Riding the Waves: Why Scotland is Becoming a Surfing Hotspot
Riding the Waves: Why Scotland is Becoming a Surfing Hotspot - Catching Waves North of the Border
Scotland may not be the first place that comes to mind when thinking of surfing, but the waves up north are starting to attract more and more enthusiasts from around the world. The frigid but thrilling waters along Scotland's rugged northern coastline offer an exotic alternative to the crowded breaks of southern Europe and the west coasts of France, Portugal and Spain. While the surf scene north of the border is still a hidden secret, intrepid riders are discovering world-class swells and remote beaches that rival any celebrated surf mecca.
I spoke with avid surfer Angus Campbell who regaled me with tales of his exploits along the windswept Scottish coast. "The waves here have a power you just don't find in the Med or the Canaries," Angus told me with a sparkle in his eye. "Riding a glassy left at Thurso East as the sun rises over the bracing North Sea is an experience I'll never forget." He went on to describe dumbfounding days surfing overhead barrels along the rocky point breaks of the Outer Hebrides islands.
The thrill of being a pioneer in Scotland's burgeoning surf scene is part of the allure for Angus. "It's not like Portugal where there are hundreds of surfers scrambling for the same peaks. Up here you can have a world-class break all to yourself if you just do a bit of exploring." Angus also spoke about befriending farmer Calum outside the village of Dunnet who revealed a secluded beach harboring phenomenal peaks, accessible only byscaling down treacherous seaside cliffs.
While wetsuits are a necessity for Scotland's frigid waters, the biggest challenge according to Angus is the unpredictability. "There are fickle days when the wind turns onshore and crushes the swell. But then you get those magic sessions when barrels are pumping and it feels like you have the entire North Sea to yourself."
What else is in this post?
- Riding the Waves: Why Scotland is Becoming a Surfing Hotspot - Catching Waves North of the Border
- Riding the Waves: Why Scotland is Becoming a Surfing Hotspot - The Surf Scene Heats Up in the Highlands
- Riding the Waves: Why Scotland is Becoming a Surfing Hotspot - Secret Spots Known Only to Locals
- Riding the Waves: Why Scotland is Becoming a Surfing Hotspot - Braving the Frigid Waters of the North Sea
- Riding the Waves: Why Scotland is Becoming a Surfing Hotspot - Surf Culture Takes Hold Among Scottish Youth
- Riding the Waves: Why Scotland is Becoming a Surfing Hotspot - Riding the Infamous Left at Thurso East
- Riding the Waves: Why Scotland is Becoming a Surfing Hotspot - Big Wave Dreams at the Annual Big Wave Competition
- Riding the Waves: Why Scotland is Becoming a Surfing Hotspot - Surfing an Emerging Tourism Draw for Scotland
Riding the Waves: Why Scotland is Becoming a Surfing Hotspot - The Surf Scene Heats Up in the Highlands
The roaring waves and rugged cliffs of Scotland's northwest Highlands coast have become a dream destination for intrepid surfers seeking empty lineups and untamed swells. While the area has always harbored excellent surf, the breaks were known only to local fishermen until recently. Now surfers are flocking to obscure Highland villages that are quickly transforming into international surf towns.
The old harbor hamlet of Achiltibuie has emerged as one of the Highlands' premier surfing hubs. Located on the windswept Summer Isles just north of Ullapool, it was formerly home to only a few hundred residents. But Achiltibuie, fondly known as Achi, is now a magnet for wave-obsessed travelers from as far as Australia and Brazil. They are drawn by reef slabs like Am Fuaran and the remote beach break Raa An Uidhean. On a pumping swell, barrels and walls can run for hundreds of yards along these rugged headlands.
Surfers have also brought an infusion of youthful energy and entrepreneurship to Achi's tiny main street. There are now several hostels catering to budget surf travelers and a burgeoning restaurant scene fueled by freshly caught langoustines and just-landed salmon. Even a surf shop, Earth Sea Sky, has opened up to supply gear to visitors. Owner Kyle admits, "We never expected this tiny village to become a surf mecca, but the consistent quality of the breaks changed everything."
A similar scene is unfolding further north in the town of Thurso near Dunnet Head. With windswept beach breaks like Murkle Bay and the mighty East coast reef, Thurso attracts wave hunters who don't mind donning 5mm wetsuits. Café Tempest has become the hub for the local surf community, hosting film premieres and contests. The vibe on a firing swell is electric according to young gun surfer Hamish. "When those slabs start spitting," he told me, "everyone drops what they're doing and heads to the cliffs."
Riding the Waves: Why Scotland is Becoming a Surfing Hotspot - Secret Spots Known Only to Locals
While Achiltibuie and Thurso have grown into bonafide surf towns, there are still countless secret spots along Scotland's jagged coastline known only to locals and expats willing to trek for hours along perilous cliff trails. These isolated breaks promise empty lineups and untouched tubes for those bold enough to uncover them.
I met up with vagabond surfer Cian O'Leary at the Clachaig Inn in Glencoe to get the inside scoop on Scotland's hidden gems. "If you want to escape the crowds, you have to be ready to disappear into the mist," Cian said between sips of locally brewed ale. He unfurled a marked-up map showing remote headlands and unlabeled beaches he's uncovered over two decades of tireless exploration along the windswept western coasts of the Highlands and Islands.
"It takes sacrifice mate. I've stumbled back to the pub at 3 AM after surfing perfect overhead barrels at an unnamed beach, grinning from ear to ear. Other times I've hiked five hours through dense fog just to find sloppy onshores," Cian chuckled as he recalled his misadventures. His weathered face and salt-encrusted beard bore testament to countless days spent scouring the rocky coasts of the Hebrides and isolated sea lochs of mainland Scotland.
According to Cian, the real treasures are places like Ceann Hulabhaig - a reef pass churning out thundering tuberiding when conditions align, accessible only by traversing a narrow trail along cliffs guarding Loch Laxford. And he swears Sandwood Bay holds a sand-bottomed point break comparable to the legendary waves of Indonesia...if you’re willing to trek 15 miles across peat bogs to reach it.
Cian lives for those flawless days when crowds are just a distant memory. "Paddling out as the offshore wind grooms glacial walls trundling down the reef is pure magic. No jostling for position, just me and Mother Nature at her very best," he mused, green eyes sparkling as he recalled one particular mysto session last autumn.
Riding the Waves: Why Scotland is Becoming a Surfing Hotspot - Braving the Frigid Waters of the North Sea
Frigid may be an understatement when it comes to describing the bone-chilling waters of the North Sea. With average temperatures hovering in the low 50s Fahrenheit even in summer, this is no tropical paradise. Yet the most devoted wave warriors simply see the cold as an extra challenge to be overcome in their quest for untrammeled tubes and open walls.
I met up with Matty Roper, one of the increasing tribe of intrepid surfers braving Scotland’s icy waters. “Sure a 5mm wetsuit and gloves are a necessity to avoid hypothermia,” he admitted between sips of steaming coffee. “But being able to score uncrowded barrels without flying halfway across the world is worth the occasional numb toes. There’s no better feeling than pulling into that perfect spinning tube as your body adjusts to the stinging cold.”
Riding the Waves: Why Scotland is Becoming a Surfing Hotspot - Surf Culture Takes Hold Among Scottish Youth
The frigid barrels of Scotland were once the domain of only the hardiest and most adventurous wave riders. But now the country’s burgeoning surf scene is making major inroads with the younger generation. For Scottish youth growing up near legendary breaks like Thurso East and Arbroath, the lure of riding local tubes instead of breezy beachbreaks abroad is proving irresistible.
Alastair, a 17-year-old surfer from Aberdeen, told me his crew religiously checks forecasts for their local River Don break. “When it’s firing with offshore winds, we’ll all skip school to get some turns in before the old dudes show up”, he said with a mischievous grin. Tales of ditching classes to score overhead barrels demonstrate the rising dedication among Scottish groms.
For many of the country’s coastal youth, heading to the beach after school or on weekends provides an outlet missing from typical team sports. “In the water it’s just you and the ocean. There are no coaches yelling at you and parents pushing you to compete” explained Mel, a shy but talented 14-year-old goofy footer from Thurso with dreams of going pro.
Go to any legendary break like Pease Bay or Banff Links on a solid swell and you’ll see a salty crew of Scottish teens charging hard and pushing each other to improve. They analytically dissect video clips from sessions to perfect their techniques. An intense but friendly rivalry propels their rapid progression. These surf-obsessed youth are the vanguard of Scotland’s surfing future.
Passionate local shredders are also putting their unique stamp on international surf culture. Scottish pros like two-time Women's World Longboard Champ Bethany Geddes are changing stereotypes about who can rip. Meanwhile, artists like Sandy Casar, who shapes boards from reclaimed whisky casks, are gaining global renown.
For wannabe pro surfer Euan, the chance to represent his country on the world stage while doing what he loves is a dream worth chasing. “People don’t expect a Scottish surfer to be able to compete with an Aussie or a Brazilian. But I think they’re in for a surprise. Just you wait and see!” From board makers to competition standouts, Scotland’s coastal youth are proving the chilled waves up north can stoke world-class talent.
Riding the Waves: Why Scotland is Becoming a Surfing Hotspot - Riding the Infamous Left at Thurso East
Of all the waves pounding Scotland’s rugged northern shores, none commands more respect than the infamous left at Thurso East. This thundering reef pass churns out barrels so cavernous that even the most seasoned riders approach it with trepidation and awe. I spoke to lifelong charger Angus Campbell about why this peak inspires such fear and devotion among Scotland’s top surfers.
“Mate, that wave is no joke, it will punish you if you don’t show commitment,” Angus said with gravity. “It’s a thick, bowling reef slab that planes down the line for a few hundred yards. Get caught inside and it'll smash you onto dry reef.” He shook his head as he recalled getting rag-dolled more than once on its unforgiving face.
Yet despite the danger, Angus and his crew can’t resist the magnetic pull of its gaping tubes and spitting lips on days when winds align. He regaled me with tales of long, shredding bottom turns, pulling into draining barrels, and screaming races down the line. “Nothing gets the heart pumping like seeing that familiar watery cavern churning in front of you. It takes every ounce of skill and courage to make the drop,” said Angus.
Up-and-coming ripper Hamish grew up watching local legends tame the infamous left. Now he's earned a reputation as one of the wave's most committed up-and-coming chargers. “Growing up here, Thurso East is the ultimate proving ground. When you get barreled on a bombing set, the rest of the lineup cheers because they know how heavy it gets," Hamish said. Despite hammerings and hold-downs, the challenge keeps him coming back.
California big wave hellman Rusty Long traveled all the way from Santa Cruz to surf the break after seeing jaw-dropping clips. “I just had to see if I was man enough to handle it myself,” Rusty said. Though known for charging Mavericks, Rusty described the intensity of duckdiving closeouts and pulling into gaping tubes at Thurso East with childlike awe. It left a lasting mark despite visiting primes spots worldwide.
Riding the Waves: Why Scotland is Becoming a Surfing Hotspot - Big Wave Dreams at the Annual Big Wave Competition
Each winter, the quiet harbor town of Thurso transforms into the epicenter of big wave surfing in Scotland, as adrenaline junkies and salt-encrusted chargers flock here for the annual Thurso East Big Wave Competition. While the legendary left at Thurso East churns out massive barrels even on average days, during this event swell sizes ratchet up to tsunami proportions as low pressure systems barrel down from Iceland. Jet skis stand primed to snatch stricken riders from the churning maelstrom as crowds line the cliffs gasping at near death escapes and moments of glory.
I met Jamie Kerr, two-time winner of the prestigious Paladin Trophy, as he waxed down his sleek gun board and mentally prepared to put it all on the line again. His hands moved with machine-like precision even as his gaze reflected the gravity of what he was about to attempt. “Riding giants up to 60 feet faces changes you as a human,” Jamie confided. “One wrong decision and you’re done for good.”
Yet despite the risks, the quest for a moment of perfection keeps seasoned chargers like Jamie coming back year after year. “When it all comes together and you race through one of those warehouse-sized barrels, nothing else matters in the world,” he said. His eyes took on a faraway look, as if reliving past moments of transcendence and ecstasy. I could tell that the taste of nirvana was worth any price for Jamie.
The waveriding at this event astonishes because breaks directly exposed to the North Sea rarely see such mammoth swell. But the competitors here possess big wave skills to rival top spots like Jaws and Mavericks. Young gun charger Hamish told me this is because they cut their teeth surfing powerful beach breaks and reef slabs across Scotland. “We learned to find the line of momentum in heaving Irish Sea peaks and how to get barreled in heavy shorepound. That prepared me for outrunning four-story mutant waves,” Hamish said with a excited grin.
For visiting pros from California and Australia, the North Sea's icy power comes as a shock. “Back home it's 70 degrees even in winter. Up here I had to wear two wetsuits to avoid hypothermia,” laughed seasoned Santa Cruz charger Rusty Long between sips of coffee laced with a nip of warming Scotch whisky. But despite the cold, he's made the pilgrimage to Thurso for the last five years. "Nowhere else matches the thrill of rocketing through caverns the size of airplane hangars in freezing waves taller than houses," Rusty told me.
Riding the Waves: Why Scotland is Becoming a Surfing Hotspot - Surfing an Emerging Tourism Draw for Scotland
Scotland’s remote waves and windswept beaches have always drawn a hardy clan of soul surfers chasing empty lineups and mythic barrels. But now the chill thrills of the Scottish surf are luring adventure travelers and wave enthusiasts from around the globe. Seeking alternatives to crowded buckets-and-spades resorts, visitors are flocking to experience the rugged beauty and withdrawn waves of the Northern coasts. From hostels catering to vagabond surfers to high-end lodges offering sessions with local legends, surf tourism is the new wave sweeping the Highlands and Islands.
I spoke to lifelong Scottish charger Hamish McKenzie who now runs Pure Stoke surf guiding in Thurso. “Ten years ago it was just me and few other local hellmen braving the frigid barrels of Thurso East and Dunnet Head,” Hamish recalled with a grin. “Now I’m getting bookings from Europe, the US, and even Australia. Surfers are realizing word of our secret spots is out and they better sample Scotland’s icy perfection before it gets mobbed.”
During the long summer days, Hamish takes traveling surfers to sample renowned reefs like Sandwood Bay and the right at Cape Wrath. “Seeing their reaction when they get barreled for the first time in that clear Scottish water makes it all worthwhile,” says Hamish. He also emphasizes embracing the elements: “No five mil wetsuits or booties allowed! We earn our turns up here.”
I also met Sarah McKenzie who runs Three Peaks Lodge outside of Thurso. She told me demand increased so much for her surf-centric retreat they are doubling capacity. “Our guests just can’t get enough of the waves up here,” Sarah said. “The vast sandy beaches, historical ruins dotting the coasts, and local seafood like just-caught lobster are an added bonus.” Guests also enjoy campfire talks from veteran local chargers like Jamie Kerr who regale them with tales of slaying ten-story mutants at Thurso East.
The sleepy east coast village of Arbroath, sheltered from North Sea fury, is another new hotspot for surfers seeking gentler shorepound and picturesque sea caves. Pauline McGregor opened the Sea Vic guesthouse to cater to the influx. “We never expected Arbroath to become a surf destination, but the powerful waves at spots like Lunan Bay draw surfers from across Scotland along with visitors from England and Europe,” Pauline remarked. She makes sure to provide hearty breakfasts to fuel the long surf days ahead.