie in the name itself; a corruption of ‘Thor’s river’ in Old Norse, which describes the watercourse (now called River Thurso) which runs through today’s town to form a small natural harbour on the Pentland Firth. The Vikings recognised the significance of this site, as a gateway to the Scottish mainland, from as early as the late 8th century when they began a series of raids into Caithness. Within a century they had come as settlers. For much of the following three hundred years Caithness was governed by Norse kings and Norse noblemen.
Unsurprisingly, then, Norsemen are the protagonists in the earliest tales to emerge from the area. In 1196 Harald Ungi (Harald the Younger) raised an army to take on Harald Maddason (Harald the Elder), famed as being a particularly cruel ruler even in extremely barbaric times. Maddason had drawn Ungi into conflict by seizing the young noble’s lands in Caithness. The two armies met at a site about a mile and a half east of Thurso. Here, Ungi’s army was routed but not before he himself had been slain. His body was buried where he had fallen. Maddason went on to conduct a reign of terror in the aftermath of his victory in an attempt to subdue the local people. Punishments such as pulling out tongues and poking out eyes were used in no small measure. Despite terror and oppression the site of Ungi’s death became a shrine. Later a chapel was built as a more durable memorial. By the 18th century this was in ruins when Sir John Sinclair had a tower built on the site. Sadly now itself in a state of disrepair, Harald’s Tower still stands as a reminder of the bloody events which occurred here, as well as to mark what is the burial ground of the Sinclairs of Ulbster, one of the area’s historically powerful families.
In the aftermath of Norwegian defeat at the Battle of Largs in 1263 Scandinavian influence in the affairs of Caithness ended. The result is that in Thurso there are few leftovers from the Viking age. One possible exception is Old St Peter’s Kirk (or Church) which was in existence from at least 1220. In reality, though, the bulk of the ruins that we see today came into being during two later periods of construction, in the 1400s and 1500s. Regardless, it is a fascinating relic from Thurso’s medieval period.
At the tail end of the 18th century Sir John Sinclair of Ulbster constructed a new town in a grid plan to the south west of the old. Much of the development was made possible by resources generated by the increase in local traffic brought about by the development of the port in Scrabster with its ferry link to Stromness on Hoy and, of no lesser importance, the development of the local flagstone industry. Amongst the industry’s customers was The City of Paris whose streets were virtually all paved by Thurso stone in the 1890s. Shortly after, the industry went into sharp decline. The most recent bout of local economic growth began after the Dounreay Nuclear Power Development Establishment was founded eight miles west along the coast in 1954. By the 1970s many of the nuclear plant’s three and a half thousand strong workforce were Thurso inhabitants. While employment in the plant has never quite been at the scale envisaged at the outset of the project, Dounreay still contributes significantly to the local economy helping to maintain Thurso’s population at about 8,600.
Over and above there is the tourist industry. In this Thurso takes advantage of its position as ‘Gateway to the Orkney Islands’ and its proximity to John o’Groats, the beginning of many a long distant walk to Lands’ End, Cornwall. However, there is enough in Thurso to merit a visit in its own right. Apart from the interesting old town, its history and great views there is the pull of the sea. Taking advantage of the tumultuous waters around Thurso, which have been compared with those of Hawaii, surfers gather here from all over the world. The fact that the Thurso area is one of the favoured locations for the European Surfing Championships confirms Thurso’s esteemed place within the sport.