They came from all corners of the country to kickstart the new and thrilling age of atomic energy.

And once thrown together in the small Caithness town of Thurso, the “Atomics” – the name given to the 1960s Dounreay workers – set about letting their hair down, kicking up their heels and enjoying life to the full on the northern edge.

Dances, folk festivals, sports events and a night on the booze – in many cases, involving one or two more tipples than might have been advisable - all became regular features in the lives of the nuclear plant’s workers, as they set about forging new friendships and laying down roots often hundreds of miles from home.

Driven by the influx of workers attracted to the area by good wages, affordable houses and the buzz surrounding the new nuclear age came thriving social clubs, often attracting big name acts like Billy Connolly, Barbara Dickson and Sydney Devine to perform, and an eclectic mix of sports and hobby clubs.

The new nuclear workers descended on Caithness from the mid-1950s, eventually tripling the size of Thurso over the space of just eight years and setting up home in around 1,000 new homes.

While Dounreay’s fast reactor produced an energy unlike any seen in Scotland before, the influx of workers who arrived on the Caithness coast brought their own centrifugal force to the town.

The impact of thousands of new arrivals in an area built upon traditional farming and fishing industries has been explored in a new exhibition curated by Nucleas, the Nuclear and Caithness Archive, which traces how Dounreay’s workers and their families lived and relaxed in what for many was a new life far away from home.

Atomic Recreation uses photographs, oral history accounts and a range of text sources to show ‘the Atomics’ blowing off steam when the stresses of the working day were done, sometimes with unfortunate, drink-fuelled results.

While a neighbouring online exhibition, Atomic Housing, explores the housing boom that saw more than 1000 homes built in Thurso to accommodate the newcomers.

Jamie McCaffrey, trainee archivist at Nucleus, says the area became a lively hub with often young couples and families drawn from hundreds of miles away to the far north fringes of Scotland to lay down roots in the brand-new nuclear industry.

“There were a lot of incentives for them to come and it seems to have been an exciting time as they made the area their home and made new friends.

“Many were young professionals, just qualified and out of university or in their early 30s looking for somewhere different to work. There was a real mix of people.

“Dounreay was set up as a research hub and was doing things that hadn’t been done before. The fast reactor technology was brand new science which would have drawn people interested in being a part of this exciting work.”

Having left behind lively recreation and social lives at university or their former home towns and cities, workers set about transforming Thurso’s social scene.

Focus at first was on the UK Atomic Energy Authority’s hostel at Ormlie Lodge, a private house which was extended and used to accommodate 250 employees. The first big event, the Ormlie Ball of December 1956, was so formal, that many women were said to have turned up wearing their wedding dresses.

But with so many workers congregating in one place, post-shift drinks could sometimes be fraught with risk: one customer who over-imbibed had to be rescued after falling backwards and landing in the fire.

“We rushed forward and pulled him up and dusted him down and cleaned off the singed hair and sat him back on his stool and he demanded to know what the rush was, he said it was the warmest he had been all day,” recalled one regular.

With a can of lager just 1/9d - a whisky was the same price – the lodge became the starting point for a succession of rather lively parties, some of which resulted in high jinks and disciplinary action.

The arrival of wives and children to take up residence in four new communities built in the town helped to create a far more sensible approach to recreation. There were table tennis tournaments, and clubs offering cricket, angling, sailing, fencing, photography and a film club.

While the opening of Dounreay Sports and Social Club at Viewfirth House in 1958 to all Thurso residents, including non-atomic facility workers, cemented relations between locals and ‘incomers’ and led to lively – and highly competitive - sports days, glamorous Christmas parties and guest appearances from the likes of Sydney Devine.

The Country and Western troubadour’s appearance at the club was marred, however, when his denim jacket was “swiped” during the commotion of his finale leading to appeals from the star for its return.

“To have the club open to non-Dounreay workers was unusual and we think unique to Dounreay, perhaps because it was recognised that there was an impact on the town from such a large influx of people,” added Mr McCaffrey.

More sedate seem to have been the star-studded folk music nights, and Viewfirth Folk Festival attracted performers like Jean Redpath, Christy Moore, Billy Connolly and Archie Fisher to make the long journey north.

The Atomic Recreation online exhibition complements Atomic Housing, which documents the population boom and the creation of Thurso’s ‘atomic’ housing estates at Ormlie, Castlegreen, Pennyland and Mount Vernon, which saw 1007 houses built.

Each new householder received a ‘householders’ handbook’ advising them on essentials such as how to grow a lawn from seed and which hedges would provide the best shelter from the Caithness winds.

By the time construction of the ‘atomic houses’ with their neat gardens and play areas was complete, Thurso’s population had grown to more than 9000.

The unique combination of brave new age of atomic energy, influx of workers and the rural setting at the tip of the country makes Dounreay’s impact on the area unique, added Mr McCaffrey.

And for some, it was all too good to leave.

“Many of those who came to Dounreay, stayed and made it their home for the rest of their lives,” he added.

Atomic Recreation can be viewed on the Highlife Highland website. ATOMIC RECREATION - Nucleus: The Nuclear and Caithness Archives (