For a few golden years from 2006 to 2011, the town of Thurso played host to a professional surfing contest sponsored by surfwear giant O’Neill, known first as the Highland Open and later as the Coldwater Classic. During this period, some of the best surfers in the world visited Caithness to compete in the thumping waves of Thurso East and Brims Ness, from veterans like 2000 world surfing champion Sunny Garcia to new kids on the block like John John Florence – a hotly-tipped youngster when he first visited Thurso who went on to win back to back world titles in 2016 and 2017.
In 2012, O’Neill announced it was cancelling the Classic for “the foreseeable future” in order to direct resources elsewhere, but those contests certainly made their mark, putting Thurso firmly on the world surfing map and also inspiring more locals to give the sport a try. One young schoolgirl who paid particularly close attention to the last ever O’Neill event in 2011 was Iona McLachlan, now 19.
“I remember the last year of that competition,” she says. “I hadn’t started surfing then, but I remember meeting the surfers and that’s when I was just like, ‘This is really cool, I really want to get involved.’”
McLachlan didn’t just “get involved”, she quickly became an unstoppable force on the junior competitive circuit, winning the Under-18 Girls division three years in a row at the Scottish National Surfing Championships. And last month she went one better, winning the Women’s Open title at the Scottish Nationals in a final that featured two previous winners, Shoana Blackadder and Phoebe Strachan. When the people who put on major sports events talk about “legacy” this, surely, is the kind of thing they mean.
“I didn’t expect to get anywhere,” says McLachlan of her most recent win. “I’ve only entered the Ladies once before because I’d always been in the Under-18s Girls category so I just did it for a bit of fun… but yeah, I ended up winning it which was great.”
McLachlan’s victory was particularly noteworthy as the final was held in solid surf at the Cove at Brims Ness – a fast, shallow wave that breaks over slabs of granite.
“I was pretty nervous,” says McLachlan. “I’m not really a fan of big, heavy waves, I try to avoid them. The waves that day were quite shifty, too, breaking in different places all the time, and that makes it much harder to judge which waves are going to be OK to surf.”
In spite of the tricky conditions, footage of McLachlan recorded on the day shows her looking focused but relaxed, carving fast, tight turns in order to keep herself in the power pocket of the wave.
“It was low tide when we were surfing,” she says. “We couldn’t really hear the commentator so we were pretty much blind with what the scores were. I managed to catch a couple of waves at the start and I knew they were reasonably decent, but then I got a bit confused with time – I thought we had ages left and then I suddenly realised we only had about two minutes left. Anyway, in the last couple of minutes I managed to get a second back-up wave which I think was just enough to get me into first place, so it was very close!”
McLachlan has spent the last year travelling the world with her partner Finn MacDonald (who regular readers will know as one half of Tiree’s surfing super-duo alongside Ben Larg) and while they were on the road they ticked off bucket list spots including Hikkaduwa in Sri Lanka and Raglan Bay in New Zealand. They also spent time working as instructors at the Aotearoa Surf School on New Zealand’s North Island and, inspired by what they saw there, are now setting up their own surf school, North Coast Watersports, based in Thurso.
“We’re doing most of our lessons at Dunnet Beach,” says McLachlan, “because the waves there are nice and easy for learning on, and we’ll mostly be teaching beginners but some improvers too.
“I think up here we really need some outdoor activities for tourists, because it’s all really kicking off with the North Coast 500 [driving route]. It will be good to have something for locals as well. Even people who have lived here their whole lives can sometimes have no idea there’s any surf scene, or that there are waves up here that are good to surf.”
For more information on North Coast Watersports, visit www.northcoastwatersports.com. For more on this year’s Scottish National Surfing Championships, visit www.thessf.com