The surf scene in Thurso says a lot about the town. This world-famous natural resource is a stone’s throw from the town centre, yet it’s so understated locally that much of the community doesn’t bat an eyelid at the waters off Thurso East.
What’s more, people throughout Scotland know little about Thurso, yet surfers travel here from any part of the world to experience the town’s fabled surf. The beaches and reefs of Caithness may be just far enough away from the cities to maintain that ‘hidden gem’ character we all crave.
That’s sort of Thurso and Caithness in a nutshell – a bit out of the way, but utterly worth the effort if you know where to look and what to do when you get here.
Prime surf season in Thurso is between October and April, when the cold water is made colder yet by an icy stream flowing down the River Thurso from the Flow Country. To your face, they’ll say you’re brave for getting in there, but behind your back, the large non-surfing contingent in Thurso speculate that you must have gone mad; the sport that originated in the tropical waters of Hawaii hasn’t caught on with everyone up here.
Thurso folklore tells that a visitor to Thurso Castle people was the first to take to the waves here back in the 1960s. For decades, traveling surfers were a novelty – they’d compare boards with interested Thursonians and tell stories of surfing warmer waters in then seemingly unreachable places. But thanks to a combination of very decent modern wetsuit technology, publicity and social media the cold-water surf at this quiet northerly tip of Scotland has never been more accessible.
Scotland’s current National Surfing Champions both mastered their craft here on the north coast. I caught up with Mark Boyd and Iona McLachlan to get some inside information about surfing in Thurso. Boydie likes to talk a bit, so this post will be a 2-parter.
Boydie, you’re not originally from Thurso, this might be a stupid question, but what took you up here?
Definitely surfing. I grew up on the Moray Firth Coast surfing on a beach called Sandend, known locally as Sanine, getting lifts to the North Coast regularly as a young teenager because the waves were usually bigger, better quality and more consistent in Caithness. I left school and went to study down in Aberdeen University so I could remain as close to Thurso as possible. I was spending as much time in Thurso as I possibly could while studying, often travelling up to surf just for the day, but some weeks I’d spend more time in Thurso than I would at university! So really it was being fed up of driving up and down that road that made me decide to live here permanently!
I remember one of my early trips to Thurso as a kid for a competition that was run by an Aviemore based surf-skate-snowboard shop called North57, and I saw Chris Noble, Scott Main and Andrew MacLeod surfing and getting barrelled at Thurso-East and I thought it was the coolest thing I had ever seen – I knew right then I would end up in living in Thurso. This was reinforced by local surfer Andy Bain, who once told me as a youngster that if I wanted to become a well-rounded surfer in Scotland I had to move to Thurso. So I did at the earliest opportunity.
Is the surfing that bloody good here?
It really is world class. We get big, heavy, barrelling surf similar to what you expect to find in Hawaii, just without the palm trees. Thurso-East is probably the most perfect right-hand breaking wave in Europe.
When did you start surfing?
I think I was 13 when I first started surfing, but it was a slow learning process when I was younger – all the wrong equipment and no guidance…kids don’t know how lucky they are these days!
What’s your favourite beach in the area?
It’s all about the flagstone reefs for the quality surf in Caithness and Thurso-East has to be my favourite, but a drive out West to Torrisdale is nice now and again – I think it’s the most beautiful beach.
Is there 1 particularly incredible day of surfing you’ve had up here that sticks in your mind?
There are certain days when Thurso East can get a couple notches better than a normal ‘very good’ day. Also, a couple other sessions at other “slab” waves in Caithness stick in my mind, one pretty recently when I had a photo published on Carve Magazines cover – a lifetime goal of mine!
You’re away a lot both for work and travel – what do you miss about Thurso while you’re away?
I miss surfing with my friends mostly. I absolutely love travelling and surfing in other places but the best waves around the world are generally very crowded these days, so nothing beats surfing at home with your friends.
In three words, what should visitors expect from local surf?
Cold, windy … that’s only two, but I don’t think anyone should expect anything, nothing is for sure, those two are about the only guarantees 🙂
Scotland and surfing seem like a good fit to me, do you get the sense that the sport is growing in popularity here?
The sport has grown immensely across Scotland in the last few years, but also in Thurso itself too, largely due to the fantastic work of the North Shore Surf Club introducing local kids to the sport.
What does it take to become a two-time national champion?
I think this video sums it up quite well – You have to be very dedicated. You need to make surfing your number 1 priority. That seems like a selfish thing to do to some people, but it’s the only way, particularly in Scotland where the weather is unreliable, you need to be able to drop everything and be surfing when conditions are good. It’s not like golf where you can just turn up and the course is there to practice on. Secondly, you need to find a job that allows you to do this, particularly with our short daylight hours in winter when the surf is best. I surf almost every day when I am at home.
What’s an absolute ‘must see’ for visitors to the area? (Duncansbay Stacks has been said!)
Thurso-East in the middle of winter when the waves are pumping, watching from the pier as guys are getting barrelled is spectacular for surfers and non-surfers alike – it really is a sight to behold.
Cumulitive list of ‘must sees’ in the area:
Duncansbay Stacks for the chance to see puffins and orcas
Watch surfers getting barrelled at Thurso East from the pier at Thurso Harbour
Some handy information to give you a real feel for Thurso during your stay - enjoy!