Scrabster is the most northerly large port in mainland Britain and can be found a mile and a half north west of the centre of Thurso at the east end of Thurso Bay. It nestles in the shelter of the low grass covered cliffs of Holborn Head which sweeps round to the north and as a result actually looks east across Thurso Bay towards Dunnet Head rather than, as you might expect, north towards Orkney, for which it serves as the main ferry terminus.
The origins of Scrabster date back to the Norse era. Such an obvious natural harbour would have been very attractive to Viking longships. The Orkneyinga Saga, written in about 1225, refers to it as Skarabolstadr. This comes from Old Norse, but exactly what it means is a matter for debate. One source says it comes from "clifftop homestead", while others feel it more likely that it should be translated as "seagull homestead", or even as a homestead belonging to someone whose name or nickname was "Skari". The important common factor linking these conflicting interpretations is that they all imply there was a Norse homestead here.
Nearby Thurso was established as an important settlement by the Norse and some time in the 1100s a site above the shore between Thurso and Scrabster was chosen by the then Bishop of Caithness for his palace, which subsequently became known as Scrabster Castle. The castle was not strong enough to protect the bishop from attack by Harald Maddadson, Norse Earl of Orkney, in 1201, and the next Bishop of Caithness relocated to an inland site at Halkirk. This did not prevent his own murder, and his successor in turn moved his residence much further south, to Dornoch, in 1222.
Scrabster Castle became a property of the Sinclair family until it was passed to the Earls of Sutherland in the 1550s. Almost nothing now remains of the castle beyond a couple of grassy mounds and a rather more modern pillbox built on the site.
Despite Scrabster's many centuries of use, the first pier here seems to have been built as recently as the 1820s by Thomas Telford, along with a road link to Thurso. Until then ships either anchored in Thurso Bay and transferred their cargoes to and from smaller boats from Scrabster or Thurso, or they moored by tying up at high tide to iron rings set into the base of the cliff. This was the practice for so long that Scrabster can sometimes be seen referred to as "The Rings".
Further harbour developments followed through the 1800s and 1900s and since. The Scrabster Harbour Trust was formed in 1841 and by the following decade Scrabster was established as the ferry terminus for Stromness and Scapa in Orkney. Meanwhile steamer links were established with places as far afield as Glasgow and Aberdeen. By now Scrabster was overlooked by the imposing Scrabster House, built in 1834 and later extended by architect David Bryce. It is speculated that Scrabster House may stand on a site long used for habitation and defence: and some have suggested that Scrabster House, and not Scrabster Castle, may have been the site of the residence of the Bishops of Caithness.
Holborn Head Lighthouse was built where it could guide shipping into Scrabster in 1862, by the Stevenson family. Thurso was reached by the Highland Railway in 1874, and the railway station was linked to Scrabster by a service of horse-drawn omnibuses. Better harbour facilities led to boom times for the area's flagstone industry, which had quarries at Scrabster and Holborn Head.
The 1900s saw a series of significant expansions to the harbour at Scrabster. A new roll on roll off terminus was build to service the Orkney ferry, and at various times there were also scheduled services calling here providing links to Iceland and the Faroe islands. Scrabster also became an important fishing port, especially during the 1990s following the construction of another major expansion to the harbour and a new fish market. Since then it has been the norm for large quantities of fish to be landed here by boats of various nationalities before being quickly loaded onto refrigerated trucks which then head south to markets as far away as Spain. The most recent harbour expansion took place to accommodate the ferry introduced by Northlink on the service to Stromness in 2002.