The streets of Thurso are pleasingly walkable. Make the most of the gentle pace this permits – discover a castle, experience Viking heritage, a mysterious 2,500-year-old broch and taste Malt Whisky, all on foot with the north coast breeze helping you on your way.
This walkabout totals around 10 miles – we advocate discovering Thurso, and Scotland in general, at a slower pace – so spread this itinerary over two days, or choose a few of the sites that entice you most.
Highlight – As it’s a little out the way, Thurso East offers a bit of serenity even in a small town like Thurso. Poke around the beaches and rocks over there, see what you find.
Toddle across the Ellen Bridge (the nearest footbridge to the river mouth) and take your first left along Sir Archibald Road – keep going until you see Thurso Castle up ahead.
A now ruined castle at a site that once housed the ancient Earls of Caithness, overlooking some of the finest right-hand reef break surf in the world which, we presume, is why the Earls chose this location.
Hard to imagine but in the 1870s, two years after the Prince & Princess of Wales visited, President Ulysses Grant of the United States of America spent a few nights in Thurso Castle on his world tour! This corner of Scotland really has captivated explorers for generations.
Highlight – A tremendous story documented by Thurso Heritage Society at the link below sheds light on the historical significance of Harold’s Tower, and how it came to exist in its present form.
The quirky, bloated looking turreted structure on the hilltop inland from Thurso Castle is Harold’s Tower. Legend has it, it guards an ancient burial ground where Viking Earl Harold of the Orkneyinga Saga was slain in 1196. Capture outrageous sunrises up here among the resident sheep, particularly in winter.
Highlight – Is it a cop out to say the view? A strategic point overlooking Holborn Head, Dunnet Head, Thurso East and Thurso Bay – no wonder this hilltop was highly sought after thousands of years ago, and remains so even today.
Okay – the Thurso East to Thurso West walk from one relic of Thurso’s Viking past in Harold’s Tower to another in Things Va is quite the march for some. Feel free to save it until tomorrow and skip ahead to Wolfburn. The Things Va gallery at the link below has great information about the structure as well as more detailed directions to the majestic site.
2000 years ago, Thurso area inhabitants built a broch– a large circular stone tower – atop this hill, which they allegedly used as their home. Brochs were the skyscrapers of their time according to the co-founder of Caithness Broch Project, an organisation aspiring to build a replica Iron Age broch in the county.
‘Thing’ is old Norse for ‘meeting place’. 1000 years after it was built, the Vikings made use of this broch as their parliament. Visit Things Va, experience commanding views of Thurso bay, and see for yourself why people have gravitated to this hilltop for thousands of years.
Highlight – The modern face of the building sets you up to be wowed as you step right into the midst of a traditional working distillery. Oh, and the award-winning single malt whisky is okay too!
Turn into the business park on the western fringes of Thuruso, follow the road as it veers right and take your first left, keep going until you see a metallic sculpture of the mystical Norse Sea Wolf.
Time your walk to coincide with Wolfburn’s daily tour and tasting that starts at 2pm. The most northerly whisky distillery on mainland Britain, and one of the few hand-operated, independently owned distilleries left in Scotland – Wolfburn are quietly making waves with every extra year of maturation their spirit undergoes.
Check out our Thurso is Now blog post featuring Wolfburn for a deeper look.
Highlight – Look for The Turnpike, a turret-like structure jutting out from one of the town’s oldest residences.
Known as the ‘Fisher Biggins’ – owing to the historic significance of commercial fishing to Thurso (‘biggin’ being the Scots word for a dwelling) – the old town is comprised of houses huddled together in rows following the lie of the land away from the Harbour that once fed the town.
A town treasure is nestled in the web of streets – Old St Peter’s Kirk is a 13th century church through which you travel back into Thurso’s Viking past once again: a large stone Nordic Cross inscribed with Viking runes was found buried beside the church yard, and runes have been found inscribed into at least one brick within the church’s structure.
So although the plaque at the gate reads 1220, the site is suspected to have been of spiritual significance much earlier than that.
The Kirkyard is open to the public, however the building itself is closed to allow for its preservation.
Highlight – Between the old and new lies a vibrant independently owned High Street. Thurso has a healthy selection of snacks and souvenirs that you can’t find anywhere else in Scotland. At the time of writing, a new florist and butcher are soon expected to open in the town centre adding further purpose to an already rich offering.
From the higgledy-piggledy streets of the old town, to the pristine grid layout of Thurso’s New Town. Though modelled on Edinburgh’s New Town – a UNESCO World Heritage Site – Thurso’s New Town is infinitely more laid-back, and the only resemblance it bears to its namesake in the capital is the grid plan.
Blocks of grand old town houses facing cosier terraced homes, interspersed with churches – layer upon layer of Caithness flagstone everywhere you look – visually stunning for those interested in our built heritage, and a gold mine for visitors piecing together pretty Instagram stories of beautiful stone buildings.
If the weather is right, pick up vital supplies and have yourself a beach day. Even in the far north, the beach offers that unbeatable seaside experience when the winds settle and the place warms up a little. Viking Heritage and Malt Whisky are great things, but when it’s summer, it’s summer.
Summer can be an elusive season around here but don’t let that deter you, Thurso has much to offer in the wilder months too. You may think there’s nothing worse than getting into that icy blue water, but watching intrepid cold-water surfers navigate monstrous north coast swell is a thrill in itself – and that’s best done in the winter months.
Likewise, feel true invigoration when you visit the waterfront during one a trademark Caithness wind storm. If the weather threatens to ruin your experience, let the weather become the experience.
Some handy information to give you a real feel for Thurso during your stay - enjoy!