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Seeing red in Thurso over most northerly traffic lights

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Thurso's Heritage by a Thirsa Loon

A view of Thurso’s traffic lights from Sir George Street.
A view of Thurso’s traffic lights from Sir George Street.

South of the border were celebrations galore, marking England’s one and only historic World Cup victory in 1966. However, in the far north, a different kind of event was taking place – protests.

These protests were triggered by the unwelcome news of Thurso’s first and the country’s northernmost set of traffic lights.

After much deliberation, the traffic lights were finally erected at the junction of five roads meeting at Sir John Square. But for many townsfolk, the mere sight of them was enough to make them see red.

Around 14 standards were installed, which many considered a blight on the town’s aesthetics. In a growing town like “Thurso, where the output of babies is expanding all the time”, some standards had been built on a narrow pavement, leaving no room for prams to pass.

Those against it argued that a one-way system around Sir John Square would have been a more efficient and cost-effective than the £2400 bill for the new lights. Passionate debates ignited, leading to the three P’s: Petition, Pipe Band, and Protest.

A petition swiftly gathered around 800 signatures in less than a week, signalling widespread discontent. This was followed by a protest march from the Town Hall to the controversial junction.

Margaret Sinclair, one of the campaign’s key figures and the wife of town councillor Hon. Robin Sinclair, Deputy-Lieutenant of the county, promised an orderly protest complete with banners and the involvement of the pipe band.

The pipe band found itself in a dilemma. It was quipped they were uncertain whether to “march or halt at amber” during their summer parades, which then passed the junction. Consequently, they had to alter the parade route for their Saturday evening processions.

After all, the prospect of lights changing mid-march raised concerns that the “pipes will be divorced from the drums”. Additionally, four bands from other towns were set to join them in a significant parade, causing yet another route change to avoid the troublesome junction.

The County Council also weighed in on the matter, as the junction was part of a trunk road. Dr. W. R. N. Sutherland, chair of the County Police Committee, said there would be a month-long trial for the lights, deeming it a fair proposition. He believed the lights were necessary to clarify the right-of-way at the junction, which had previously been vague.

When the protest march finally took place, a meagre dozen marchers were reported despite around 600 lining the route. The marchers carried placards with slogans like “What next – parking meters,” “Lights out,” “Fight the lights,” and, on a more traditional note, “Awa tattie bogles awa.”

Piper David Sutherland, an ex-member of the Thurso Pipe Band, led the march, and as they progressed, a crowd of 300 filled in from the Town Hall. Spectators lined the route, watching from parked cars, doorways, and windows.

They garnered an additional 300 signatures from the onlookers. The petition was handed over to Provost Isabella Sinclair, who presented it at the next Thurso Town Council meeting.

The protest news gained national attention and even reached across to Ireland, where the press covered the story. Despite the protests and debates, the lights remained, and a few more were eventually installed.

Thurso was indeed switched on, but not necessarily in the way its residents had hoped.

  • To get in touch, contact thursoheritage1@gmail.com

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