Thurso: A Cold Water Classic

Thurso is the Holy Grail of Scottish surf: the breaks around this small town in Caithness are steeped in surfing folklore, with only the hardiest souls making it their quest to find it

Feature by Kate Pasola | 17 Jun 2013
  • East Coast Surf

“It was one degree below zero. I drove 320 miles after work then slept in the back of my van. Then I woke up early to navigate myself into a soggy 6mm wetsuit. Welcome to surfing in Scotland.”

This is how Mike Guest, a surf blogger and film maker, described his last trip to Thurso, Scotland’s very own north shore. An unremarkable, quiet town in Caithness seems an unlikely spot to find a world famous surf break. But this little town actually lays claim to the most famous wave in the country. Lying at 59 degrees north, Thurso shares its latitude with Moscow and Oslo, and for years was the most northerly point on the Association of Surfing Professionals’ (ASP) World Qualifying Series. Although not currently featured on the tour, pulling in the world’s best surfers for five years straight is a pretty impressive feat for an area with an average water temperature of just six degrees. Thurso has, on occasion, been so cold that huge chunks of ice flowing in from nearby rivers have rendered surfing impossible.

“People ask me why I do it, and friends and family regularly question my sanity” – Mike Guest

There are a few breaks to choose from in the Thurso area. The most famous is Thurso East, a fast reef break that produces some of the biggest waves in the area, with a fearsome reputation to match. Right next door is the delightfully named Shitpipe, so called because of the waste outlet that used to run into the sea nearby. There’s also Brim’s Ness, Strathy, Melvick, Dunnet Bay and countless other lesser known spots to choose from in the Thurso area. As you’d expect from the company it keeps, Thurso is not your average British surf spot. These aren’t mellow breaks for beginners; they’re for competent surfers who know how to handle themselves in the water. There are no lifeguards on duty and on a quiet day you might have the beach all to yourself, so don’t even think about heading in if you’re not confident in your own skills. But for those that dare, the rewards far outweigh the drawbacks.

Yes, Thurso is hard to get to (it is the most northerly town in mainland Britain after all), the water is really, really cold and first timers risk some serious damage to body, board and ego, but there is a reason people travel from across the world to surf Thurso. The waves are big, consistent and often world class, but that’s not the only allure. Surfers in Thurso East do so under the shadow of Thurso Castle, which set against the bleak backdrop of the North Atlantic creates an undeniably dramatic atmosphere. Mike explains: “Surfing in Thurso feels unique. One of the magical things about the place is the peaty water that flows through the river; when it mixes with the sea it looks like whisky. When I’m getting ready to go into Thurso the anticipation of what I might be faced with gives me butterflies.

“People ask me why I do it, and friends and family regularly question my sanity. The way I try and explain it is likening it to when you have to get up early: you’re in a safe, cosy cocoon so when the alarm goes off you want to hit snooze. But you get up because you have to. There’s an initial moment of discomfort and then it’s fine. Surfing in cold water is the same, there’s a natural instinct to hang back, but once you push through it and get out there it just vanishes. Surfing Thurso is cold and brutal and the best feeling imaginable all rolled into one.”