Thurso: A Complete Guide

Find out all you need to know including what to do, where to stay, where to eat and how to get to Thurso, North Scotland.

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Thurso is the most northerly town in mainland Scotland, and is located on the River Thurso, overlooking the sea at the Pentland Firth, towards the Orkney Isles.

Where is Thurso
Thurso is in the historical county of Caithness. It is 20 miles west of John O'Groats, the most north-easterly village on the British mainland, and around 21 miles north west of Wick, another key town on the Far North coast of Scotland.

Driving west, you have Durness on the far north west coast of Scotland around 70 miles from Thurso.

In relation to major Scottish cities, Thurso is 111 miles north of Inverness, the principal city in the Scottish Highlands and 263 miles north of Edinburgh, the capital city of Scotland.

Thurso Bay

What is Thurso like
The town is coastal with a population of around 8,000 which is centred around a high street leading towards the sea at Thurso Bay. While much of the town is modern, it has Viking roots and a historical relationship with Orkney which ruled in Caithness until the thirteenth century.

Some historical ruins remain in the town such as Old St Peter's Church, which dates to 1125. There was also a castle at the mouth of the River Thurso. Rebuilt in the nineteenth century, it was sadly largely demolished in 1952. 

The most significant castle in the wider area is now the Castle of Mey, some 14 miles from the town centre, which was a home of the Queen Mother until 2002. It is now open to the general public each summer and visited annually by the Royal Family. Prince Charles, the Duke of Rothesay attends the Mey Highland Games in John O'Groats, each August.

The Castle of Mey Flower at the Castle of Mey

Thurso has become known for some of its distinctive food and drink including Reids of Caithness shortbread biscuits and Wolfburn whisky. Reids bakery is located on the high street and Wolfburn distillery is around 1.5 miles west of the town centre.

What to do in and near Thurso
Some of the best things to do are dispersed geographically, therefore a car is helpful to explore the area. However a certain amount of local exploration is possible using the local bus service run by Stagecoach. 

1. The Castle of Mey (13.5 miles)
The Castle of Mey is an intimate historical home, formerly known as Barrogill Castle, and the most northern castle on the British mainland with views towards Orkney. Visitors can explore the rooms of the castle, with a guided tour which is part of entry to the castle, as well as visit the walled gardens, animal centre and woodland. The castle is open from May to September and served by the number 80 Stagecoach bus. More about the Castle of Mey.

2. Distillery Tours
There are two distilleries close to the town centre:

  • Dunnet Bay Distillery, Dunnet (8 miles) home to Rock Rose gin and Holy Grass vodkas. A range of editions and gin-inspired products, including Caithness Chocolate and Caithness Summer Fruits marmalade are on sale in its distillery shop.
  • Wolfburn Distillery, Thurso (1.5 miles) makers of Wolfburn whisky, offering tours of the distillery and selling Wolfburn merchandise including whisky glasses and clothing.

3. Walks
Surrounding the town itself are some attractive expansive walks over the Caithness coastline and landscape:

Dunnet Head (13 miles)
Walk or drive up the gradual ascent to the most northerly point of the Scottish mainland with rugged seascapes and panoramic views towards Orkney.

Dunnet Bay (8 miles)
A 2-mile beach walk punctuated with undulating sand dunes and lapping seas from the Pentland Firth, which leads onto the Flagstone Trail, a half-mile walk which describes the history of the flagstone industry in Caithness. More about Dunnet

Dunnet Bay

Holborn Head, Scrabster (2.5 miles)
Holborn Head is a headland by nearby Scrabster Habour. From the lighthouse on the north side of Scrabster, there is a 5-mile trail around the coastline of Holborn Head. More about Scrabster

Dunnet Forest (7.5 miles) 
A community woodland situated in Dunnet and suited for all ages and abilities of walkers including paths for horse riding and mountain biking.

Dunnet Forest

Within the town, visitors can walk along the seafront at the bay, see the ruins at Old St Peter's Church and walk along the River Thurso. The bay is around 10 minutes' walk from the town centre and provides views towards Orkney and along the coastline to Scrabster Harbour.

Is Caithness Horizons museum open?
The local museum, Caithness Horizons, is currently closed from February 2019 due to financial difficulties. However it plans to reopen in the future. The museum has Pictish stones, provides nuclear history related to Dounreay and describes the particularities of the Flow Country in Caithness and Sutherland which is the largest area of blanket bog in Europe.

Where to eat
Near Thurso

  • Captain Galleys Seafood Restaurant, Scrabster an upmarket seafood restaurant around 2 miles west of Thurso serving more informal lunches including fresh fish and chips. Seasonal opening hours apply therefore booking is strongly advised.

In Thurso
There are a number of restaurant and cafes in the town centre and nearby, including among many:

  • The Blue Door Coffee Shop and Diner near Thurso Bay camping site, an independent cafe and fast food joint serving burgers, milkshakes, freak shakes and ice cream sundaes
  • Reids Bakery on the high street, for shortbread, traditional cakes, cooked breakfasts and lunches
  • Bydand on the high street, for Scottish continental cuisine
  • Thurso Community Cafe at the Harbour.

Where to shop
There are quality local products at shops including:

  • J A Mackay a local grocery store, stocking spirits (including local drinks such as Rock Rose gin, Wolfburn whisky and Old Pulteney whisky) as well as a wide range of chutneys and jams from Caithness Summer Fruits; in addition to cheese, chocolate, biscuits, cakes and gift sets.
  • Reids Bakery a local bakery with a reputation for its shortbreads which come in varieties including all butter, smoky sea salt and strong cheddar; and white chocolate and raspberry.
  • A Mackay and Son for fresh fish, seafood and local products from Caithness and Orkney including biscuits, crackers and fresh eggs.
  • Eye Candy with a focus on locally sourced gifts from Caithness including glasses, artwork, chocolate, key rings, soft toys and toiletries. 

Near the town centre, also consider gifts from:

  • Wolfburn Distillery (1.5 miles) for different whisky editions and Wolfburn merchandise
  • Dunnet Bay Distillery (8 miles) for Rock Rose gin, Holy Grass vodka, gin flavoured marmalades from Caithness Summer Fruits, gin flavoured chocolates from Caithness Chocolate, gin candles and other gifts.
  • The Castle of Mey (13.5 miles) for books, pottery, foods and gift ideas.
  • John O'Groats (19.5 miles) for more arts, crafts and presents from shops including The Gallery, North Coast Emporium and John O'Groats Tourist Information and Book Shop. More about John O'Groats.

Where to stay in and near Thurso
There are options including:

  • Forss House Hotel, Forss (6 miles): a four-star boutique hotel in leafy grounds in nearby Forss
  • Thurso Bay Caravan and Camping Site which is 0.5 miles from Thurso.

There are also campsites and further accommodation options at Dunnet (8.5 miles), Wick (20 miles) and John O'Groats (20 miles). 

How to get to Thurso
By car: Follow the A9 north from Inverness. The journey is around 2 hours 15 minutes.
By train: the Far North Railway Line from Inverness to Thurso is around 4 hours and a picturesque journey. Plan your journey
By bus: the X99 bus from Inverness to Thurso is around 3 hours 40 minutes. See the timetable
By plane: the nearest airports are Wick-John O’Groats (with connections to Edinburgh and Aberdeen) and Inverness (with connections across Scotland, the UK and Amsterdam, Netherlands).

Where to go next
West: to Durness for remote beaches and to the west coast for epic Scottish landscape
North: to the Orkney Isles for Neolithic remains and the Italian Chapel
East: to John O’Groats and Caithness for rugged cliffside scenery
South: to Dunrobin Castle, the largest historical home in the Northern Highlands and Inverness, the principal city in the Scottish Highlands.

Drives

Inverness to Thurso
Journey from Inverness, the main city in the Highlands, through the Black Isle and Dunrobin Castle near Golspie before heading for Helmsdale and Latheron, then passing internally to Thurso and Scrabster.

Inverness to John O'Groats
An alternative route from Inverness which takes in the coastal scenery from Latheron to John O'Groats. See the time stamps of this journey.

John O'Groats to Thurso
The journey from John O'Groats, the most north easterly village in the UK mainland, passing by the harbour at Gills Bay (for ferries to St Margaret's Hope, Orkney), the Castle of Mey, Dunnet and Thurso before finally reaching Scrabster Harbour, for ferries to Stromness, Orkney.

Gills Bay to Thurso
Here is the drive from the A836 near Gills Bay Harbour, passing via East Mey (00:19), Mey (01:01), Dunnet (02:30), Castletown (03:39), Murkle (04:43) and Thurso (05:35). This journey is accelerated and plays at four times the normal speed. In real time, the drive takes around 22 minutes.

Thurso Railway Station to Scrabster
For the car journey from Thurso to Scrabster Harbour, where an onward ferry service runs to the Orkney Isles, operated by NorthLink Ferries.

Thurso to the Forss House Hotel
The Forss House Hotel is a small four-star boutique hotel around 5.5 miles from Thurso. The total drive takes around 9 minutes and passes near the port of Scrabster along the A9 and then onto the A836 road. This journey forms part of the North Coast 500 route.

 

Thurso to Wick
Thurso and Wick are the two key towns on the far north east coast of Scotland. Here is the most direct route between the two, which takes around 28 minutes and passes through the village of Watten and by the turning for the Grey Cairns of Camster, two Neolithic chambered cairns which are around 5,000 years old. More on the Camster Cairns

The road also goes in the direction of Inverness, the principal city of the Scottish Highlands. A longer, more scenic option is to drive along the coastline to John O'Groats and pass south along the coast to Wick and on to Inverness.

Thurso to Thurso Train Station, Scotscalder Railway Station and through Westerdale
This car journey heads south east along the B874 and B870 through Glengolly, Westerdale, Watten, Sibster and Winless. It passes by Thurso railway station and Scotscalder train station and features distant views of Morven, the only mountain in Caithness.

The total drive is around 1 hour and 10 minutes. This video is accelerated and plays at four times the normal speed.

Further resources
See our complete guides to the Castle of Mey, Dunnet and Wick.