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Thurso from the hill at Mountpleasant - - 8869.jpg
Thurso from the hill at Mountpleasant
Grid reference: ND115685
Location: 58°35’46"N, 3°31’16"W
Population: 8,721  ((2001))
Post town: Thurso
Postcode: KW14
Dialling code: 01847
Local Government
Council: Highland Council
Caithness, Sutherland
and Easter Ross

Thurso is a town on the north coast of Caithness, the county's only town apart from Wick. Thurso has a population of approximately 9,000 residents (2001 census).

Thurso is the most northerly town on the mainland of Great Britain, sitting on the north coast and looking out to the Orkney Islands. It is situated at the northern terminus of the A9 road, the main road linking Caithness with the rest of the country. It lies 20 miles west of John o' Groats and 21 miles northwest of Wick, the closest town.

At latitude 59 degrees north, Thurso lies as far north as the Alaskan state capital of Juneau and as the city of Stavanger in Norway. Stavanger lies 332 miles to the east across the North Sea. The closest point on the Norwegian coast is 309 miles away.

Thurso railway station is the most northerly location served by Britain's rail network, linking Thurso directly with Wick, the county town of Caithness, and with Inverness,on the Far North Line

The town

Thurso's name derives from Old Norse Þórsá[1], and meaning 'Bull's water'[2] or perhaps "Thor's river".

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 and visible from Thurso on a clear day.

Thurso has a small museum, several hotels and bars, a surf shop / café and a large skatepark. A plant making lithium-ion batteries for the MOD is on the west side of the town, which, along with the Dounreay Nuclear power station, provides a high level of employment in Caithness. The town also has a full range of shops.

The North Highland College of the UHI Millennium Institute in Thurso offers courses from subjects as diverse as nuclear decommissioning, hairdressing, gamekeeping and golf management.

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

Thurso is within the Parish of Thurso, adjoining the parishes of Olrig and Bower to the east, Halkirk to the south, and Reay to the west. The remaining boundary to the north is the rolling Atalantic Ocean, the coastline stretching from Crosskirk Bay in the west to the Haven in Dunnet Bay in the east.

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 Member of Parliament.

St Peter's Church

St Peter's Church stands near the harbour. Its main window is carved from a single piece of stone and is thought to be the largest of its type in the world.


The distances form Thurso to other towns on UK road network:


Old St Peter's Kirk, Thurso
  • Church of Scotland[1]:
    • St Andrew's
    • St Peter's
    • Old St Peter's (closed in 1832)
  • Free Church of Scotland [2]
  • Scottish Episcpal Church [3]
  • United Reformed Church: Thurso URC []


Thurso's history stretches back to at least the era of Norse Orkney 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, 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 station was established at Dounreay, 9 miles 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.


The port of Scrabster lies north of the town, about 1½ miles 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 linking the mainland with Stromness on Orkney. There is also a large fishmart and the local lifeboat is stationed there too.

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 52.5MW, enough for 25,000 homes[3]. The original proposal was for 57.5MW [4].


  1. Orkneyinga Saga
  2. The Celtic Placenames of Scotland, Watson
  3. Two wind farm schemes approved
  4. Wind Farm Proposal

Outside links