The funds for the construction of this building came from the estate of the late Alexander
Henderson who bequeathed £1000 to the police commissioners for the erection of a new town hall.
A decision was taken to leave the funds until at least £2000 had been raised so that a more
suitable building could be financed.
In 1868 the foundation stone for the town hall was laid, and the building was opened in 1871
at a cost of £2500 in total. The building also housed a library and museum, the latter
containing the Robert Dick collection.
In 1908 the foundation stone for the Carnegie Public Library was laid to the right of the
town hall and the building was opened in 1910 at a total cost of £2000. The square in which the
town hall is situated was once the site of busy markets described as the "cheapest in the
north," and the stalls on both sides of high street held a wide range of goods.
Within the square were also the "Fish Stane" and "Cocky Stane" where
fish and other produce could be purchased. The "Cocky Stane" has long since
disappeared but the "Fish Stane" is now on display in the Town Hall.
The square was also the site where whipping, stoning, and hanging took place for those
who took the lord's name in vain or were guilty of some other crime.
Here at this private house lived one of the greatest men to walk the Caithness soil.
Robert Dick was born in Tullibody in 1811. During his schooling he was regarded as a top level
student having an inexhaustible thirst for knowledge. He learned Latin so quickly that his
master recommended that he should be sent to college. However this never came to pass and
Robert served his trade as a baker with working days that started at 3am and finished at around
9pm. For this he received no wages other than his bed and meals.
In 1830 Robert travelled to Thurso and set up his own bakery. The extremely modest and
quiet baker was to achieve unwanted fame through his vast knowledge, and he built up huge
collections of insects, shells, geological, and botanical specimens which some people
considered the best in the country. His greatest find was perhaps that of the rare northern holy
grass which had been thought to be extinct.
The Edinburgh Royal Botanical Society mocked the idea and Robert, after being encouraged
to write his one and only paper, sent them a specimen twenty years after his rediscovery.
Robert hit hard times when an order of flour, books, and a microscope were lost when the boat
carrying them sank. Eventually with no supplies to bake with, his business collapsed.
After being ill and bedridden for some time, he died penniless on Christmas Eve 1866 aged 56.
There are no records to show exactly when St Peter's Church was built, but it is known
to be of 12th century in origin.
Although the ruined walls may at first glance appear somewhat bare, they were
once plastered inside and out, with their interiors richly painted with various designs.
In 1649 an Irish freebooter, Donald Macalister Mullach, decided to raid Thurso. Expecting
that he would catch the locals at their Sunday morning worship he planned to set fire to the
church and kill them as they tried to flee. However the worshippers had received a warning
and attacked Donald's party. He met his fate when a servant shot him in the ear. The dead
were buried at the roadside of the present opening.
Somewhat unusually, the tower is joined onto the rest of the church at the corner. It is
thought that it was possibly used as a marker for ships entering the river. At the front of
the church is the large tracery window which underwent conservation work in the 1980s.
The church was closed for worship on the last Sunday in December 1832. The sermon
was delivered by the Reverend Walter Ross Taylor who preached at four different
churches in Thurso.
After various failed attempts, Thurso finally got its harbour in 1891 and it has proved
its worth ever since.
Although much quieter today, it was once full of fishing boats, yawls, and schooners.
Local schooners would travel south to export the flagstone and return carrying goods
such as coal.
Long before this, Thurso had been operating an extensive trade with Scandinavian
and Baltic ports from as early as the 14th century. The town's main exports were grain,
beef, pork, fish, and oil. Its main imports were iron, wine, salt, and timber.
By 1837 the harbour was a great industrial area with pavement works operating on both
sides of the river. Employing at one time over a thousand staff, this number was halved
once steam power was introduced. However the flagstone spoil heaps mounting up in the harbour
caused problems for vessels trying to moor, and this brought the pavement workers and
fishermen to loggerheads.
The harbour is now only used by small creel boats, and the local branch of
the Sea Cadets.
The ruins of Thurso Castle overlook the east side of the mouth of the River Thurso.
This private property (owned by the Sinclair family) is the third castle to be built on
this site. The first was built around 1660 by George Sinclair, Earl of Caithness. This
castle was to have a short history as it fell into disrepair as early as 1680.
Renovations on the second castle began in 1872 when it was redesigned to have
features similar to a French Chateau. Completed around 1876, the castle would never
see any signs of warfare, agression, or underhand deeds. It was used mainly as a family
residence and therefore little more than an elaborate folly, but it was also available for
rental for those who were visiting the estates.
The castle was to see many visitors in its time. The prince and princess of Wales
(later King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra) were guests in 1876, and two years later
President Grant of the United States of America stayed for a short period during a visit.
By 1914 it was noticed that the tower of the castle was starting to lean and it was
evacuated. The one hundred foot tower had been built on unsuitable foundations.
As it happened, the foundations were so poor that they were only capable of supporting a
tower of forty feet in height!
In 1952 more defects started to appear, so for safety reasons the main part of the castle
was abandoned and the upper sections removed.
The two storey house known as The Turnpike dates from the 1600s and
originally had external stairs curving round for reaching the upper floor.
Built in Shore Street it is situated in the part of the town where the fisher folk
stayed. This area was known locally as the "Fisherbiggins" as Biggin is the Scots
word for dwelling.
The initials DWKR and the date 1686 are carved in relief on a stone mounted on the
Fisherbiggins was regarded as a poor area of the town but its inhabitants were hard
workers, with most of the men employed in the fishing industy in one form or another.
Young boys were also employed in the industry but only seasonally. Outwith the
fishing season they went to school. The wives and daughters of the fishermen carried
fish in distinctive oval shaped baskets throughout the town.
During the 1950s the turnpike was under threat when some members of Thurso Town
Council wanted the building demolished. Fortunately the decision to renovate the
building was taken and it remains a unique reminder of the old town. The building has
been photographed and painted many times and was sketched by the renowned artist
LS Lowry when he visited the town.
A breakwater was constructed in 1855 to help keep back the encroaching sea.
Various rules were drawn up for using the beach, for example; no stones could be removed
from it unless they were being used to repair streets. A payment of £2 was required for the
removal of stones for any other reason, and any male bather had to wear an item of
clothing after 8am.
There are various names for parts of the coastline in this area. Stretching from east to
west there are the Long Skerries, Kirk Ebb, the Crook, Little Ebb, to the Clio Goes. All
the way along the coast there are old names for the various rock formations whose origins
have now largely been forgotten.
The Kirk Ebb has often been written about and still proves to be a mystery. It is said
that it gets its name from a Kirk which used to stand on this part of the coast long before
the high water mark rose and the elements eroded it away. However no official records have
been found to confirm that there was such a building.
From the esplanade it is possible on a clear day to get a view of the Old Man Of Hoy on
Orkney's southernmost island.
The ground on which the Salvation Army Hall was built was known as Waters Tenement.
The hall was built originally as an Independent Chapel in 1799 by George Miller, a
merchant in the town. It was sold to the Congregational Church in 1804.
In 1810 the chapel was under threat from the encroaching sea and an appeal was raised
to build a fence or bulwark. The records mention that it "was built on a bank of sand
close to the beach, and the sea was gradually making inroads and threatening to undermine
In 1873 the congregation moved to a new church in Castle Street. The chapel
then became used as a store by merchants and tradesmen of the town, where fishermen would
store their masts and sails along the length of the rafters.
The Salvation Army moved into the hall in 1885 and have been there ever since.
The hall has seen many thousands of visitors. These include shipwrecked seamen, and service men
who travelled to Orkney to join the main fleets during the World Wars.
John Smith was born at Lochside in the parish of Halkirk in 1831.
Rather than follow his father's occupation into architecture he decided to study medicine
and trained in Edinburgh, winning a number of prizes during this time. He returned to
Thurso in 1855 where he opened a practice and acted as parochial medical officer for
the village of Halkirk. He was also a certified factory surgeon.
He later extended his practice to include Wick, and carried out his duties faithfully
in a quiet and inconspicuous manner whilst maintaining such a large number of patients
that he was often advised to take on an assistant.
His lengthy career of forty four years was to come to an end in April 1898, when after two days
of illness he passed away at the age of sixty seven. Such was the popularity of Smith that a
public funeral was held.
The fountain was later erected at the Town Hall square through public subscription by
the townsfolk. It stood there until the 1950s when it was taken apart and re-erected at the
A marble plaque depicts Dr Smith, and is fitted to his memorial in Thurso cemetery.
This imposing building was designed by David Smith, father of Dr John Grant
The Masonic Lodge was built as a drill hall in 1873, costing a total of £600.
The ground floor of the old baronial style building contained a dwelling house with a band
room for the drill instructor, reading room, and armoury. The upper first floor was
used as the drill hall.
The tower was built with a space at the top where the band could perform at public events, and
four projecting turrets served as chimneys. The front of the hall (facing towards Olrig Street)
is built of bluestone from the nearby Scrabster quarry, and freestone from Burghead in Morayshire.
The builders worked under considerable difficulties during the construction, as the men's
wages and the prices for materials rose significantly after the contract was signed.
The building was later taken over by the St Peter's Operative Lodge in 1904 as their permanent
base, at a cost of £600.
In 1920 St Peter's lodge celebrated its centenary.
This gothic style church is an imposing building overlooking Olrig Street.
The present building was in huge contrast to the cramped, uncomfortable conditions of the
previous one which was situated in Traill Street. The old church was built as a necessity
rather than a permanent place of worship, and its plain style and the lowness of
the roof made ventilation almost impossible.
The foundation stone for St Andrew's was laid by Sir George Sinclair in 1868. Early in
the following February a strong gale struck the recently completed northeast gable, causing the
unhardened lime to weaken and the gable to collapse with a crash.
The church was finally opened in 1870. For some time there were complaints that the
congregation was disturbed by people dropping in during the first prayer. In order to
prevent a recurrence, the doors were kept shut as soon as the first psalm was sung, and
not subsequently opened until the end of the prayer.
The building ceased to function as a church in 1969 when the congregation moved to
Rotterdam Street links the old town of Thurso with the new, and the street gets its name
from Thurso's historic trading links with Holland.
At one time the street had a less than favourable nickname when it was known as the
"Blackgutter," which gives some indication as to the quality of the hygiene in
the area, but in 1835 Thurso Town Council decided to improve the conditions of the street.
Although a great deal of enthusiasm was shown towards the idea, it was a further twenty
years before any improvements were actually carried out.
Rotterdam Street was also the first home of the local newspaper which began circulation
on Saturday, March 31st 1866 at the princely sum of one penny. Founded by William Wood
Docherty, the paper was printed on four broadsheet pages with the front one being devoted
to advertisements. The newspaper lasted for another ninety nine years.
James Traill of Rattar was well known throughout the county for his role as Sheriff
Depute of Caithness, and for introducing improvements in agriculture. Perhaps his most
notable achievement was his major role in the birth of the flagstone industry in 1825 at
Traill Street (named in his honour) was one of the first streets to be built to the
revolutionary grid system design of Sir John Sinclair, which has been copied in many
towns and cities throughout the world. One of the features of the design was to have
rounded corners on the buildings to improve visibility for the drivers of vehicles.
At the top of Traill Street is the Royal Hotel which was originally built as a
coaching inn by Andrew Caskey. After 1819 (thanks to Sir John Sinclair) it was
possible to travel by stage coach to Inverness, with the hotel being the point of
departure. This service continued until the arrival of the railway in 1874 after which
the days of the stage coach were numbered.
The average speed of the stage coach was nine miles per hour. However this was seen as
being too fast and so it was reduced to seven. The journey took two and a half
hours to Wick, one and a half days to Inverness, and eight days to Edinburgh.
For hundreds of years the Meadow Well was Thurso's main water supply.
For those who were not able to walk to the well, water carriers were employed to carry
out the task at a reasonable fee, although sometimes the water carriers cheekily brought water
straight from the river rather than the well to save effort.
The well was one of the many sites in Thurso where the fisherwomen congregated to sell their
fish and catch up on the latest news and events that were happening in the town. It had to hold
up to relentless use, and during seasons of very little rain fall it struggled to supply water.
In 1842, the water level was so low that the burgh constable was ordered to lock the well door
and only allow its use when absolutely necessary. The pump that is in place today was installed
in 1850 and was in use up until the 1920s. The quality of the water provided by the well was
confirmed to be of consistently of a high standard by analysis.
In 1981 the well was refurbished by the Rotary Club of Thurso.
This was originally known as MacDonald Square and was gifted to the town by Sir
Tollemache Sinclair in 1879.
In 1893 a statue of Sir John Sinclair was erected in the middle of the square, and it was
renamed Sir John Square. The statue depicts him wearing the uniform of the Rothesay and
Caithness Fencibles, a battalion he recruited during the Napoleonic wars.
At the front of the square is the war memorial (made from bronze and stone) which was
unveiled in September 1922 by Sir Archibald Sinclair. The memorial consists of a statue of
a symbolic hero and child. The left hand of the hero is holding an inverted sword with a
wreath representing peace and victory, and his right hand rests on the child's head. The child
represents future generations.
The drinking fountain at the back of the square was erected in 1894 by Sir Tollemache
Sinclair in memory of his father, Sir George Sinclair. It was originally at the front of the
square but was later moved to make way for the war memorial.
Looking over the square is St Peter's and St Andrew's church. Formerly known as the
Established Church. Its foundation stone was laid in 1830 and the first service was held
This building was originally a boys only school, known as the Miller Institution, and was
built from the inheritance that Alexander Miller received on the death of his uncle.
Alexander also financed the build of the harbour breakwater and gave various other charitable
donations to the town.
The foundation stone was laid on 1st June 1860 by Sir George Sinclair, with a crowd of
around four thousand present. Its doors were opened on 8th April 1862 for its first
intake of twenty pupils and two teachers who were advertised as being "both capable and
respectable and determined to teach effectively."
As a school it served Thurso well. Today the building accommodates the public library
which relocated in 1968 from High Street where it shared its home with Thurso Museum.
The library houses a fine collection of books for research on local history and genealogy,
plus microfilm copies of the Thurso newspapers, the Caithness Chronicle, Caithness
Courier, And Weekly Advertiser. The library also contains the Swanson Gallery where
exhibitions of local and national interest are held.
This popular walk was gifted to the town in 1894 by Sir Tollemache Sinclair, with the
condition that the town must spend at least £300 on its construction.
The townspeople held various fairs to help raise funds, with trees and shrubs being
given up for the cause. Sir Tollemache Sinclair then suggested that there should be a
path running towards the river and following it upstream towards Juniper Bank.
The Thurso River has long been famed for its salmon fishing. Its most famous catch was on
23rd July 1744 when in one sweep of the net 2560 salmon were caught. The net was
carried down through the water by eighteen men with long poles in their hands to help keep
the ground rope down. The fish were taken ashore in dozens of smaller nets with each
man being rewarded with a fish and some whisky.
Salmon fishing has been part of Thurso's history for centuries and provided the town
with valuable employment during the latter part of the 1700s onwards when the fish
were cured before being exported in salmon kitts.
This is the second road bridge to be built in Thurso. The first bridge (on the same site)
which was built in 1800 remained until it was decided that the bridge should have footpaths
added and that it should be widened.
By 1881 the bridge was in need of some serious attention. When the costs for the repair
work were totalled up it became clear that it would be cheaper to build a new bridge. On
3rd May 1887 the new bridge (at a cost of £4000) was opened by the Earl
Prior to the first bridge being built the only way of crossing the river was either by
fording it by the use of two rows of stepping stones, or by boat. As far back as the 1600s
there is reference to an official cobble being used on a Sunday to carry people from the
east side of the river across for the service at St Peter's Church. Crossing by the cobble
was not always reliable. It appears from records that the cobble was often overloaded on
market days when there would be a great influx of residents from the country and merchants
from the south entering the town. On 14th March 1749 tragedy struck, with the
deaths of seventeen people who were aboard the cobble when it capsised.
The site for this church was donated by Sir Tollemache Sinclair and "a grand
athletic festival in aid of church funds" which was organised by Mrs Sinclair of
The architect was Mr Alexander Ross of Inverness who stated that the church should be
built from locally quarried sandstone and flagstone. The foundation stone was laid in 1884
and the building was opened for worship in 1885. It was formally consecrated in 1890 under
its title "St Peter And The Holy Rood." Due to financial problems, work on the
final section of the church (the chancel) was not started until 1905.
Behind the baptismal font is part of the family pew of the Reverend Alexander Munro
of Coul, Ross-shire, who was the minister for Thurso from 1655 to 1681. The pew dates from
1676 and originated from Old St Peter's Church.
In a case on the left wall at the rear of the church are a pewter chalice and paten bearing
the date 1782, which came from the associated congregation, also from St Peter's Church.
Built around 1790, Pennyland House was the birthplace of William Alexander Smith, founder
of the Boys' Brigade. He was born here on 27th October 1854.
One of William's earliest recollections was of the figurehead of "The Brig."
It was mounted on the north gable, after her shipwrecked crew found shelter and hospitality
at the house some years earlier. He was one of four children, and was educated at the Miller
He founded the Boys' Brigade in 1883 and the 1st Glasgow Company bears the honour of
being the original company, although whilst in Thurso at the age of only eleven he
formed a company of boys for drill and discipline.
With the death of his father in 1868 his mother decided to sell the property and along
with the rest of the family travelled to Glasgow by steamer. They later returned to
Thurso leaving William behind to work for his uncle at the family warehouse.
Barely sixty years of age, Sir William Smith died on 10th May 1914, after being
suddenly taken ill at a Boys' Brigade meeting in London. He was buried in Glasgow,
but a memorial stone was laid in his honour at St Paul's Cathedral, London.
Pennyland House now offers bed and breakfast. For more information please visit their website at
Towards the end of Victoria Walk on a rocky outcrop is a World War II pillbox. This was
built on the site of the Bishop's Castle or Palace, and it was here that the Bishops of
The castle was roughly oval in shape with buildings around the interior of the
surrounding wall. This small stronghold was responsible for enforcing the protection
of property and the church in the area. In 1196 Bishop John was mutilated by Earl Harald
of Orkney by having his eyes and tongue cut out.
The last mention of a bishop inhabiting the castle was in 1566. He was Robert Stewart.
Sadly, as early as 1726 the castle was described as being "wholly in ruins."
Throughout the years erosion has left its mark on the castle, and very little of it now
survives, with what does remain mostly covered over by grass. In 1971 an archaeological dig
was undertaken which uncovered various fragments, including a piece of French, green glazed
ware. This is the most northerly example found in Britain.
Victoria Walk was laid out in 1882 and was originally wide enough for a horse and cart.
Amongst other things the walk takes in a rectangular, roofless, and ruined mausoleum formerly
used by the Murrays of Pennyland, Scotscalder, Clairdon and Castlehill.
This coastal footpath is a popular walk for many, and views of Scrabster Harbour, Holborn
Head, the Orkney Islands, and Dunnet Head can be enjoyed on a good day. Some areas of the
cliff are suffering from erosion and there are areas of grass overgrowing the edge
for some distance, so it is strongly advised to keep to the footpath.
Various seats paid for by public subscription are situated along the way to commemorate
some of Thurso's famous sons. The "Searcher" seat was built in memory of Mr JS
Mackay who was a contributor to one of the local papers for many years.
Another seat is in memory of Major General Jock Campbell VC DSO MC, who was born in
Traill Street, Thurso. He created the roving tank columns which became known as
Columns." In the forces he was highly regarded for his leadership, courage, and
disregard of personal danger. After his death on active duty in 1942, the British Army wrote
that it had "suffered the loss of an outstanding figure in the British Command."