John O’Groats is most famous today for being the opposite end of mainland Britain from Land’s End in Cornwall. It also sits on the North Coast 500, a circular route of the North Highlands now popular with visitors who enjoy travelling on a route with a purpose. It is almost a compulsory stop on any visit to Caithness for a look a the iconic signpost and a look across the sea to Orkney.
When you visit and look out to sea, the island that is closest to shore and slightly to the west of you is actually part of Caithness and is called Stroma. The islands beyond make up Orkney and stretch north and east out to the horizon. Also, to the east, you’ll see the Ness of Duncansby, which hides Duncansby Head, the true north east corner of the British mainland about two and a half kilometres beyond John O’Groats and a pleasant forty-five minute walk along the first section of the John O’Groats route at a gentle pace. The intrepid walkers do not stop there, though; they carry on all the way to Inverness.
There are a couple of restaurants on-site, a “chippy”, an ice cream store, and a craft village is being developed to add more things to do. The tourist information centre is housed inside the John O’Groats Bookshop, which holds a section of books from local writers, including contemporary romance from Catherine Byrne and the classics of Neil M. Gunn and George Mackay Brown from over the firth in Orkney.
The history of John O’Groats is novel in that it is named after its original settler, which is very unusual for place names in Scotland. Still, the man remembered today was, it seems, quite an extraordinary character.
Sometime around the turn of the fifteenth to the sixteenth century, a man from Holland named Jan de Groot settled on this headland with his wife. He rented a pennyland from Earl Sinclair.
A pennyland was considerably more than a simple tenant’s croft – indeed, crofts came along a lot later partly in consequence of the Highland Clearances – and would have amounted to a reasonably sized farm for a single family with enough land for holding mixed stock including cattle, sheep and arable planting. At the time of Jan de Groot, most tenant farmers would have had a farthingland (with a quarter of the capacity of a pennyland) and managed to sustain a basic lifestyle. Pennylands varied a lot in terms of actual size because the quality of the land is hugely variable, so the land was allocated according to the produce that it could sustain. This meant that rentals would be the same for a pennyland, whatever actual acreage that land occupied.
The couple prospered and had a large family of seven sons. The story goes that the seven sons all squabbled for seniority and rank in the family, which led Jan de Groot to build an octagonal house with seven doors for his seven sons and one for himself and his wife. The ground floor of the house had an octagonal table where all the men of the family ate, but, like King Arthur’s round table, there was no seniority among the brothers. The idea of building a house with eight entrance doors on Caithness’s weather-beaten coast seems to be stretching credibility to the limit. It could be that Jan de Groot was inspired by the windmills of his homeland and thought the octagonal structure might be better to take the weather that a Caithness winter might bring.
Another interesting tale still told about Jan de Groot is that he was granted the exclusive right to operate a ferry between his port and Orkney by James IV, the king of Scotland. Instead of tickets, he created his own coins to validate fare-paying passengers, and they each paid fourpence for the coin, which the passengers handed back on disembarkation. These coins supposedly became known as Groats. This, unfortunately, is nonsense.
The fourpenny coin known as a Groat existed long before Jan de Groot arrived in Caithness and built his business. It actually originated in England in the thirteenth century, and the name probably comes from European words all meaning something akin to “large”.
The John O’Groats ferry still runs during the summer for leisure passengers on foot or with a bicycle, but the fare is no longer fourpence! As well as crossing the Pentland Firth to Orkney, they take visitors on wildlife trips along the rugged coastline.
There is a monument to the Groot family on the porch of Canisbay church. It’s quite a thing to see.
John O’Groats is a good destination for a sunny afternoon visit when you come to the North Highlands. Let me show you around.