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+ Quality reefs
+ Thurso East
+ Uncrowded waves
+ High latitude surfing
+ Fantastic scenery
- Cold water
- Wet and unstable weather
- Windy conditions
- Hard access

Caithness - East, Scotland, EUROPE

Gills Bay, Al Mackinnon

Surf Spots

Sinclairs Bay - Beach
Freswick Bay
Gills Bay
Brunt Skerries
Harrow Harbour
Scarfskerry Reefs

The Surf

Scotland is better known for its highlands, whiskey, lochs and bagpipes than for waves, but there’s little doubt that all three of Scotland's coasts receive excellent waves. With the improvements in wetsuit technology these days, more and more surfers are braving the cold to seek out Scotland’s thick, heavy barrels, in uncrowded line-ups. The West Coast is one of the remotest surf zones in Europe, fully deserving its reputation as the "Wild West". Offshore from Cape Wrath, the NW corner of Scotland, the Inner and Outer Hebrides take the brunt of the massive west swells. The drier East Coast enjoys swell from both North Atlantic and North Sea storms, and enjoys a predominantly offshore wind. The remote Orkney and Shetland Islands further north see the occasional hardcore surfer and are known to hide a few lonely but perfect set-ups.

The ÒNorth ShoreÓ is rapidly gaining a reputation as one of EuropeÕs premier heavy water destinations. The wildly scenic coast, divided between the counties of Caithness and Sutherland, runs from John OÕGroats to Cape Wrath. The difference is marked, the flat slab reefbreaks and low-lying topography of Caithness are a stark contrast to the mountains, honey coloured rocks and sandy beaches of Sutherland. Like its Hawaiian namesake the North Shore surf can get huge and currents can be treacherous. The plus side is the area is very consistent. Thurso East is the jewel in the North ShoreÕs crown; the world-famous reef is one of EuropeÕs finest waves, when it breaks. Unlike most of the N shore waves Thurso is quite fickle and has a limited swell window. The town itself is the only settlement of any size and the only place with full facilities. Going west the breaks are more exposed and spots like Brimms Ness hoover up any swell going. Swells from the W round to NE can occur year round, September to November are the prime months for good swell and reasonable weather. Deep winter and spring can be cold and classic, flat or wildly out of control. The area is one of the most sparsely populated in the UK so surfing by yourself, or with a few seals, is a real possibility.

When to Go

North Atlantic low pressures inevitably touch somewhere on the Scottish coastline. The most frequent scenario is when a low pressure system forms around Greenland, travels across the Atlantic in an E-NE direction, which produces major west swells up to 20 feet. This will enable the north-facing, sheltered spots to turn on, with offshore SW winds and solid waves. The summer scenario is when a high-pressure system covers the north Atlantic and the British Isles, pushing the low pressures’ into higher latitudes, therefore passing over Iceland and Norway and producing lined up north swells. The East Coast is often offshore with dominant winds from the W-SW year round, although summer sees much lighter, variable wind. Swells from the appreciably colder North Sea are usually N to NE but short fetch, short duration E to SE swell can be good for many spots. Autumn is a good time to visit, with regular swells and reasonable water temperatures. The tidal range can reach 12ft (4m); most spots will be stable for two hours at low and high tide, with the reefs generally being better at mid to high tide.

dominant swell NW -NE NW -NE NW -NE NW -NE NW -NE NW -NE
swell size (ft) 7 6 4 3 5-6 6-7
consistency (%) 30 60 60 50 70 40
dominant wind S -NW SW -S SW -W S -N SW -W S -NW
average force F5 F4-F5 F4 F4 F4 F4-F5
consistency (%) 66 56 53 69 63 67
water temp (C) 5 6 10 15 12 8
wetsuit 6/5 5/4 5/4 3/2 3/2 5/4
Caithness - 28,000

140km (88mi)


Travel Information


The weather is renowned for its extreme unpredictability. If you thought England was bad, then you’ve got a shock coming to you. That said, despite its extreme north latitude, Scotland’s is not an arctic climate because the Gulf Stream warms things up a little. Snow is frequent in the winter with freezing temperatures occurring for four or five months of the year. Late summer and early autumn are good times to visit. Avoid mid-winter at all costs, unless of course you’re into 6 mil neoprene suits. The East Coast is drier with a more continental climate. The mountains get pretty foggy and are snowbound throughout the winter and spring. The coast is generally very windy, especially in the western Isles. You will need the ultimate in winter wetsuits, as the water drops to 4-7°c (39-45°F) in January, a 6-5-4mm fullsuit with hood, boots and gloves will be necessary until April. A 4-3mm fullsuit is ideal in summer/early autumn.


Scotland is one of the least densely populated areas in Europe. The predominantly flat peat lands that dominate the country around Caithness make it less impressive than the Highlands to the west, but there are mountains to be walk up if that’s your thing - just watch out because the weather changes fast around here and every year people freeze to death up there. There are numerous castles (Sinclair, Old Keiss, Old Wick), stone rows and circles, burial cairns and a wide variety of wildlife that is rarely seen in other parts of Europe.


If you can stand the rain, wind and ice-cream headaches, you’ll have an unreal time. The reef breaks are all heavy, spooky places to surf. Remember that big tidal ranges, greatly affect the surf. Sea-Kayaks and wave skis are very popular at the mellow spots, with Thurso East playing host to the world surf kayak championships.


The Good Vibes surf shop has a good range of equipment. Take a semi-gun for those powerful waves at Brimms Ness and Thurso and a more buoyant board than you would use in a warm water destination to counter out the extra weight of all that neoprene you’ll be wearing. Near constant daylight in June-July is a magic experience.