Do you see the little white farm-house sitting on top of the cliff? I used to live there back in the 80s. The US NAVY had erected a communication station about seven miles outside of Thurso on the cliff’s edge of the North Sea. When I arrived in February, it was dark, and ropes tied to base buildings allowed me to cross the compound without blowing away. The slapping of the waves upon the ancient rocks and the roar of the wind made it impossible for anyone to talk outdoors. The wind was a constant companion. At its best, it was breezy. At its worst, the rage of the wind would nudge and scoot my mini across the road. I gave up trying to comb my hair. The four-year, wet assault on my ear drums damaged my hearing. I was nineteen and naïve and excited to be stationed in the UK. For the first three years, I was a petty officer (E4), sending and receiving messages to and from subtenders. The last year, I was a “dependent wife”. I gave birth to my first son there.
To get to the farm-house, you had to open and shut the fence gates. The sheep would surround your car and wander up to the front door. Sometimes the big male would charge at you. On a clear day I went for a hike, and I explored out past the barn to have a look at the Orkney Islands and lighthouse. I stumbled upon a lamb which had died and cried; I have no idea why. Whenever I watch the film Silence of the Lambs, I see my silenced lamb as if it were yesterday. Corny, but true. Don’t ask me what I had for breakfast or remember the date of your birthday, but remember my time in Scotland? Clearly, with all my senses.
One of the interesting aspects about Thurso is that it’s the happening place if you like to surf. The water is freezing, and I think they are mad, but every year tourists ferry across from Sweden or the Netherlands, bringing their bicycles and tents and boards to surf.
We used to barter with the locals. We could get them tax-free liquor in exchange for North Sea salmon. After a mid-watch, we’d catch a taxi and head over to the Pentland Hotel, The Upper Deck, or The Central to have toasties with tomato and pints of lager for breakfast. Yum. Scotland is where I learned how to shoot darts.
The best time to be in Thurso is in the summer when the bag-pipers parade down main street and festivals of music and Highland Games are aplenty.
It took me about six months to understand what on earth they were saying. The locals had a fun time teasing the Yanks by speaking their Gaelic. You knew they liked you when they finally spoke English. But even when they enunciated, it took time to understand their brogue. Drams and pints helped.
Above the highlands, the lonely beauty of the northern coast crept into my heart and settled. My Navy peers complained that the sun rarely came out, but I kept pinching myself to see if I were dreaming. When the sun shone, we flocked to the roofs and exposed our white-white skin. If you want the fizz of palm trees and lights and discos and urban variety, you would not like Thurso. But, if you appreciate ancient history, authentic people, the fizz comes from the wind and waves of the coast line. Just remember to bring your wellies and brollies. I loved my time there.