Under a granite sky. Photo: Butler

The Inertia

96+ Hours In Scotland’s Surfing North

This is a tale of misdirection. This is a tale of R&D. Volatile weather and ephemeral windows. Extreme tides. Bewitching waves. This is a tale of men who greet the sun from an icy sea. Men
who taunt currents with which ships grapple. This is a tale of unsung heroes. A tale of unity. And of division. Brotherhood and rivalry. This is a tale of a land where fuel equals petty and pasta and ale. A land in which men keep the secrets of stone–or suffer the consequences. This is a tale of clans. Of pride–nae, of honour. This is a tale of Scotland.

The waters of the Pentland Firth thrash and churn, colliding between the Orkneys and the northernmost stretches of the Scottish mainland. The waves are miles away, and miles from shore, but the white spray of impact shoots high into the granite sky. The car is parked on the far side of several ditches, a large expanse of sedges, the occasional (often obscured) ankle-breaking, boot-soaking hole. And a barbed wire fence. Perched on the edge of a cliff, defying the incessant wind and shrinking sun, Yudi and I watch as Mark and Micah score some rather long lefts, their only company a couple of seals and swarms of sea birds that keep enthusiastically dropping
into the riotous ocean.

The UK Pro Surf Tour is in town and they wanted to hold a contest at this break, but Thurso ambassador Mark Boyd convinced the organizers that the locals wouldn’t be pleased. Furthermore,
accessibility would be an issue. In the spirit of amiablitiy, the contest will run tomorrow at Sandside, a beach break where radioactive particles are sometimes found. In case you were curious, radioactive particles cannot be identified by the naked eye. At least not according to the
sign posted there.

This decision was made earlier today at a meeting at Thurso East. Afterwards, there was a lot of, “Tell them we’re going to lunch.” “Tell them we’re going to surf the bowl.” We were not going to
lunch. We were going to surf. But not at the bowl.

Ten or 15 guys in the water would be ace at Pipe or Snapper or Malibu, but at _______, it’s murder. More on that later. Right now, my four layers aren’t hacking it and it’s almost too dark to see the path back to the road. If there were a path, that is. Boydie and Micah are still going strong.

I arrived in Thurso exactly a week ago, on a chilly Monday evening. Tuesday afternoon, I was headed for the harbour,looking for Tempest Surf Shop, when I encountered Patrick Murphy, a mind full of surf facts beneath a Cold Water Classic cap. In the space of four minutes, I learned that the 50-something San Diego native lived on Kauai for 30 years, then in Ireland for five, after chasing a serendipitous shellfish business opportunity. Now he lives here, with his [comparatively] uncrowded waves and his lovely Dutch wife, Lonneke. He apologetically informed me, in his Hawaiian-Irish accent, that the surf shop has become a café. This was unfortunate news, since I had been relying on a shop’s existence to rent some equipment (I have excess baggage anxiety). Patrick and Lonneke offered to loan me gear and take me surfing on Thursday. What would I do until then? Caithness isn’t exactly a hotbed of diversion. As everyone kept telling me, Thurso doesn’t even have a cinema. I filled my solitary time with rainy, oceanside walks and too many baked goods, too much caffeine. I made friends with Aran, the bartender at the Holborn Hotel. He definitely didn’t give me free drinks.

On Thursday, I was scribbling in my notebook at Tempest Café, wishing the surfboards strung up on its walls were available to me, when I received a call from Chris Noble. Chris is president of the Scottish Surfing Federation(SSF) and the current Scottish National Surfing champion. He had returned home from his work offshore a few days earlier and was thinking of surfing the following morning. I was supposed to go to Orkney Friday morning, but I promptly changed my ferry reservation. When I told Chris I was at Tempest, he said that his partner, Leanne, was working there. When I finally figured out a way of introducing myself to her without it being weird, she said, “Ah, there he is now!” and pointed behind me. I drank a cappuccino and listened while he told me about the unexposed, pristine Thurso of 11 years ago and the Scottish grom void (most surfers here are in their mid-twenties or older) while his kids, Sophie and Alex, crawled all over him. At 36, Chris exudes the authority that you’d expect of a championship surfer–and a warm humility that you may not.

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