Thurso East: the ultimate Scottish wave | Photo: SSF

Thurso East is a world-class surf spot located near the town of Thurso in the far northeast county of Caithness, Scotland.

The village's name comes from Norse, meaning "place of Thor's River."

Interestingly, Thurso is closer to Norway than to the United Kingdom's capital, London. That's how remote and closer to the Arctic Circle it is.

Scotland is a magical place where old castles, bagpipes, whisky, wool, kilts, and the Loch Ness monster coexist harmoniously.

But up in the north, another other-worldly location has always sparked the imagination of surfers from all over the world.

It's called Thurso East, and it's a natural wave machine.

The famous surf break is known for its long, hollow, fast-breaking waves, making it a popular destination for experienced cold-water wave riders.

The surf community in Thurso is small but passionate, and the locals are known for being welcoming to visiting surfers.

"While it does attract some tourists in addition to surfers, its self-image is arguably more businesslike - the town's slogan is 'The Energy Town,'" explains Chris Santella in the book "Fifty Places to Surf Before You Die."

"This promise is manifested by the presence of a nuclear power plant in nearby Dounreay and the town's prominence as a staging area for those working the region's offshore oil rigs."

Thurso East: a perfect barrel breaking on Scotland's North Shore | Photo: O'Neill

The Cold Water Nias

Multiple-time Scottish surfing champion Mark Boyd says the local wave-riding scene started developing around Fraserburgh, Aberdeen, and Edinburgh in the mid-to-late 1960s.

"Andy Bennetts and his friends, Stuart Crichton and Ian Wishart, thought they were the only surfers in the country when, in September of 1968, they set off for Aberdeen on the train to try out Bennetts' new board, which he'd purchased on a holiday to Cornwall," explains Boyd.

"When they arrived at Aberdeen, however, and asked a friendly man at the beach pavilion if they could leave the board with him for safekeeping, they were surprised to discover that he already looked after a board for another surfer - local lad George Law, who's been surfing there since 1967."

Paul Gill is often credited as Thurso East's first surfer.

In 1975, the Englishman came to work at the Dounreay nuclear power plant and moved into a cottage overlooking Scotland's "cold water Nias" and the nearby 17th-century castle ruin.

"I was a single bloke surfing and shaping boards in the barn and the bedroom next door," Gill once revealed.

"Surfers from all over the country used to drop in and stay, even when I wasn't home. I never locked my door."

"When I moved out a few years later, I picked up the key to hand it to the landlord, and it left a key-shaped hole in the dust."

The O'Neill Cold Water Classic used to take place at Thurso East, showcasing the spot's dreamy waves and attracting international attention.

The annual event started in 2006 and boosted the local economy.

However, the world tour competition was canceled six years later, and the magnificent Scottish reef break dropped from the international surfing calendar.

Thurso has been home to the Scottish Surfing Championships since 1973.

Thurso East: Mark Boyd attacks the famous Scottish wave face | Photo: SSF

Highland Consistency

Thurso East is situated on the rugged coastline of Highland's Caithness, facing the North Atlantic Ocean.

The region experiences a cold maritime climate with cool summers and mild winters, influenced by the North Atlantic Drift.

The water temperature can range from 43 °F (6 °C) in winter to 57 °F (14 °C) in summer.

Therefore, wearing a thick 6/5/4 mm wetsuit, gloves, boots, and a hood is mandatory for year-round surfing.

Thurso East is famous for its consistent, powerful, barreling right-hand waves.

They can reach heights of 10-20 feet (3-6 meters) and break over a shallow, rocky reef, providing long, rideable walls and heavenly tubes.

The rocky ocean floor features layers of Caithness flagstone, which help generate pristine 15-foot (4.5 meters) waves.

The wave quality is best during medium to high tide.

Thurso East: Phoebe Strachan hides inside a freezing barrel | Photo: SSF

All North Atlantic Swells Are Welcome

The Scottish gem works best with north-to-northwest swell and offshore southerly winds.

In NW swells at mid-tide, a relatively simple drop leads into one of Europe's longest, hollowest rides.

Even the biggest W swells won't get in without a touch of N.

WNW swells are hollowest, and the more N in the swell, the mellower the wave as it tapers off to the shoulder.

Southwest winds blow into the barrel and bump it up, but it can still be fun with an onshore breeze.

Only moderate consistency and the smallish take-off zone quickly fill at the ideal mid-tide.

As crowds increase, locals are less tolerant of groups and those that don't wait their turn.

On your way to the surf, park responsibly in the farmyard in front of the break, as there's not much room with the new barn.

Alternatively, park by the harbor in town and paddle out in the peat-stained river that brings seriously cold water to the line-up in winter.

Thurso East: open to all North Atlantic swells | Photo: SSF

Alternative Waves

The fun split peak reef across the river is known as Shit Pipe, thanks to the peat-colored outflow.

It's a little more offshore in SW winds that ruffle the longer right walls and the shorter, steeper left; W swells won't get in unless it is huge.

It's an untaxing wave suitable for intermediates, and the water quality is OK. There's ample parking by the harbor where the surf shop cafe is.

Further west, there's Brims Ness (meaning "surf point" in Norse), a shallow reef break that picks up any swell around.

The spot has three peaks - The Bowl, The Point, and The Cove.

Swells generated by North Atlantic storms can create epic conditions in the region, with the best months for surfing typically being September through May.

However, if the ideal conditions align, the spot can provide decent waves year-round.

Craig McLachlan: Thurso East is never too cold when it gets perfect | Photo: SSF

Hazards and Accessibility

Thurso East is suitable for intermediate to advanced surfers only. Beginners may find the conditions challenging and potentially dangerous.

The primary hazards at Thurso East include the shallow reef, strong currents, and cold water temperatures.

Additionally, the remoteness of the area means that access to emergency services may be relatively limited.

Unlike many European surf towns, Thurso does not offer a wide range of surf shops, surf schools, and surfboard rentals.

So, make sure to bring the equipment you know you'll need, plus extra items like wax, fins, and ding repair kits.

Accommodation options include hotels, guesthouses, and self-catering cottages.

The town also has restaurants, pubs, and supermarkets for travelers' convenience.

Thurso is located approximately 20 miles (32 kilometers) west of John O'Groats, the northernmost point of mainland Britain.

The nearest airports are in Inverness (110 miles/177 kilometers south) and Wick (approximately 20 miles/32 kilometers east).

From there, you can rent a car or take public transportation to Thurso.

Thurso East, Scotland | ID and X-Ray

Location: Thurso, Caithness, Scotland
Type of Wave: Reef Break
Length: Up to 100 yards (100 meters)
Best Swell Direction: NW/N/WNW
Best Wave Size: 2-15 Feet
Best Wind Direction: SE
Best Tide: All Tides
Best Time to Surf: Fall/Winter (September-May)
Skill Level: Advanced and Professional
Best Board: Shortboard
Crowd: Average
Water Quality: Fair/Good
Hazards: Cold Water, Rock Bottom, Nuclear Debris
Bottom: Slate/Rock
Water Temperature: 43-57 °F (6-14 °C)
Getting There: Off the Rocks, Via Rivermouth

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