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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 from the hill at Mountpleasant - - 8869.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 (pronounced /ˈθərsəʊ/, Scots: Thursa, Scottish Gaelic: Inbhir Theòrsa) 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. Thurso Castle is in ruins.


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.'[1] It was also known as Tarvodunum in old Celtic, meaning "fort of the bull".

The local Scots name, "Thursa",[2] 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),[3] "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. Neolithic horned cairns found on nearby Shebster Hill, which were used for burials and rituals, date back about 5000 years.[4] 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.[5] Old St Peter's Kirk is said to date from circa 1220 and the time of Caithness Bishop Gilbert Murray, who died in 1245.[6]

In 1649, the Irish, led by Donald Macalister Mullach, attacked Thurso and were chased off by the residents, headed by Sir James Sinclair. One of the locals, a servant of Sinclair was said to have killed Mullach by "cutting a button from his master's coat and firing it from a musket". With a strong Christian identity, in 1701, a woman who had had sexual relations with a Dutch sailor had her head shaved and was publicly shamed, paraded through the town by the local hangman.[7] In 1811 the parish had 592 houses with a population of 3462.[8]

Much of the town is a planned 19th-century development. In 1906, a new RNLI boathouse and slipway was inaugurated near Scrabster Harbour. A fire on 10 December 1956 destroyed the building and its 47ft Watson-class lifeboat and a new building and boat was built, launched the following year.[9] A new lifeboat, named "The Three Sisters" was inaugurated in 1971 by The Queen Mother. A major expansion occurred in the mid-20th century when the Dounreay nuclear power plant was established at Dounreay in 1955,[10] 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.[11] The present Viscount Thurso is also the local MP. Thurso hosted the National Mòd in 2010, which was the first time this festival of Gaelic language and culture had been held so far north.[12][13]


View of Thurso from the north

Thurso has history as a burgh of barony dating from 1633 when it was established by Charles I.[14] 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.[15] 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.

Thurso Community Council was created in 1975 when the burgh was abolished.[9] 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.


Thurso from the river

Thurso is the most northerly town on the British mainland, situated on the northern coastline overlooking the Orkney Islands.[16] It is situated at the northern terminus of the A9 road, the main road linking Caithness with the south of Scotland, and is 19.5 miles (31.4 km) west of John o' Groats and 20.4 miles (32.8 km) northwest of Wick, the closest town.[17] 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. Thurso is bordered by the parishes of Olrig and Bower to the east, Halkirk to the south, and Reay to the west, and stretches from Holburn Head and Crosskirk Bay in the west to Dunnet Head and Dunnet Bay in the east.[18]

The River Thurso flows through the town and into Thurso Bay and the Pentland Firth.[19] 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 towering Old Man of Hoy (a stack of rock standing out from the main island).[20]


Thurso has a cool oceanic 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.

Climate data for Thurso, Scotland
Month Jan Feb Mar Apr May Jun Jul Aug Sep Oct Nov Dec Year
Record high °C (°F) 14.1
Average high °C (°F) 6.2
Average low °C (°F) 0.8
Record low °C (°F) −10.6
Average precipitation mm (inches) 100.4
Mean monthly sunshine hours 36.6 67.9 96.4 145.3 196.3 157.3 140.9 135.2 114.1 76.2 45.7 28.7 1,240.5
Source: [21]


Rotterdam Street, Thurso

Historically, Thurso was known for its linen cloth and had a thriving tanning business.[8] Fishing has always been of major significance in the running of the local economy, and the Thurso Shipowner's Association overlooked much of the shipping activity.[22] 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 second 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 operated by the Faroese company Smyril Line reopened,[23] connecting Scrabster with the Faroe Islands, Iceland and Norway, but has now been discontinued.

Thurso boasts a small museum, several hotels and bars, a surf shop/cafe stocking famous brands, 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. 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.[24] The original proposal was for 57.5 MW.


The old church

The Category A listed ruined Old St Peter's Church (St. Peter's Kirk) is one of the oldest churches in Scotland, dated to at least 1125, and at one time it was the principal church for the county, administered by the Bishops of Caithness.[7] The current church, St Andrew's and St Peter's, was built in 1832 to a design by William Burn in the Gothic style with buttressed walls and a square tower.[25] The pipe organ was added by Norman & Beard in 1914, and in 1922 Oscar Paterson contributed some of the stained glass windows such as 'The Sower'. In 2013 gravestones were vandalised in the graveyard.[7] Holburn Head Lighthouse, within the parish territory, was completed in 1862 to a design by David & Thomas Stevenson and has since achieved Category B listed status.[26]

Holburn Head Lighthouse

The Swanson Gallery of Thurso hosts exhibitions throughout the year, and showcases glass art by Ian Pearson.[27] The Caithness Horizons building contains a museum and also hosts exhibitions. Hotels of note include the 103-room Royal Hotel,[28] Pentland Hotel, Waterside House, Murray House and the Category B listed Forss House Hotel, about 4 miles to the west of Thurso in a Georgian country mansion.[29] At Sir John's Square is an ornamental garden and statue which was donated to the town by Sir Tollemache Sinclair in memory of his grandfather Sir John Sinclair, a prominent local figure responsible for the "compilation of the First Statistical Account of Scotland and the pioneering of agricultural reforms in Caithness".[30] A Category C listed fountain was built in 1894 by the son of Sir George Sinclair. Also of note is the wellhouse of Meadow Well at the junction of Traill Street and Manson's Lane, which was the primary water supply for Thurso for centuries. The current well, with a conical roof, was completed in 1823.[31]


Pennyland House

The main campus of North Highland College, formerly Thurso College, is one of several partner colleges which constitute the University of the Highlands & Islands. It offers several certificate, diploma and degree courses from subjects as diverse as Nuclear Decommissioning, Hairdressing, Gamekeeping and Golf Management. Adjacent to the UHI is Thurso High School, the most northerly secondary school on the British mainland, established in 1958. The town also has three primary schools, Pennyland, Miller Academy and Mount Pleasant.[32] Mount Pleasant Primary School teaches in Scottish gaelic, part of a revival of the language in Caithness.[12] 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.[33] A Gaelic language nursery school, Cròileagan Inbhir Theòrsa, was created in the town in 1996.[34]

Caithness Horizons is a small museum that opened in 2008.[35] The museum now houses panels from the control room at the Dounreay Materials Testing Reactor (DMTR), which in 1958 had become Scotland's first operation nuclear reactor.[36]


Thurso is popular with water sports enthusiasts

With its powerful swells, Thurso is a notable location for surfing and kayaking, with international surfing championship events having regularly been held in the area.[37] It attracts surfers from all over the world,[38] and both the European Surfing Championships and Scottish Surf Kayaking Championships have been held in Caithness, with Thurso East being the main focus of activity. An annual raft race is organised by the North Coast Branch of Coastguard Association.[39]

The football (soccer) team, Thurso FC (nicknamed "the Vikings"), was established in 2008 and plays in the North Caledonian League. Caithness Crushers are a rugby league club playing in the Scotland Rugby League Conference Division 1, while Caithness RFC are a rugby union club that participate in the Caledonia One.[40] The local athletics club is Caithness Amateur Athletics Club (C.A.A.C.); hurdler Moira Mcbeath was a 1986 Commonwealth Games athlete.[41] Thurso has the largest swimming club in the Highland area, Thurso Amateur Swimming Club (TASC), with over 250 members.[42] Thurso Bowling Club is next door to the Tesco supermarket. Also of note is Caithness Motocross Club, which stages races fortnightly during the summer on tracks around the county.

Twin towns[edit]

Notable people[edit]


  1. ^ Field, John (1984). Discovering Place Names. Shire Publications. ISBN 978-0852637029. 
  2. ^ "Scottish Place Names in Scots". Scots Language Centre. Retrieved 14 December 2014. 
  3. ^ Macleod & Dewar 1845, p. 563.
  4. ^ "Neolithic horned cairns near Caithness wind farm scanned". BBC. Retrieved 14 December 2014. 
  5. ^ Mitchell 1825, p. 385.
  6. ^ McFadden 1999, p. 301.
  7. ^ a b c "Gravestones vandalised at Old St Peter's Church in Thurso". BBC. 26 April 2013. Retrieved 14 December 2014. 
  8. ^ a b Rees 1819, p. 603.
  9. ^ a b "Thurso". Retrieved 14 December 2014. 
  10. ^ ThirdWay. Hymns Ancient & Modern Ltd. April 1986. p. 5. 
  11. ^ Groot 1993, p. 236.
  12. ^ a b "Gaelic medium primary department for Caithness". BBC News. 30 July 2013. Retrieved 14 December 2014. 
  13. ^ "List of Mod's places". Sabhal Mòr Ostaig. Retrieved 14 December 2014. 
  14. ^ Publications. 1855. p. 753. 
  15. ^ "Highland Council". Retrieved 14 December 2014. 
  16. ^ Atkinson 2010, p. 929.
  17. ^ Google (14 December 2014). "Thurso" (Map). Google Maps. Google. Retrieved 14 December 2014. 
  18. ^ Krauskopf 2001, p. 9.
  19. ^ Lewis 1848, p. 534.
  20. ^ Tait & Johnstone 1836, p. 640.
  21. ^ "climate: Thurso". Met Office. Retrieved 8 December 2014. 
  22. ^ Aberdeen Journal - Saturday 1 March 1879, p.8, Accessed via The British Newspaper Archive (subscription required). Retrieved 14 December 2014.
  23. ^ "Reopening of North Atlantic Link to Scrabster - Highland". Highland Council. Retrieved 14 December 2014. 
  24. ^ "News release: Two wind farm schemes approved". Scottish Government. 12 January 2010. Archived from the original on 3 February 2013. 
  25. ^ "St Peter's & St Andrew's Church, Thurso". Scotland Church's Trust. Retrieved 14 December 2014. 
  26. ^ "Holburn Head". Northern Lighthouse Board. Retrieved 14 December 2014. 
  27. ^ "Thurso". Retrieved 14 December 2014. 
  28. ^ "The Royal Hotel". Retrieved 14 December 2014. 
  29. ^ Wilson 2012, p. 262.
  30. ^ "Thurso". Retrieved 14 December 2014. 
  31. ^ "Meadow Well". Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland. Retrieved 14 December 2014. 
  32. ^ "Pennyland Primary School". Highland Council. Retrieved 14 December 2014. 
  33. ^ "2011 Scottish Census (Table QS211SC)". Retrieved 14 December 2014. 
  34. ^ "Scottish Gaelic Local Studies" (PDF). Retrieved 14 December 2014. 
  35. ^ "Scotland’s museums: Caithness Horizons". Museums Galleries Scotland. Retrieved 14 December 2014. 
  36. ^ "Dounreay control room given to museum in Thurso". BBC News. 5 December 2014. Retrieved 14 December 2014. 
  37. ^ Cox, Roger (16 November 2013). "Thurso still boasts world-class waves". The Scotsman. Retrieved 8 December 2014. 
  38. ^ Mason 2011, p. 12.
  39. ^ "Thurso Bay Raft Race". Retrieved 14 December 2014. 
  40. ^ "Caithness Rugby Football Club: history: CRFC 1962 - Present Day". Retrieved 14 December 2014. 
  41. ^ "Caithness baton bearers named". John O'Groat Journal. 12 June 2014. Retrieved 13 December 2014. 
  42. ^ "Thurso Amateur Swimming Club". Retrieved 14 December 2014. 
  43. ^ Clark, Will (8 August 2012). "Threat to future link with twin-town". John O'Groat Journal. Retrieved 5 October 2014. 

External links[edit]