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This article is about the town in Scotland. For other uses, see Thurso (disambiguation).
Scottish Gaelic: Inbhir Theòrsa
Scots: Thursa
Barrulet thurso wiki.jpg
Thurso is located in Caithness
 Thurso shown within the Caithness area
Population 7,933 (2011 Census)
OS grid reference ND115685
Council area Highland
Lieutenancy area Caithness
Country Scotland
Sovereign state United Kingdom
Post town Thurso
Postcode district KW14
Dialling code 01847
Police Scottish
Fire Scottish
Ambulance Scottish
EU Parliament Scotland
UK Parliament Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross
Scottish Parliament Caithness, Sutherland and Ross
List of places

Coordinates: 58°35′46″N 3°31′16″W / 58.596°N 3.521°W / 58.596; -3.521

Thurso[1] (pronounced /ˈθərsəʊ/, Scots: Thursa,[2] Scottish Gaelic: Inbhir Theòrsa)[3] is a town and former burgh on the north coast of the Highland council area of Scotland. It is the northernmost town on the British mainland. At the 2011 Census, Thurso had a population of 7,933. The larger Thurso civil parish including the town and the surrounding countryside had a population of 9,112.

Historically, it is one of two burghs within the county of Caithness. It lies at the junction of the north-south A9 road and the west-east A836 road, connected to Bridge of Forss in the west and Castletown in the east.


The earliest recorded name is the Celtic Tarvodubron, 'bull water', which became Thjorsá in the Norse translation, but owing to the frequency of Thor in place names, this was later adapted to Thorsá or 'Thor's River.'[4] It was also known as Tarvodunum in old Celtic, meaning "fort of the bull".

The local Scots name, "Thursa", derives from the Norse, as does the modern Scottish Gaelic "Inbhir Theòrsa" (The "th" is pronounced as "h" and the "bh" as "v".). Inbhir means a river mouth, and is generally found as "Inver" in many anglicised names. It is possible that there was also a pre-Norse Gaelic name as well, as "tarvodunum" and "tarvodunum" are cognate with the modern Gaelic terms, "tarbh" (bull), "dobhran" and "dun".


St. Peter's Kirk, Thurso

Thurso's history stretches back to at least the era of Norse Orcadian rule in Caithness, which ended conclusively in 1266. The town was an important Norse port, and has a later history of trade with ports throughout northern Europe until the 19th century. In 1330 Scotland's standard unit of weight was brought in line with that of Thurso at the decree of King David II of Scotland, a measure of the town's economic importance. Old St Peter's Kirk is said to date from circa 1220 and the time of Caithness Bishop Gilbert Murray, who died in 1245. Much of the town, however, is a planned 19th-century development. A major expansion occurred in the mid-20th century when the Dounreay nuclear power plant was established at Dounreay,[5] 9 miles (14 km) to the west of the town. Within a period of about five years, Thurso's population expanded rapidly, from around 2,500 to about 12,000 between 1955–58, as the nuclear plant attracted skilled migrants from all parts of the United Kingdom. By 1960, it dropped back to around 9,000, after a lot of the initial Dounreay construction crew left the area. Thurso is also the name of the viscountcy held by the Sinclair family in the Peerage of the United Kingdom. The present Viscount Thurso is also the local MP.

Thurso hosted the National Mod several times in 2010.[6]


Thurso has history as a burgh of barony dating from 1633.

In 1975, under the Local Government (Scotland) Act 1973, the local government burgh was merged into the Caithness district of the two-tier Highland region. In 1996, under the Local Government etc (Scotland) Act 1994, the district was abolished and the region became a unitary council area.

From 1996 until 2007, the town of Thurso was covered by two or three wards, each electing one councillor by the first past the post system of election. In 2007, a single Thurso ward was created to elect three councillors by the single transferable vote system. The new ward is one of three within the Highland Council's Caithness ward management area and one of seven within the council's Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross corporate management area.

There is also Thurso Community Council, which was created in 1975 when the burgh was abolished. The community council is not a tier of local government, but it is recognised as a level of statutory representation. The community council represents an area which is somewhat smaller than that represented by ward councillors. The ward area also includes parts of other community council areas.

Coat of arms[edit]

The coat of arms of Thurso is: Argent five barrulets Sable, engrailed on their under edges, the figure of Saint Peter enhaloed Proper, vested Azure and Or, in his dexter hand two crossed keys of the last and of the first, in his sinister hand an Episcopal Cross of the fourth. The motto is "Wark to God" (Work to God).[7]


Thurso is the most northerly town on the British mainland, situated on the northern coastline overlooking the Orkney Islands. It is situated at the northern terminus of the A9 road, the main road linking Caithness with the south of Scotland, and is 20 miles (32 km) west of John o' Groats and 21 miles (34 km) northwest of Wick, the closest town. Distances (via the national road network):[8]

At latitude 59 degrees north, Thurso lies as far north as Juneau, the state capital of Alaska, and the city of Stavanger in Norway. Stavanger is 534 kilometres (332 mi) to the east, and the closest point on the Norwegian coast is 497 kilometres (309 mi) away.

Thurso railway station is the most northerly location served by Britain's rail network, which links the town directly with Wick, the county town of Caithness, and with Inverness,[9] which is the administrative centre of the Highland Council area.

The town is within the Parish of Thurso, with the parishes of Olrig and Bower to the east, Halkirk to the south, and Reay to the west. The parish of Thurso also has a north-facing Atlantic coastline stretching from Crosskirk Bay in the west to the Haven in Dunnet Bay in the east.

The River Thurso flows through the town and into Thurso Bay and the Pentland Firth. The river estuary serves as a small harbour. Thurso has a fine harbour and beach and looks out over the Pentland Firth to the Orkney island of Hoy and the famous towering Old Man of Hoy (a stack of rock standing out from the main island).


Thurso has a Subarctic climate, similar weather to the Scottish Highlands, Iceland, Alaska and the Scandinavian West Coast of Norway. The highest temperature recorded was 25 °C (July 1995) and the lowest -11 °C (December 2010). Similar parallels in nearby Sweden have much more continental climates with much more extensive heat and coldwaves, further demonstrating the moderating effect of the North Atlantic.



Offices of the Highland Council are located in the town, as is the main campus of North Highland College, formerly Thurso College. This is one of several partner colleges which constitute the University of the Highlands & Islands, and offers several certificate, diploma and degree courses from subjects as diverse as Nuclear Decommissioning, Hairdressing, Gamekeeping and Golf Management. Next door to the UHI is Thurso High School, the most northerly secondary school on the British mainland. The town also has three primary schools, Pennyland, Miller Academy and Mount Pleasant.

Thurso boasts a small museum, several hotels and bars, a surf shop/cafe stocking famous brands such as Animal, and a large skatepark. There is also a sizeable British Telecom call centre and a plant making special lithium-ion batteries for the MOD on the west side of the town, which along with the Dounreay Nuclear power plant, provide a high level of employment in Caithness. The Co-operative, Tesco and Lidl have supermarkets in Thurso. There are car dealerships for Ford, Nissan and Citroen

Thurso is a major area for surfing, and has a regular surfing championships leg on the UK Tour.

Thurso also has a music shop which sells music accessories, gifts, instruments & offers tuition in accordion, guitar & keyboard.

There is also a family run fabric shop, Elizabeth’s fabrics which supplies the town with curtains, bedding, haberdashery and women’s clothing.

[10][citation needed]


The port of Scrabster lies about 1 12 miles (2.4 km) to the west of the estuary of the River Thurso, it is now the 2nd largest whitefish harbour in Scotland. Scrabster has deep water in the shelter of Holborn Head. The harbour includes a berth for the MV Hamnavoe, a roll-on/roll-off ferry operated by Northlink linking the Scottish mainland with Stromness on Orkney. There is also a large fishmart and the local lifeboat is stationed there too.

From June 2007, a summer-only weekly ferry service connected Scrabster with the Faroe Islands, Iceland and Norway. The service was operated by the Faroese company Smyril Line but has now been discontinued.

Dounreay remains the largest single employer in Thurso and Caithness as a whole and should remain so for the next few years as the facility is run-down and eventually decommissioned.

On 12 January 2010, approval was granted for the Baillie wind farm near Thurso which will feature 21 turbines and supply 52.5 MW, enough for 25,000 homes.[11] The original proposal was for 57.5 MW.[12]


From Scrabster Harbour (Ordnance Survey grid reference ND102704), the A9 runs generally east/southeast through Thurso, and then generally south towards Inverness, Perth and the M9 motorway near Stirling and Falkirk. In Thurso, the A9 has junctions with two other classified roads, the A836 and the B874, and in the Georgemas area, about 5 miles (8 km) south of Thurso, the A9 has a locally important junction with the A882 (ND156601) which leads to Wick. From the A9 near Burnside (ND107689) in Thurso, the A836 leads generally west towards Reay, Melvich, Bettyhill and Tongue. From the A9 in central Thurso (ND116683), the B874 leads generally south towards Halkirk. From the A9 in the Millbank area of Thurso (ND119681), the A836 leads generally east towards Castletown and John o' Groats.

Thurso is the northern terminus of the Far North Line. Trains from Inverness first call at Georgemas junction station and then call at Thurso before returning to Georgemas Junction before they call at Wick. Southwards they operate vice versa.


The dialect of Scots traditionally spoken in Thurso is North Northern Scots.

In the 1891 census, 299 regular Gaelic-speakers (7.6%) lived in the town.[13]

Thurso Railway Station sign

Thurso is currently the center of a Gaelic revival in Caithness. According to the 2011 census, 110 residents of the town age three and over (1.43%) speak Gaelic while 181 overall (2.35%) have some facility with the language.[14] This is up from 87 speakers (1.12%) and 173 residents with some abilities in Gaelic (2.24%) ten years earlier.[15] A Gaelic language nursery school, Cròileagan Inbhir Theòrsa, was created in the town in 1996 and has been devotedly supported over the years.[16] Parents were finally able to establish Caithness’ first Gaelic Medium Primary School unit for the 2013-14 school year at the primary one level at Mount Pleasant Primary School, Thurso.[17] Current plans are to expand enrollments and a new unit each year to allow these children to complete their entire primary education in Gaelic.[18]

The Royal National Mod, Scotland’s annual Gaelic festival of literature, music, art, and culture, was held in Thurso in 2010, the only time it has ever taken place in the country’s far north.

The revival of Gaelic has not been received joyfully by all. One recent observer has said “Apart from the activities in Thurso, Caithness is a no man’s land as far as Gàidhlig in education is concerned”. [19] The eastern part of the county has not spoken Gaelic in a millennium and is the site of some resistance to the language. In 2008, eight of the ten Caithness representatives to the Highland Council tried to prevent the introduction of bilingual English-Gaelic road signs into the county.[20] Thurso councillors John Rosie and Donnie Mackay have been among the most vocal opponents of the signs,[21] while Thurso Councillor Roger Saxon has been generally supportive.[22] The first bilingual sign in Caithness was erected in 2012. In 2013 a bilingual road sign on the A99 highway next to Wick Airport was damaged by gunfire within 24 hours of it being placed. Gaelic-speaking Councillor Alex MacLeod, at the time representing Landward Caithness in the Highland Council, referred to it as “an extreme anti-Gaelic incident”.[23]



Located in the town is the C.A.A.C. (Caithness Amateur Athletics Club) where Thurso have some very successful athletes, such as Moira Macbeath and Lynda Haygarth.


Thurso Bowling Club is next door to the Tesco supermarket.


The football (soccer) team, Thurso FC (nicknamed "the Vikings"), plays in the North Caledonian League.


The Caithness Motocross Club is based in Thurso, and stages races fortnightly during the summer on tracks around the county. It also sends a team to race in Orkney Motocross Club's annual beach enduro in November, on the Island of Burray. The Caithness Car Club and the Caithness and Sutherland Vintage Vehicle Club are also based in Thurso.

Rugby league[edit]

Caithness Crushers are a rugby league club that will be part of the 2012 Scotland Rugby League Conference Division 1.

Rugby union[edit]

Caithness RFC are a rugby union club that participate in the Caledonia One.


Surfing is a pastime with many of the local youths. The power of the waves rolling in from the Pentland Firth has been compared with those of Hawaii.[citation needed] Certainly, for those with a penchant for barrelling reef-breaks, Thurso East leaves little to be desired on a good day. On a big day, 20-second coverups are possible. Both the European Surfing Championships and Scottish Surf Kayaking Championships have been held in Caithness, with Thurso East being the main focus of activity. Thurso became a venue in the ASP World Qualifying Series of 2006 with the O’Neill Highland Open, a "5 Star" event. The success of the event ensured it returned in 2007 as one of only six top "6 star prime" events on the tour, alongside surf meccas such as Oahu, Hawaii and Santa Cruz, California. It has been an annual event ever since, with the 2009 event having a prize fund of $145,000.The competition is usually held at Thurso East or Brimsness. Thurso has a world record for the coldest waters to have the competition in.[citation needed]


Thurso is also home to a Squash Club. Located on the Millbank Road, next door to the town's fire station and across from the towns swimming pool. The site is currently home to two full squash courts with full changing room facilities and a viewing deck that spans both courts. The Thurso courts are one of only two such facilities in Caithness, with the other residing in Wick.[citation needed]

The club currently operates on a membership basis, with a youth 'squash club' being run by the High School one night each week, of the school year.


Thurso has the biggest swim team in the Highlands.[citation needed] The range of the swimmers is from 4 years old and up. These are split into lanes and squads, where lanes are the learning stage and squads are the competing stage. Thurso go away to and host many annual competitions in Scotland. The most recent swimmer to represent Scotland was Gavin Munro at Youth level from 1985 to 87.

Twin towns[edit]

Notable people[edit]


  1. ^ Ordnance Survey grid reference for Thurso: ND116683
  2. ^ Scots Language Centre: Scottish Place Names in Scots
  3. ^ Ainmean-Àite na h-Alba ~ Gaelic Place-Names of Scotland
  4. ^ Field, John (1984). Discovering Place Names. Shire Publications. ISBN 978-0852637029. 
  5. ^ Ordnance Survey grid reference for Dounreay: NC989671
  6. ^ List of Mod's places for each year on Sabhal Mòr Ostaig website
  7. ^ "Thurso Coat of Arms". Heraldry of the World. Retrieved 21 August 2014. 
  8. ^ Scotland Distance Calculator
  9. ^ For details of the rail links with Wick and Inverness, see Far North Line
  10. ^
  11. ^ Two wind farm schemes approved
  12. ^ Wind Farm Proposal
  13. ^ Kurt C. Duwe, Gàidhlig (Scottish Gaelic) Local Studies, Vol. 22: Cataibh an Ear & Gallaibh (East Sutherland & Caithness), January 2012.
  14. ^ 2011 Scottish Census, Table QS211SC.
  15. ^ Scotland's Census Results Online (SCROL), Table UV12.
  16. ^ Duwe, op cit., 23.
  17. ^ Mount Pleasant Primary School, Primary 1 Gaelic
  18. ^ David Ross, "Gaelic’s making new inroads in Caithness," The Herald, 2 August 2013.
  19. ^ , Duwe, op cit., 28.
  20. ^ "Bid to exclude Gaelic signs fails", BBC News, 6 March 2008.
  21. ^ Gordon Calder, "New bilingual sign sparks fresh wrangle," John O'Groat Journal, 10 August 2012.
  22. ^ "Council Gaelic meet-and-greet initiative falls flat in far north," John O'Groat Journal, 20 February 2013.
  23. ^ Alisdair Munro, "‘Anti-Gaelic gunmen’ shoot road sign in Caithness", The Scotsman, 5 September 2013.
  24. ^ Clark, Will (8 August 2012). "Threat to future link with twin-town". John O'Groat Journal. Retrieved 5 October 2014. 

External links[edit]