A ‘four-nations’ history of surfing at Thurso: when a ‘community’ rides a wave

A ‘four-nations’ history of surfing at Thurso: when a ‘community’ rides a wave

Matthew L. McDowell (University of Edinburgh) writes about the post-war surfing boom in Thurso and how a four nations lens can help us understand youth culture, internal migration and identity.

In a previous Four Nations History post, Joe Hall, in his work on rugby union, noted that sport can be used to critically interrogate differing notions of Britishness. Many of us who work on the history of Scottish, Welsh, and Irish (and Northern Irish) sport are used to that duality: Fiona Skillen and I have certainly examined that within the Commonwealth Games, a sporting competition in which the four nations compete separately.[1] It would take a long time to go over all of the different publications which have been written on football and ‘four-nations’ identity: suffice it to say, there are many. However, a new project of mine seeks to examine the history of surfing in specific Scottish locales: most prominent amongst them is Thurso, in Caithness, home of the nearby Dounreay nuclear facility, and some of surfing’s world-class waves.

For all the differences between surfing and football, both are essentially about place. Football, certainly in terms of its superficial features as well as its historiography, is a reflection of regional social and economic history. (Hence nicknames like ‘the Steelmen’ for Motherwell, or ‘the Potters’ for Stoke City.) However, surfing’s rhetorical culture essentially works on the opposite paradigm:  histories are not usually written by long-term residents of a place, but by tourists, travellers – by outsiders.

Essentially, many of the best-written accounts of surfing are travel narratives. Surfing, then, can be used to unpack many truths about both the changing nature of sport and leisure, and internal migration within the UK, during the post-war period. However, surfing is certainly not an unproblematic celebration of freedom, as it is often marketed to be. The sport’s popularity itself was the product of American colonialism in Hawaii, and it is perhaps not a coincidence that, at least partially, the ‘arrival’ of surfing on Cornish shores in the 1930s is credited in different places to either South African or Australian visitors. The sport thrived in settler societies where beaches were segregated, heavily regulated spaces.[2] The language of surfing, after all, openly discusses ‘discovery’ and pushing ‘frontiers’, wording that forms the bread and butter of imperial histories.[3]

Even within these ‘British’ narratives, there is a hierarchy, if not necessarily a colonialist one. The 2012 documentary on the history of British surfing, The Endless Winter, is framed as road trip with a quest for the perfect wave, with a discussion of the sport’s history along the way. The culmination of that trip might end in Thurso – with a long detour through Wales’ vibrant surf scene – but the journey ‘begins’ in British surfing’s self-proclaimed spiritual home: Newquay. As much of the British surf media too has been based within Cornwall, other locales tend to be subjected to a certain kind of outsider’s gaze: The Endless Winter even makes (brief) room for Britain’s best-known ‘surfer’, Prince Charles, who enjoyed the sport while attending Aberystwyth University. (Another aristocrat, Edward George William Omar Coventry, Viscount Deerhurst – better known in the surfing world as Ted Deerhurst – was far more successful.) Even for non-aristocratic surfers, such as Welsh, British, and European champion Linda Sharp, who learned to surf in the less-than-pristine waters of Aberavon, Port Talbot, there is a hint that, while surfers reject many social norms, they too have had to negotiate institutional hierarchies within their community – class and gender amongst them.[4]

Joan Ormrod, in her work on the creation of a ‘British’ surf culture during the 1960s and 1970s, states that these decades were years of consolidation in the small British surfing community; namely, the attempt to articulate a British identity that was separate from the dominant American and Australian surf cultures.[5] By the 1970s, Newquay had become passé, and surfers searched for pastures new.

The ‘finding’ of world-class waves at Thurso, however, was only part of the tale: this was also about economics and migration. Thurso and the surrounding countryside had undergone great changes during the post-war period; with the coming of Dounreay – one of the great post-war state-funded industrial projects in Scotland – Thurso trebled in population, with the majority of migrants coming from other parts of Britain (they were locally known as ‘atomics’).[6] Murray Watson, using research compiled in The Third Statistical Accounts of Scotland, notes that Thurso was an area ‘which experienced the impact of employment-driven English migration’.[7] Surfing’s small scene was cultivated by Pat Kieran, a surfer from Merseyside who got a job at the plant in the mid-1970s so he could surf; in his own words, Kieran was the first to surf the most difficult waves in the region: those of Thurso East.[8]

The paradoxical relationship between employment at Dounreay and the buoyancy of local surfing culture was acknowledged by prominent British surfing periodical Wavelength; which, after UK energy secretary Cecil Parkinson ordered a phased closure of Dounreay at the end of 1988, stated that, despite the promise of environmental relief: ‘The cuts will… mean that three-quarters of Dounreay’s 2100-strong workforce, many of whom are local surfers, will be sacked’.[9] But those Brits who travelled from outside of the region – and there were many after the 1981 European Surfing Championships were held at Thurso East – paid little attention to the hazards of Dounreay. (Even in 1981, the Irish Times offered a full article about its participants in Eurosurf 81.[10])

In fact, in content posted on YouTube, almost all self-made surf films set in Thurso start with a journey up the A9, the major artery which connects the north coast to Perth and Inverness. Within surf’s print media, this journey made by outsiders often informed the uniquely ‘Scottish’ context that marked the north of Scotland as something just a wee bit different. This included Welsh surfer Chris Power’s narrative of the journey to the 1989 British National Championships at Thurso East, who woke up in his van to discover the incredible landscape:

Dawn the next morning was a yellowy pink vastness that glowed like heaven behind the misty slopes of the Cairngorms. It was an inspirational sight, regardless of the fact that we were still hurtling along, gears crashing, each one of us feeling rougher than a doormat. Past pine-covered mountains and silver lochs we sped around the Moray Firth with its fleet of huge anchored oilrigs, and onwards to Inverness where we joined the coast road that followed Scotland’s eastern shore all the way up to John O’Groats.[11]

It is early days for this project yet. Surf magazines are few and far between; and, aside from major titles (which often contain glossy corporate adverts), were often published on an irregular schedule and with limited circulation. This will make oral histories crucial.

The ‘Scottish’, ‘four-nations’ context is not all there is, of course. Caithness, if not quite equivalent to Cornwall, is often a region of Scotland which expresses its different character, and only some surf publications seem aware of the ‘Nordic’/‘Celtic’ interplay at work with regard to Caithness history.[12] (The sub-regional dimension has also been discussed in other posts on this site.) Nevertheless, what I have discussed so far shows us that, for an upwardly-mobile class, surfing and other lifestyle sports can be used to analyse key trends – and differences – within internal migration and youth culture in the post-war four-nations UK.

[1] Fiona Skillen and Matthew L. McDowell, ‘The Edinburgh 1970 British Commonwealth Games: Representations of Identity, Nationalism, and Politics’, Sport in History, Vol. 34, No. 3 (2014), 454-475; Matthew L. McDowell and Fiona Skillen, ‘The 1986 Commonwealth Games: Scotland, South Africa, sporting boycotts, and the former British Empire’, Sport in Society (pre-published online, 2016).

[2] For more on twentieth-century surf cultures in South Africa and Australia respectively, see: Glen Thompson, ‘Surfing, gender and politics: Identity and society in the history of South African surf culture in the twentieth century’ (PhD dissertation, Stellenbosch University, 2015); and Douglas Booth, Australian Beach Cultures: The History of Sun, Sand and Surf (London, Routledge, 2001).

[3] Scott Landeman: Empire in Waves: A Political History of Surfing (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2014).

[4] Matt Crocker and James Dean, The Endless Winter (2012).

[5] Joan Ormrod, ‘Surf Rhetoric in American and British Surfing Magazines Between 1965 and 1976’, Sport in History, Vol 27, No. 1 (2007), 88-109.

[6] J. Miller, ‘Modern Times’, ed. Donald Omand, The New Caithness Book (Thurso: North of Scotland Newspapers, 104-117; Andrew Perchard and Niall Mackenzie, ‘“Too much on the Highlands?” Recasting the economic history of the Highlands and Islands’, Northern Scotland, Vol. 4 (2013), 3-22.

[7] Murray Watson, ‘Using the Third Statistical Account of Scotland to Expose a Major Gap in Scottish Historiography’, Contemporary British History, Vol. 18, No. 1 (2004), 100-122.

[8] Allyn Harper, Through the Whisky Barrel (2011).

[9] Wavelength 20 (1988).

[10] Irish Times, 1 October 1981.

[11] Wavelength 21 (1989).

[12] Kimberley Masson, ‘Reclaiming Caithness Identity: Gaelic, Staged Authenticity, and Representation in Moments of Transformation’, Scottish Affairs, No. 78 (2012); Michael Rosie, ‘“Areas Cannot be Selective”: Caithness and the Gaelic Road-Sign Saga’, Scottish Affairs, No. 80 (2012): 33-61.

Dr. Matthew L. McDowell is a lecturer in sport policy, management, and international development at the University of Edinburgh, Moray House School of Education. His PhD research examined the early history of Scottish association football, and subsequent work looked at the politics of sport on the Firth of Clyde during the long nineteenth century. His current research examines a variety of topics with regard to the history of sport, including: Scottish surfing; non-mega sporting events; Scottish sport, South Africa, and Zimbabwe; and island sport.


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