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Thurso/Scrabster is mainland Scotland's most northerly town, and home to the country's most northerly railway station. Located on the north coast of Caithness, its seaward views are dominated by the distant cliffs of Dunnet Head to the north east, and those of the island of Hoy to the north. It's origins are revealed in its name, which comes from the Norse for Thor's River. The Vikings were well established here from as early as the 900s, using the river mouth as a port and fishing base. After the Viking's eviction, the town continued to grow around its fishing and trade. Little remains from its early days, though the now roofless Old St Peter's Church was first established in 1220. In 1798, Sir John Sinclair of Ulbster built the New Town to the south and west of the Old Town with wide streets laid out on a regular grid. Today much of the original pattern of both towns remains on view. In the 1850s Scrabster developed into an important harbour.
Stromness has to be one of the most enchanting ports at which to arrive by boat, its picturesque waterfront a procession of tiny sandstone jetties and slate roofs nestling below the green hill of Brinkies Brae. Its natural sheltered harbour (known as Hamnavoe) must have been used in Viking times, but the town itself only really took off in the eighteenth century.
The old town of Stromness still hugs the shoreline, its one and only street, a narrow winding affair, built long before the advent of the motor car, still paved with great flagstones and fed by a tight network of alleyways or closes. The central section, which begins at the Stromness Hotel, is known as Victoria Street. On the east side of the street the houses are gable-end-on to the waterfront, and originally each one would have had its own pier, from which merchants would trade with passing ships.