Thurso is the most northerly town on the British mainland with a population of just under eight
thousand - slightly larger than its neighbouring town of Wick. Situated in the county of Caithness,
(or the lowlands beyond the highlands as it has also been described), it is placed between two prominent
headlands with a splendid view of the Pentland Firth and the Orkneys.
The coastline is made up of high steep banks or dramatic cliffs reaching heights of two hundred
feet or more. Within walking distance from the town, large extensive views can be seen in all
directions with rolling skies above.
Sweeping inwards and to the west of the town the coastline forms Scrabster Harbour. Once
commonly known as Scrabster Roads, the area has long been a popular place for vessels of various sizes
to use as a port and for shelter. From there the coastline continues to curve, forming Thurso Bay.
The parish of Thurso is surrounded by Reay, Halkirk, Bower, and Olrig.
Thurso has often been looked upon as a gateway to trade in the far north, but its significance
grew once more when it was made a free Burgh of Barony by Charles I in 1633. Though the local stone has
been used since the first settlers, its peak was during the 1800s and early 1900s when flagstone
was exported in large amounts from Thurso Harbour throughout the country and worldwide.
The old part of the town, known as the Fisherbiggins remains in a similar layout as to the
original, though replaced with new housing. The new housing which replaced older building around
the harbour and Old St Peter's Kirk received a civic award. Looking at a street plan one can see
the gentle curves in some of the streets compared to the more organised grid pattern of the New
Town as designed by Sir John Sinclair, who was born at Thurso Castle. It was said that when New
York was rebuilt, they followed the Sinclair's street plan of Thurso.
During the 1980s the population slowly declined with a number of job losses at Dounreay and
and the closure of the US base at Forss. To counteract this building work began for the creation
of a Business Park with a lithium ion battery factory, a BT call centre and the extension of
Scrabster Harbour. Other facilities in the town include The North Highland College which continues
to expand, attracting new students.
The Mesolithic Age
The first inhabitants of the area came to Scotland around ten thousand years ago. In Caithness, the
earliest remains have been dated to around six thousand years. These Mesolithic people were
hunters and gatherers who moved around the area. They lived on a diet consisting of plants, sea
mammals plus fish, shellfish and red meat such as deer. They left little signs of their existence
other than small flint chippings, arrow heads and knives. No great monuments exist from this time.
The Neolithic Age
These people, referred to as Neolithic, brought a great change from those before and left
behind more evidence of their existence. Rather than living a more nomadic life, they settled in
areas for longer periods of time, keeping livestock such as cattle and pigs as well as growing
crops like wheat and barley.
They built various types of chambered cairns, large mounds of stones containing chambers. These
include round, long and horned cairns. Various archaeological digs suggest that these monuments
were repeatedly used for burials through the years.
Remains have been found, moved to one side to make way for a new burial. Items including pots,
animal and bird bones have all been discovered inside.
The Bronze Age
The first Bronze Age people brought little in the way of change and though they still used stone
tools and weapons as the name implies they also had some knowledge of metal which also suggests a
sign of wealth. At first copper was used, and then bronze (an alloy of copper and tin).
New pottery came into production, known as beakers or Beaker Ware, which were used for holding a
form of bere made from fermented barley. Burials also changed with individual graves, surrounded by
upright stones, with another placed on top as a cover called cists. Often they contained pots and
necklaces and large pottery urns containing the remains from cremation, another later change in
By this time, people were likely living in low stone walled of timber houses. Standing Stones
began to appear around this period, situated individually and multiples. The exact use of these
stones will perhaps be never known, though markers for territory or religious uses have been
suggested. Some of the round chambered cairns found in the area may have possibly been built
by these people.
The Iron Age
As knowledge increased on the use of metals, man would discover techniques on smelting iron ore
to produce the pure metal iron. With it being more readily available it and easier to produce it
would become more popular than bronze. As more people moved into the area, more land was cleared
The county of Caithness has more brochs than any other area in Scotland with some two hundred or
more to be known. These structures were large thick stoned walled tower like structures. They
contained stairs leading to upper floors and chambers. Interior post-holes have been discovered,
suggesting that they may have supported a wooden floor.
Though they varied in size, some were up to ten metres with an external diameter of eighteen
metres. Though various suggestions have been put forward, the current school of thought suggest
them as dwellings for high status families rather than defensive structures. Around the same time,
forts were built on headlands and hilltop enclosures suggesting an increase in tribal territories.
Between the fourth and ninth centuries a race of people known as the Picts lived in the area.
Little is known of them, though artefacts do exist. The name was given to tribes living north of
the Antonine Wall. They lived a similar way of life to Iron Age people, existing from around
300AD to 900AD.
They are known for the Symbol Stones that have been left behind, but little else remains of
their past, including no written records. The Romans never made it to the far north in any great
numbers and so little evidence from them have been found as to the Picts. It is thought that the
Picts were the descendants of Iron Age people in the northern part of Scotland.
The earliest mention of the Picts dates from 297AD in a poem written by the Roman Eumenius
that the Britons were familiar with the semi-naked "Picti and Hiberni" as their
enemies. Picti was likely a roman term, meaning painted people from their custom of
possibly using war paint or tattooing their bodies.
Like the meaning of their symbol stones, much speculation exists as to their language, way of
life, religious practices and the social make up. Isolated from the rest of Scotland, the Pictish
tribes were likely an easy target for the invaders known as the Vikings.
The town was to become an important Norse settlement and the major gateway to mainland Scotland.
Caithness was certainly a place of great importance to the Norse between the ninth and thirteenth
centuries when John, the last of the earls was killed in a cellar in Thurso.
The derivation of the town's name has been disputed for years. It is said the earliest
documented name is the Celtic Tarvodubron, meaning bull water. This was said to be later
interpreted by the Norse as Thjorsá, later modified to Thorsá or "Thor's River."
Different spellings and variations have appeared throughout the centuries but it is Thor's River
which has been commonly accepted.
Little information from this period exists, and any written evidence comes from the Norse
Sagas, in particular, the Orkneyinga Saga which was compiled sometime between 1192 and 1206.
Compiled from various oral histories, fact and with some added artistic licence, the information
was likely written by one or more Norse scribes.
In fact the origins of many place names come from the Norse occupation. Names which end in
"ster" derive from Norse origin, such as Scrabster. Even in Thurso today, street names
have a link to historical characters like St Olaf Road, Thorkel Road, Thorfinn Place, Harald
Drive and St Magnus Road.
The town itself spreads out from the valley, of which the River Thurso flows through, surrounded
by steep banks either side as it enters the town from its source in Sutherland. The river is the
largest and longest in Caithness. It is renowned for its salmon fishing and currently produces
some two thousand fish per year. The most famous catch, numbering over 2,500 was mentioned in a
document dated 1792 where eyewitnesses mentioned that in "the year 1743 or 1744, there were
caught in one haul in the Cruive Pool upon the water above the town of Thurso, 2560 salmon.
These fish were caught by a large net beginning the sweep at the Cruive, and coming down the stream
to a stone at the lower end of the pool."
The first twenty miles of the Thurso are little more than a burn running into Loch More where a
stream known as Sleach Water, joins it on the west. As the river leaves the Loch for the last
twenty four miles of its journey, it matures into the famous river. Most of the pools are slow
running and known as "linns" of almost dead water. Passing by Strathmore the river
continues onwards to Dirlot where the ruins of a castle remain perched on the top of an isolated
piece of rock. It is perhaps one of the most beautiful spots along the course of the river.
A little further along, the river is joined near Dalemore by the Torran. The river then begins
to fall to lower levels as it passes the old meal mill at Westerdale. For four miles, the river
flows through Harpsdale, under the bridge at Halkirk, descending swiftly to Gerston before turning
a right angle. It was near here that the Gerston Distillery once stood. Passing Braal Castle, it
becomes another long flat stretch of water between grass covered banks.
After leaving Hoy and Skinnet, the river flows gently past Todholes to Thurso. Running alongside
the railway, it passes under bridges through a tree lined valley where it enters Thurso Bay and
ends its journey.
The town developed mostly on the west side of the river, spreading out from the river mouth.
The east of which was made up of farmland before housing schemes were developed.
Looking at the town one can see where different building developments began and ended in three
main phases. The town has managed to adapt to these changes which it has met along its history.
It flourished well over the centuries and when tide went out on its trade, fishing and flagstone
industries another tide came in to bring new work and opportunities.
The first phase, seen the town in its very earliest of days to the seventeenth century rely
largely on its role as a trading port and fishing town to survive. The birth of the town began
from the houses which were huddled together following the natural lie of the land. Built up around
the harbour and spreading outwards the streets and lanes curved amongst each other unlike the
regimental straight lines of the New Town.
Unfortunately little of the old town remains to be seen. Of the older types of houses the most
recognisable is that of 16 - 18 Shore Street. Known locally as The Turnpike, its original neighbours
were demolished and replaced by council houses. Built to have some resemblance of what was there,
using similar materials. This is perhaps made more obvious from the presence of the turnpike
staircase jutting out, showing that retaining original features can make a street and in turn a
town much more interesting.
The second phase came with the rebuilding of parts of the old town and the formation of new
buildings and streets between 1790 and the early twentieth century, heavily using the plan by
Sir John Sinclair. His plan for the growth for the town was titled "The New Town of Thurso."
It was during this period that Thurso would change with the beginning of its first
The linking of Rotterdam Street in the old town to Traill Street in the New Town provided a
continuous route into new spacious streets. The plan for the new town was not followed exactly
and a number of differences can been seen.
In the 1919 a new and third phase began with renovation and rebuilding of properties in Marine
Terrace, and new houses in Pentland Crescent and Durness Street. The 1924 Housing Act brought
further houses at Beach Road and vacant sites in Durness Street and Pentland Crescent. Between
1930 and 1938 houses were built at the Glebe site incorporating Smith Terrace and Holborn Avenue
plus Robert Dick Place, Grove Lane, High Street and Caledonian Place.
In 1936, Sir Frank C Mears was appointed as the burgh planning consultant. This significant
step required that all housing and building works were considered in relation to the general
layout of the town rather than on their own individual merit. The first task of which was the
area around Old St Peter's Kirk.
Thurso, like St Andrews had the distinction of being the only small burghs whose councils
acted at their own planning authorities under the Scottish Town and Country Planning Act and
it certainly took advantage of this with new housing developments.
After World War II, there were two schools of thought for the erection of more housing. One
was that the town should develop west towards Scrabster, the second on the east side of the
river, which though the latter was carried out, it was not as originally intended.
The arrival of the nuclear site at Dounreay which became a world renowned leader and influx
of employees and their families brought another boom with schemes like Castlegreen, known
locally as the "Atomics" and Mount Vernon.
Private houses were built at Burnside and later Upper Burnside. Some of these houses were
used by the Americans working at the US Naval Base.
Though for centuries, Thurso had been established as a port even though its harbour, being tidal,
was never really suitable. It was still seen as a favourable port for trading in grain with Norway,
Sweden, Denmark, and the Baltic. The town, having a considerable shipping trade, was considered
Thurso's importance was regarded so highly that even the weights used by town were of some
renown. In 1330, King David II declared that these weights would be used as the standard for the
whole of Scotland. Early shipping evidence shows that in 1656, Thurso owned two sloops weighing
thirty tons each. The only other harbours north of Aberdeen to own vessels were Fraserburgh,
Peterhead, Garmouth, Cromarty and Orkney.
With the town's trading credentials established, a customs house was set up in 1707. Following
that, Thurso's status as trading harbour was legalised. The Thurso customs establishment extended
all the way to Helmsdale on the east, and the Point of Stoer on the west.
Meal was usually low in price, and so considerable quantities of were exported to Norway. In
return for this, the vessels employed were then used for importing cargoes of salt and wood.
This, along with the cargos of fish, constituted Thurso's foreign trade. In the seventeenth and
eighteenth centuries Thurso benefited from the considerable export trade it had in meal, beef,
hides and fish. In the early nineteenth century with the growth of the Caithness flagstone industry,
Thurso became the major port for the regular export of cargoes of paving stones throughout Britain
and the continent.
It was from this economic boost that the town held one of the cheapest markets in the north,
attracting sellers from as far away as Edinburgh. Ever since Thurso became a Burgh of Barony in
1633, markets were being held. The markets were first held every Saturday along with four free
Thurso like other towns had a number of rules as to how markets should be held. Some merchants
were breaking so many of them that the bailies were forced to issue a new set in 1730. Only the
Petermas and Marymas would have any major existence. The Petermas was purely a local market held
in Market Street.
At one time merchants from all over Scotland would visit the Thurso Marymas which was held on a
Friday after the Dunnet Marymas. It was so popular that it was even advertised in the Edinburgh
Courant and the Caledonian Mercury as well as notices circulated locally. In 1774, Sir John
Sinclair decided that this popular market was taking up far too much time with people neglecting
their daily duties. The market began on the last Friday in August and carry on until the Friday
of the following week, running over the limit of three days!
Several of the Saturday markets would also last for the three day limit. Sinclair brought this
matter to the attention of the Bailies who were in agreement. The information recorded in a
document titled "Ulbsters Regulations for shortening the duration of the Marymass market
in Thurso." Eventually the Marymas was starting to slowly die out invoking a writer of the
time to mention that this should not be regretted. Incoming merchants were taking a large sum of
money from the district for goods which were frequently becoming scarcer.
Towards the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century the
merchants had practically ceased to visit the town, it was mostly showmen who visited the town
on market days. The Salvation Army complained in 1900 that these visitors were pitching their
tents in the open ground beside the hall and creating disorder whilst they held their meetings.
The residents in Market Street also complained, requesting that the Town Council forbid the
Showmen and others taking up residence nearby. The markets were coming to be a thing of the
past and it was only a matter of time until they eventually died out.
Although Castlehill is known for being the location of the beginning of the flagstone trade
in the 1820s, the town of Thurso would also take part in this industry but on a greater scale.
For nearly two hundred years, the legendary qualities in strength and durability have made
Caithness flagstone famous on a worldwide scale. In fact, the stone has been used locally since
the Stone Age, suggesting that its properties were recognised early on. Early settlers used the
stone for building tombs. Bronze Age people used it for stone circles. Iron Age people used it
in the construction of their brochs (drystone, hollow walled structures).
The establishment by the Vikings of the earliest castles in northern Scotland put another use
to the stone, and later Thurso East is thought to have been the first farm in Caithness to be
enclosed by stone dykes.
With the numerous quarries operating in the county in the early 1800s, there was no shortage
of stone for general purposes such as wall building using slabs turned on their end and set
into the ground as a boundary. But it would be an injustice to pigeonhole the stone solely for
this purpose. Plates, sideboards, wells, clothes-poles, gravestones, paving stones, flag floors,
steps, roofing slabs, sheep fanks (pens), water tanks and fence strainers have all been made
using local stone which is why throughout time, flagstone has proved to be an extremely
The work was usually done by manual labour. The flag would be split from the rock face by
hammered wedges and then prised by levers. After this, the large slab would be split into smaller
and more manageable sizes. The stone would then be set on end and rocked back and forth and walked
to the carts or bogies for removal. Larger stones would be shifted by a series of rollers.
Originally, two wheeled pony carts or horse drawn lorries removed slabs for transportation
into the town. Once the stone arrived at the pavement works, it was ready to be dressed. The
dressing of the stone required it to be cut into rectangles or squares. Polishing was carried
out by circular wooden plates. These were rotated under pressure, while grades of sand from
coarse to fine were added until the required smoothness was achieved.
By 1837, both sides of Thurso River had pavement works in operation. So great was the demand
that, towards the second half of 1800s, the works could not cope with orders. Even with its
lack of a deep water harbour, Thurso was undoubtedly firmly established as the capital of the
pavement trade. Ten years later, the industry was showing no signs of slowing down, it was
reported that "there was no less than eight flag quarries in full operation in the
neighbourhood of Thurso, giving employment of upwards of five hundred men, a considerable
number of these are engaged in cutting and smoothing the flags, in sheds erected for this
purpose, near the harbour, and cargoes are being regularly shipped for the south."
Health and safety officers of the present day would have been in their element back then,
as injuries were high with men commonly losing fingers and toes. By the late 1800s and into
the early 1900s, things were changing for the industry. When flagstone was cut by manual
labour, around a thousand men were employed, but once steam power was introduced this was cut by half.
In 1893, employment at the works was whittled down to a two day week. The Caithness Courier
reported on the 15th May 1896 that the town was now feeling the effects of the Thurso East
pavement works stoppage. The industry peaked around 1902 although the trade started to subside,
at times, prior to this.
Since man's earliest times, fishing has in some shape or form been in existence. In Thurso,
the fishing industry is often forgotten in light of the fame that was to fall on the nearby town
of Wick. Today, however, Thurso's fortunes have declined and the harbour is used only for small
boats that haul creels for crab and lobster.
At one time, fishing was a major source of employment in the town. From around the coast, or
from the numerous rivers of the county Caithness, as many as forty five species of fish were
caught. Catherine Sinclair, daughter of the Thurso born politician and entrepreneur Sir John
Sinclair once wrote that when the Duke Of Sutherland dined at Thurso Castle, the fishermen were
so eager to prove the productiveness of local trade that twenty two species of fish were
arranged upon the table, fish that included salmon, cod, turbot, ling, tusk, haddock,
Early records show that between 1771 until 1787, Thurso exported no less than 9,754 barrels
of herring. From 1789 until 1796, records also show that there were many thousands of herring
cured on a yearly basis and packed in barrels sent by sea from Thurso to London. From there,
the white herring would be shipped to colonies such as the West Indies, while the red herring
would remain at home and sold into the domestic market.
The average quantity of cod and ling fished during the latter part of the eighteenth century
amounted to eight hundred barrels of wet cod (caught during the winter), plus fifty five tons
of dried fish (caught and dried during the summer and harvest months).
After the Napoleonic Wars, a London cod smack "had never been seen in the Pentland
Firth." Driven from fishing at the Dogger Bank (a large sand bank in the North Sea) by
French and Dutch privateers, these London smacks ventured to explore the northern coast of the
county in search of cod. They were having some success, as at times twenty five of their boats
could be seen lying in at Scrabster Roads.
The local fishermen were naturally concerned by the presence of these visitors, often
complaining that they were catching fish in large amounts. The skills of the Thurso fishermen
whose crews averaged around five men per boat should not be forgotten. On the eighteenth May
1808, William Macleay of Wick wrote to Thomas Telford that, "in this country we have no
real fishermen except three or four boat crews who reside in Thurso and no encouragement which
could be offered to them would entice them to leave that town."
The fact that the Customs House had always been situated in Thurso because of its prosperity
didn't go down well with everyone. Wick made a gritty attempt in 1825 to have the customs
establishment moved to the Royal Burgh. This was not their first attempt to have the
establishment taken away from Thurso.
Eventually, Wick would be successful and its story of becoming the herring fishing capital of
the north is well celebrated.
Thurso was unique for having its own style of fish basket used by women who sold the catch
from various stances throughout the town. It also had a system of dividing the catch, known
as "casting caivels."
With the lack of any deep water harbour, Scrabster was to eventually take over which would
save the men waiting for Thurso River to reach high tide before entering and leaving the harbour.
In later years, many men who made their living at sea went for the easier option of staying
on land with the construction of the nuclear site at Dounreay. Though this brought a new boost
to Scrabster with materials arriving regularly at the port it also played a detrimental role
to the Thurso Harbour. The days where a fleet of boats berthed at the harbour were now a memory.
The great agricultural revolution was also booming and new improvements were being put into
practice with farms cultivated with new techniques. Lead largely in the north by Thurso born MP
and founder of the Board Of Agriculture and first President, Sir John Sinclair and James Traill
of Rattar, Sheriff Depute of Caithness.
The immediate farms in the parish during the 1790s consisted of the farm of Thurso East which
was being brought to a "high state of fertility" and progress in inclosing the fields
was taking place. It appears that this was the first farm in Caithness to have enclosed fields.
The farm consisted of around 500 Scotch acres or six hundred English acres. A public road ran at
an angle through the major fields but with the consent of the neighbouring owners of ground,
it was altered to be more suitable.
Next to Thurso East was the one hundred and twenty acre farm of Mount Pleasant. It contained
sixty acres of arable land which had also been enclosed and cultivated by the owner. There was
also a further sixty acres which had been enclosed sometime prior.
Nearby, the thirty three acre farm of enclosed arable land of Springpark, whose owner also
had Dixonfield, an extensive experiment to cultivate a considerable amount of waste land so that
it was suitable for farming. It took three months for the ground to be enclosed with ditches,
and improved with paring, burning and then to be covered with a crop.
Oldfield farm which included Mount Vernon, "an improved piece of common" attached
to it contained around eighty one acres. Sir John Sinclair who once owned the farm had rendered
the fields more regular with the enclosures carried on, the commons ploughed up, giving a basis
for their improvement.
At Ormlie (or Ormly as it was formerly spelled), the house of Major Rose was "most
favourably situated, and surrounded by some of the finest fields any where to be met with,
where the modern system of husbandry is carried on with great spirit and success." Nearby
was Wester Ormly a new improved farm which was first cultivated by Mrs Douglas.
Ormly Boll Sowings was a "beautiful field" near Thurso which was let out to people
in the town. The lots were sufficient enough to grow a boll of barley. It was for sometimes
rented out at twenty shillings per acre of which there were around fifty. By 1799 it was enclosed
and cultivated. Thurso also had its fair share of "mechanics" that made farming equipment
like carts, ploughs, harrows and thrashing machines.
For a period, the town also became one of the principal livestock centres in the north with
two auction marts in use. At one opening lamb sale in August 1948, thirty five thousand lambs were
sold in one week.
Around 1789, Sir John Sinclair recommended a plan for erecting a tannery and bleachfield in the
Thurso parish putting a considerable amount of effort into both industries. Situated near the
brewery the tannery was showing its merit within a few years. In May 1840 the Tannery was put up
for sale, advertised as "being the only one of the kind to the North of Inverness."
The Bleachfield ran at a loss due to the lack of a suitable supply of pure water for the last
stage of the bleaching process. Sinclair decided to give his shares up of the tannery to his
partners, and took over all the shares of the Bleachfield so they wouldn't suffer.
In 1780 merchants in Leith, Montrose and Aberdeen began sending several cargoes of dressed
flax yearly to agents they employed among the Caithness shopkeepers. From here the flax was
dispersed to young women who were paid to produce spindles or hanks. The yarn was then returned
to merchants in the south where it was made in to coloured thread for the foreign markets.
In the winter of 1810 Thurso had two hundred and fifty women and young girls employed in the
straw plaiting industry, which had begun the previous year. The following year the number had
increased to two hundred and sixty. The straw for ladies bonnets was sent to London, although
some bonnets were completed locally. This new industry was described of "having the
additional benefit, that it is performed by young girls, who are not capable of performing any
labour that would require great exertion, and who would otherwise live in idleness at the
expense of their parents."
The Napoleonic War however killed off the industry with the lack of flax which was being sent
to the agents and by 1840 it is recorded that there were now only fifty eight women working the
straw plaiting industry.
Brewers had been operating in the town for some time. The first significant brewery was erected
in Manson's Lane. First mentioned in 1793 in the Statistical Account of Scotland, it was noted
that "a gentleman has disposed of a part of his property in town, on the most moderate terms,
to one of the inhabitants willing to undertake such work; and the buildings requisite for the
purpose are now erecting on a extensive scale."
The three story brewery was run by Alex Manson who was listed as a brewer having a fixed capital
of £700 and a stock of £300. The industry was once again mentioned in the Agriculture of Caithness
in 1812 "A brewery was likewise erected, some years ago, on a large scale, in the
town of Thurso."
Well known for its hospitality, Thurso attracts a large number of visitors every year and is
fast becoming internationally recognised as a favoured site for surfing. The town has hosted
several major championships, attracting visitors from all over the world. Thurso has been a
popular tourist locality for some time with some visitors impressed enough to take up residence
in this peaceful welcoming town.
The town is quite cosmopolitan, with a population made up from various locations, largely
attracted to the employment opportunities that Dounreay brought and the quiet safe surroundings
to bring up families.
There are various walks which can be carried out in town or around the outskirts, three of
which are featured in the illustrated publication "A Guide To Historic Thurso" and
the coinciding mobile phone app which is available exclusively through this website. This gives
you your own walking guide to the town taking in some of the area's historic buildings.
There are various local groups, organisations, sports clubs and churches which welcome new
members and a rich variety of wildlife and plants. On occasions orcas have been seen around
the coastline and even in Scrabster Harbour. In nearby quarries and even the local beach
examples of various fossils can be found.
Many men saw action during both wars, taking roles in the Army, Royal Navy and Merchant Navy.
Lord Kitchener passed through Thurso in 1916 on his way to board the Hampshire at Scrabster, a
voyage from which he would never return. Both Wars touched the population greatly.
The nearby port of Scrabster was the major point of embarkation in conveying servicemen and
women to the British fleets anchored in Scapa Flow. Accommodation was scant at the time, so men
slept on the floors of the Town Hall, church halls, schools and camps, including a transit camp
situated at Pennyland. Troops, numbering a dozen or more were also billeted in private houses.
During World War II, the town had various visitors of note, including His Majesty the King
in several occasions, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Prime Minister Winston Churchill and Lord
Halifax. After the Royal Oak was torpedoed in Scapa Flow, many of the survivors were accommodated
in Thurso before heading south with a longstanding warmth from the crew towards both the
town and its people.
The town was an extremely busy place during the War. The Jellicoe, a train carrying troops which
ran from London, travelled to Thurso daily. Arriving at the station the men marched or were
transported to Scrabster. Ormlie Lodge Hotel was taken over along with other buildings were army
and navy personnel could manage the traffic. A former mansion house, Mina Villa which stood in
the grounds of Miller Academy was used as an office by the army for controlling movements though
unfortunately the building was demolished in the 1970s.
In 1955, the town would begin a massive change through the beginning of construction of a
nuclear experimental and research establishment. The United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority
began construction just nine miles west of the town at Dounreay.
The location of the site was decided for various reasons. These included the lack of any large
population should any major nuclear incident take place, access to the Dounreay airfield, an
extensive range of flat ground and there was suitable access to the sea for drawing water used
for cooling and waste discharges.
The town was now visited by a large and varied range of professions. Though there were some
concerns from the local inhabitants it was soon forgotten and the "incomers" settled
into the community. From Inverness, Glasgow, Hull, Manchester, North Wales, Plymouth, London
and so on people came to the far north looking for new employment opportunities. As one article
mentioned many of these people were "uncertain whether they would be regarded as intrusive
foreigners. But Thurso has a warm heart, and has taken the boffins to it."
One of these early staff members said "who wants Blackpool Illuminations when we can see
the Aurora Borealis so many nights of the year?" One local said about the visitors "I'm
sure it's a good thing on the whole. We couldn't possibly have asked for a nicer lot of incomers
than the "Atom People."
A great deal of employment was brought not just to Thurso, but the county. The airfield was
extended to accommodate two thousand of the two thousand three hundred construction workers
required and became known as the Boston Camp. The population of the town rose from 3,224 to
8,276 and many locals left their former occupations to take up new training and work onsite.
The site has not been without its fair share of problems. In 1977 a concrete lid was blown off
the waste shaft due to a build up of hydrogen. Particles of radioactive fuel have also been
recovered from around the coast and on local beaches since 1983. This led to a ban on sea fishing
for 2km around the sites discharge pipe.
The site is currently being decommissioned, a job that started in 2000. The work is a new
challenge, with no instructions manuals showing how to return a nuclear site to its former green
fields. Once again, just like during its infancy, the staff is leading the way with new
technologies and skills.
Like the rest of the Caithness, the area has rich fossil beds, part of the Old Red Sandstone system,
consisting mainly of the upper and lower flagstone groups. These beds were created some 385 million
years ago after the tropical lake known as Lake Orcadie which covered parts of northern Scotland
ranging from Shetland down to the Moray Firth dried out.
As fish died and sunk to the bottom of the lake, the lack of oxygen and coverings of mud compressed
and preserved them. Some of these fossils, of which there are around thirty different types of fish
show amazing detail of fins and teeth perfectly preserved. In the best examples, even skin outlines
can be seen.
Some of these early fishes to be found include primitive lung fishes which would eventually
become four limbed animals, ancestors of modern boned fishes and distant relations of sharks. Many
millions of years later, the rocks were eroded or quarried revealing fantastic examples
of early life.