Thurso in Caithness is the most northerly town in mainland Scotland. A popular stop on the North Coast 500, or before a trip to Orkney, the area is full of fantastic hidden gems and perfect for a weekend break.
Home to around 8000 people, ‘Thurso’ means ‘Thor’s River’ or ‘Bull’s River’ in Old Norse, and has a long history all the way back to vikings in the 900s. The town is even mentioned in the famous Orkneyinga Saga (the History of the Earls of Orkney) from the 1100s.
Now a busy hub on the NC500 and one of the biggest towns in the north of Scotland, Thurso is a great place to make a base to explore Caithness. Here are my favourite things to do in Thurso.
Things to do in Thurso Scotland
- Discover Thurso Castle – visit the ancestral home of the Earls of Caithness with an impressive gatehouse.
- Visit Harold’s Tower – a unique mausoleum sitting above the grave of Viking Earl Harold.
- Walk around Things Va – discover a 2000 year old broch and Viking parliament.
- See the old and new towns – from fishermen to town planning, explore the town centre.
- Go to the Wolfburn Distillery – sample a dram from Scotland’s most northerly distillery.
- Visit North Coast Visitor Centre (Caithness Horizons) – discover the history of Caithness.
- Go surfing on Thurso Beach – with big Atlantic swells, the beach is one of the best places to go surfing in Scotland.
- Walk from Scrabster Harbour to Holborn Head – for views of Orkney, cliffs, puffins, orcas, blowholes and Clett Rock.
Download my map of things to do in Thurso to your phone
The Caithness Broch Project have a great peculiar map of Caithness.
There has been a castle at Thurso since the 1100s, when the Viking’s made this part of Scotland their home. The Sinclair family started work on a new castle in 1660 which became home to the Earls of Caithness and was much modernised by the family over the years.
The Castle was finally destroyed during World War 2 when an anti-shipping mine came ashore and exploded. The castle is now a picturesque ruin with a fantastic gatehouse otherwise known as the Arch which was built in 1665 by George Sinclair, 6th Earl of Caithness.
Harold’s Tower Mausoleum
Thurso was said to have been the burial place of Viking Earl Harold of the Orkneyinga Saga with a memorial church built at Thurso East.
The chapel was dismantled by Sir John Sinclair for stone to build dykes around his fields. Noting the dismantling of the church Alexander Pope, the minister of Reay sent Sir John a humorous letter from Viking Harold bemoaning the loss of his memorial. Enjoying the letter, Sir John built Harold’s tower as his family mausoleum.
Things Va Broch
Things Va is a huge 2000 year old broch (an Iron Age stone tower, castles or shelters, no one really knows what they were used for!) which was then re-used by the vikings as their local parliament. Thing-vollr’ is Norse for a local court or assembly. There are over 200 brochs across Caithness and there are great views from the Hill of Forss and the broch.
Find out more about Brochs at the Caithness Broch project website.
The old and new towns of Thurso
The oldest part of the town, Fisher Biggins, includes the picturesque Shore Street and the 13th century church Old St Peter’s Kirk. Biggins are dwelling houses in scots – and Fisher Biggins was home to the town’s fishermen.
The new parts of Thurso were designed by politician and town planner (who was born in the castle) Sir John Sinclair of Ulbster, modelled on Edinburgh’s New Town, in 1798 with the center of the town marked with a statue to Sir John.
The most northerly whisky distillery on the Scottish mainland, and named after the river on which it sits, Wollfburn was reopened in 2012. Once the largest distillery in Caithness Wolfburn is soon to produce its first 10 year bottling. The flagship whisky is matured in American oak quarter casks, and they also produce a sherried, a peated and a bourbon cask variety.
North Coast Visitor Centre (Caithness Horizons)
Discover Caithness history and culture, along with a cafe at the North Coast Visitor Centre (Caithness Horizons) including the areas Pict and Viking connections, along with the history of the Flow Country.
The museum is currently going refurbishment and will open in the future.
Surfing on Thurso Beach
Stretching for 500m along the front of the town, the beach is popular with surfers due to offshore reefs and big Atlantic swells. Other good surfing beaches include Dunnet Bay, Melvich Bay, and Farr Bay.
Scrabster Harbour and Holborn Head
One of the main fish ports in the north of Scotland, Scrabster is also one of the main crossing points to Orkney. Holburn Head Lighthouse sits above the Scrabster pier. Walk from the harbour to Holburn Head to see the blowholes with views of Orkney. Walk around Holburn Head to Clett Rock – a 30m sea stack.
Visit the Captains Gallery for a great fish tea.
More things to do in Thurso
Got a bit more time to explore? Why not visit:
Duncansby Head Lighthouse and stacks – the most northerly part of the UK and a lot more attractive than John O’Groats. Take a walk to Duncansby’s huge sea stacks. Dunnet Head is also a great place to see Puffins.
John O’Groats – the most northerly village in the UK – take the photo of the sign.
Castle of Mey – previously the home of the Queen Mother in Scotland, you can now tour this royal palace.
Melvich Beach – one of the north coast’s most stunning beaches, it is just a short walk from the road to Melvich Beach.
The Split Stane, Sutherland – the boundary between Sutherland and Caithness – said to have been split by the devil’s tail. Find the stone at Drumholliston near Melvich.
Where is Thurso?
Thurso is located in North East Caithness on the north coast of Scotland. The town is on the famous North Coast 500 route around the north coast of Scotland. You can get to the town by road or by train. Book your train tickets with trainline.com*.
Where to eat in Thurso (and nearby)
- Olive coffee shop, Thurso
- Y Not Bar & Grill, Thurso
- Capilla Tapas bar, Scrabster
- Popeyes Pub, Scrabster
- Captain’s Galley, Scrabster
- Halladale Inn
- Stacks Coffee House and Bistro, John O Groats
- Seaview, John O Groats
All the places to eat are marked on my map of things to do in Thurso
Where to stay in and around Thurso
Looking for somewhere to stay on the North Coast 500?
- The Wee Hoosie – an airbnb
- Forss House, Thurso – stunning luxury property
- Braeside Retreats – glamping pods
- Dunnet B&B Escapes – modern cabin style B&B near Dunnet Head and John O’Groats
- Strathy Inn – basic Inn accommodation in Caithness with good meals
- Farr Bay Inn – close to the gorgeous Farr Bay
- Wooden Wagon, Oldshoremore – go glamping in a cute wooden wagon
- Skipaflotta – a lovely luxury self-catering property
- Natural Retreats – quirky accommodation at John O’Groats
Read more – how to drive the North Coast 500
Love, from Scotland x
I’m Kate – a travel writer and photographer living in Scotland. Love, From Scotland is the Scotland travel guide that shows you where to stay and how to get outside in Scotland.