A day in…Thurso

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Thurso's wide beach

On a pedestrian bridge crossing the river Thurso an elderly lady remarked that it was a glorious day. It truly had been. The sun had shone all day, there hadn’t been a cloud in the sky and the sun had been warm, even hot at times.
Falling in with her she told me that she had come with her husband to Thurso, thirty eight years previously. They had planned on staying for just two but liked the place and stayed. No widowed and 92 she had no intention of leaving the place she called home despite having lived in such beautiful places as Skye and Orkney.
What was it that she liked about the town I asked? The instant answer was days like today. And the fact that the town was small enough to get around easily, had a community and the most alluring scenery.
Much of this I can agree with. But then, all the time that I had spent there had been in that sunshine. Surely it wasn’t always like that? My guide agreed but she wouldn’t live elsewhere.
Many see Thurso as a place at the very top of Scotland, a place you drive through to catch the Orkney ferry from Scrabster just around the bay but is there more than that?
For a start it has a long, wide sandy beach that is attractive to kids and parents alike. There are rock pools at either end for when the appeal of constructing yet another sandcastle wears thin. And if you sit on one of the stone benches that are dotted on the Victoria Walk the views are stunning. To the east you can see Dunnet Head, the most northerly part of mainland UK; straight ahead of you is Orkney and to the west is the port of Scrabster.
My morning disappeared quickly. Never fond of beaches usually, I happily sat and watched others at Thurso. Dogs, not just one but maybe a dozen were being walked on the beach, having balls flung for them and generally enjoying themselves. Mothers with strollers had let their four year-olds off the leash too and they toddled over the sand, up the rocks and waded in pools left by the outgoing tide much to the annoyance of their mothers who probably hadn’t brought a change of clothes with them. Still, what did these mothers expect having decided to let their toddlers play?

a beach made for dogs and kids


I envied the masonic hall perched on one of the highest parts of the A9 leaving the town. With uninterrupted views from the top of the castle looking structure they would have had a fine view out to Orkney as would the caravan park opposite. But the ones who would have had a great view if they had been a bit more imaginative would have been the local social services people inhabiting Bayview House. A modern, glass conical structure they had created to give more light to their entrance could have had a mezzanine floor put in so that people could just sit and gaze over the bay. On a day like today I’d have paid to sit there.
Down in the town wherever you go, there seems to be Sinclair this or a Sinclair that. Thurso and the Sinclairs go together like strawberries and cream. Over the generations this family has given land, designed the grid system of streets the town enjoys and, in return, the town has streets and a square named after them and today, the head of the family, Viscount Thurso, is the local MP – the first hereditary peer to be elected an MP – and president of the UK Tourism Association.

the best views are from in front of the masonic hall

Thurso itself is derived from a Norse word and you will see more Viking elements than Scottish ones. In the local museum – called Caithness Horizons – you can be introduced to their influence. Here you will find Norse standing stones reminding us that it wasn’t until the twelfth century that the area became part of Scotland so Norse placenames like Scrabster, Lybster and Camster are quite common.
But although the central part of town will provide the basics in shops, it is plain to see that people visit the area for the outdoors. Even the ruins of the thirteenth century St. Peter’s Kirk mean you stand outside to see them! If it isn’t walking it is to be on the lookout for birds and animals. Otters are to be seen in the river it is said as are salmon. Seals and porpoises are in the bay and sea birds abound. Apart from gulls and oyster catchers I didn’t see a lot. Maybe they were all sunning themselves in a quiet secluded corner away from prying eyes!

the ruins of St Peter's Kirk


Many people would use Thurso as a base; a base to visit the northern Scotland coastline, to visit the Queen Mother’s residence, the Castle of Mey which is only fourteen miles away or John o’ Groats. A party of nine stayed at my hotel and they were off bird watching. Tonight a group of eight have arrived laden with cycles ready for a tour. And in the area there is a lot to see. For those with Scots forebears there the museums of the clans, Sinclair and Gunn. For those with an interest in archaeology there are cairns in Camster and for those with more liquid tastes, the Pulteney Distillery is in Wick. It used to be the most northerly distillery but that title has been replaced this year by the new Thurso distillery –Wolfburn – but their whisky won’t be available for purchase until 2016.
Thurso is a long drive or train journey from much of Scotland. Anyone visiting the town won’t just do a day trip. It took me three and three-quarter hours to get by train from Inverness and another three hours from Edinburgh. So is there enough to justify all this travel?
If you like countryside, the sea and differing landscapes like Orkney then you will easily find things to occupy days and days. If you like a nightlife packed with overflowing bars, then northern Scotland is not for you. But for beaches, scenery and the outdoors, you couldn’t do much better.

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