Caithness, Scotland: A Surf Tripper’s Guide

It's arguably -- nay, unarguably -- the North Shore of Great Britain

How does a surf trip to the charming Scottish county of Caithness, home to the famous right-hander of Thurso East and plenty else besides, tickle your fancy? Here’s the lowdown on the Highlands . . .


Main cities

Thurso and, err, Thurso…

Wave type

World class reefs, points, slabs, beachies, something for everyone.

When to go

September to May is primetime — generally flat for the summer months, like most of Europe autumn is best as the water is warmest, days are still long and swell plentiful. December is very dark as it’s so far north.


Hooded 6mm, boots and gloves for winter. Rest of the year a decent 4mm or 5mm for longer sessions. It never gets that warm and thanks to the rivers you can get ice chunks in the line up in winter.


Your standard shortboard will see you right for most swells, but bring a couple as you might snap one. If you want to take on solid Thurso then a mid range 6’9”-7’0” pinny will help you get over the ledge.

Swell chasing

Any swell from W round to N works in Caithness, any size too. Brims Ness makes the most of any small swell and as it gets bigger many options open up. For Thurso East a solid NW swell and rare SE wind is key.

Best waves

The right hand reef at Thurso East is world class on its day; a long barrelling gem regarded as one of the best spots in Europe. The slabs at Brims and some other secret spots like Baggies and The Dump cater for the short death barrel crew.

Oli Adams. Photo: Timo

Caithness County

The region occupies the North East chunk of Northern Scotland surrounded to the West and the South by Sutherland County. Unlike the rest of the region it’s not mountainous wilderness, low peat lands make up the bulk of the county and these remote areas are one of the few untouched examples of this kind of environment in the world and hence home to rare wildlife. Caithness is all about the spectacular coastline really. Ancient castles haunt the cliffs, Neolithic remains are dotted around and there’s a pervading sense of wilderness. Historically the Vikings have had more influence in the area than the Scottish clans (hence the Scandy names — Thurso is Thors river, Brims Ness is Surf Point). Getting around is easy, the roads are well maintained and empty, unless you are heading West that is, which is a single track road frequently blocked by lazy sheep.

Photo: ASP Europe/Bonnarme/Aquashot


Will never win any prizes for the ‘prettiest town in Scotland’ but as a base it can’t be beaten, you don’t really have any choice after all as it’s the only town of any size on the N coast. There are two reefs in town and a multitude of options to the West and East. All the amenities you need are there, a decent supermarket, a small surf shop down by the harbour (very useful for the inevitable snapped leash, no wax kinda dilemmas) and a range of cafes, bars, restaurants and pubs. Thurso is a long way from everywhere, the nearest small city- Inverness is over two hours away, and it’s a solid twelve-hour drive from the large surf populace in the Southwest of England. Crowds are becoming an issue; the days of sharing the line up with a few hardy locals are over. The Scots are taking to surfing in numbers like their Irish brethren and this trend will only continue. That said the vibe at Thurso is cool as long as you play by the rules and there are plenty of other spots that are empty on most days. If Thurso is working then there will be a lot of other spots firing as well.

Russ Winter, winner of the now defunct Highland Open in 2006, receives the customary trophy of an ornamental Scottish broadsword. There’s a funny story about that sword, actually . . .
Photo: ASP / O’Neill


The hotels are reasonably priced and surfer friendly, Sandra’s Backpackers above the chip shop is a popular budget option (free tea, toast and biscuits) and from Easter to October caravans are available overlooking the bay, camping is also possible if you are hardcore.

Eat out

Scotland has one of the worst records for heart disease in the world; deep fried food is to blame. They will deep-fry anything: pizzas, mars bars and at Easter even Crème Eggs. That said you should sample fish and chips made with the days catch at least once. There’s a great seafood restaurant in Scrabster and the pub food in Thurso ranges from excellent to cheap and cheerful (i.e. deep fried). There’s also a decent Indian and Chinese. You should also try haggis, neeps and tatties for the authentic Scottish experience.

Don’t try

Playing with strange objects on the beach. They might be radioactive. The Dounreay nuclear power plant may be in the process of decommissioning but its safety record isn’t too hot and regular surveys are done on the beaches for radioactive particles (Sandside adjacent to the plant is the major concern).

John O’Groats- the UK’s supposed most northerly point (it isn’t Dunnet Head is) is best avoided unless you have a penchant for tacky gift shops and souvenir tea towels.

Do try

Karaoke. Sunday nights in town. Right laugh. Try and catch a traditional music session in the Comm bar. Visit some castles. Walk the coast and marvel at the wildlife.

Watch out for

The cold — it can get serious in winter, and hypothermia is a real risk if you get caught out. Currents — the channel between Caithness and the Orkneys has one of the most dangerous tidal flows in Europe and a few spots have harsh rips. Deep fried food — say goodbye to those arteries.

Photo: Al Mackinnon

Five things to do

Flat days and what to do with your time are a real issue in Thurso, especially when you caught by an extended flat spell or big hoolie (storm).

  • The bowling alley at the top of the hill is a lifesaver; it’s also a bar so it can get quite funny.
  • Drive the coast to Durness, the trip West is amazing, the coast gets progressively even more wild and spectacular and there are some great little beachies.
  • Hang out. Cardosi’s café on the corner of the high street or the café/surfshop by the harbour are the daytime spots of choice. Cardosi’s has newspapers, better cakes and couches although the surfshop has better coffee. Hell you’ve got all day, do both.
  • Do an Inverness run. Drive there; hit the out of town shopping centre for Tescos, an awesome Borders megastore with its own Starbucks and loads of other stuff. Whole day gone by the time you get back.
  • Play golf. Thurso has a fine, and cheap, 18-hole course with spectacular views.
Photo: ASP Europe/Bonnarme/Aquashot


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