Secret waves in Scotland
Not long after our adventures in Lofoten, we decided to plan another surf trip. This time with added amigo Dale Adams.
Potential spots in the running: Tahiti, the Gold Coast, Hawaii, Indo and Scotland. As you can imagine, it didn’t take us long to come to an agreement… with great wifi, palm trees, organic houmous on tap, tropical waters and boardshort-surfs… it had to be Scotland.
Planning surf trips in Northern Europe can be a gamble at the best of times. You’ll be looking at going Autumn/Winter where you have a higher chance of scoring, but it’s going to be COLD. You can book it in advance, taking advantage of cheap flights that cost less than a meal deal, and reserve the nicest accommodation for your budget, OR wait, wait until the last minute, refreshing your forecast app every second, and when it's on, leave your desk/partner/baby/operating table, stick everything on a MasterCard and go! Leaving alllllllll that worry behind you. But even then the wave gods might have other plans...!
So we flew up to Inverness and picked up our van, which would be our home for the next week. A couple of the guys had already scoped out some good breaks while on a stag do, so with a rough idea of where the waves were hiding, we set a course North, leaving behind the metropolis that is Inverness.
I think what strikes me most about Scotland is how diverse the natural topography is. One minute you're driving over what I can only imagine the surface of the Moon to be like, the next Mordor, followed by Canada’s British Columbia. The striking, vast, and uninhabited views makes you feel like you're the first person to ever drive along that A-road, forgetting you're on an island smaller than the US state of Michigan with 68 million other people, Scotland feels deserted!
2 hours and 20 minutes later we rocked up at our destination (I say destination, we would have fallen off the top of the UK if we’d carried on). From our viewpoint we looked over a mile long beach, beautifully empty with a small ankle-biting wave breaking into a river estuary below. Some of us were keen on getting in there whilst the others wanted to try the other side of the beach hoping for something a little bigger. matter what the surf reports are saying, anyone who pays to travel to pursue a hobby dictated by mother nature, will throw themselves into the sea no matter how big the waves are. This time though, I didn't bother going in after watching Nick and Dale splashing around in waves smaller than toddlers' bath time, and waited for the others to return from their mission to the West side of the beach.
They scored, and scored big. I couldn’t see them from my side of the beach so I thought as much as they hadn’t returned for a while and when they did, I could see the smiles from about 100 metres away! I’m not going to go into too much detail about this wave only to say that we remained there for our entire week - why fix something that isn’t broken right? It delivered every day, no matter what those pesky surf reports said, which was probably a blessing in disguise. If it had been accurate there would be more rubbered-up people in the water faster than you can say “mines a Buckfast!” We had a powerful 5-6 ft left that ran you straight into the beach, then a conveyor belt rip next to the rocks on the left that took you straight back out. Perfect.
Shooting wise I could cover all angles, in the water, from the beach and the rocks. Point breaks, and waves close to accessible cliffs and rocks made shooting surf from shore that much closer to the action. In places like this one, you can get really close to the water and find yourself chatting to a surfer sitting parallel to you in the line up.. It always feels a little strange to me BUT opens up some great view points and potential to get creative with the angles!
Away from the action, our days were filled with chats, walks and wild swimming (well, more of a get naked, run in, and run out again) meeting wild horses, and having dinner under the stars lit by campfire. We all have an idea of how we spend our holidays right… This one definitely ticked all my boxes.
Our last day was the icing on the cake. We travelled down the coast to Thurso, an iconic right hand reef break. The surf scene in Thurso says a lot about the town. This world-famous natural resource is a stone’s throw from the town centre, yet it’s so understated locally that much of the community doesn’t bat an eyelid at the waters off Thurso East. What’s more, it seems that most people throughout Scotland have never heard of Thurso, yet surfers travel here from all over the world to experience the town’s fabled surf. And the beaches and reefs of Caithness may be just far enough away from the cities to keep it a hidden gem. That’s sort of Thurso and Caithness in a nutshell – a bit out of the way, but utterly worth the effort if you know where to look and what to do when you get here.
The prime surf season in Thurso is between October and April, when waves are consistent, and unfortunately also when the cold water is made even colder by an icy stream flowing down the River Thurso from the Flow Country. To your face, they’ll say you’re brave for getting in there, but behind your back, the large non-surfing contingent in Thurso speculate that you must have gone mad; the sport that originated in the tropical waters of Hawaii hasn’t caught on with everyone up here.
Thurso folklore tells that a visitor to Thurso Castle was the first to take to the waves here back in the 1960s. For decades, traveling surfers were a novelty – they’d compare boards with interested Thursonians and tell stories of surfing warmer waters in then seemingly unreachable places. But thanks to a combination of modern wetsuit technology, publicity and google maps, the cold-water surf at this quiet northerly tip of Scotland has never been more accessible.
A lot of breaks have this thing where you might not be able to see endless swell lines on the horizon, but instead, they just jack up out of nowhere. Thurso is definitely one of these breaks, so don’t get too worried if you wake up to bleak looking conditions. Waves like this form as a result of the incoming surge meeting a sharp, shoveled incline of the seabed which means the water is pushed up at an increased rate and angle. Here are some examples I shot from the beach while watching the boys getting freight-trained through 6-8ft barrel after barrel…
The energy of my mates and the natural environment of that trip kept me buzzing for days after getting back to Bristol, and we’ll certainly be back soon.