I walk along the seashore on an early summer’s day and see no-one. At times I climb above the beach to a footpath winding through fields with foundations of sand. The sea is rich with life, golden in the sun. Birds circle and swoop through the clear sky. I have reached what some might call the end of the earth and the route I take feels a place beyond time, with human habitation forgotten.
I reached John O’Groats by bus from Wick that summer’s day. The bus stopped in a square surrounded by shops and eating places. One of the shops offered tourist information – I explained I wanted to get a flavour of the place in limited time and it was suggested I take the walk to Duncansby Head. What struck me most was the fullness yet emptiness of the landscape – no people once I had passed the entrance to the walk through the caravan/campsite. Lots of animals – insects, birds, fish, sheep, a seal sunning itself on a rock. One of the highlights for me was seeing the misty outlines over the sea of the Orkney Islands.
John O’Groats, in the far, far north of Scotland, was established not by a Scot but by a Dutch man – Jan de Groot. He was tasked by King James IV with setting up a regular ferry service between the mainland and Orkney – islands which had previously belonged to Norway/Denmark and had only recently come under Scottish rule. It is said that the charge for the ferry ride fare was a groat – hence the name John O’Groats. Legend has it that the prosperous Jan de Groot had a large family, and as he grew old it came to pass that arguments arose over who should sit at the head of the table. De Groot addressed this issue by building an eight sided room with an eight sided table, so that all who sat at it would be seen as equal.
Regular ferry services run during the summer months from John O’Groats to Orkney. It is possible in the high season to do a day trip from Inverness to Orkney, involving an early morning coach trip to John O’Groats where you meet the Orkney ferry. Friends who have done this tour say it is great, providing stops at the main Orkney tourist attractions including Scara Brae and the Ring of Brodgar.
Lands End to John O’Groats is an iconic route in the UK – from south west Cornwall to north east Scotland in eight hundred plus miles (the exact mileage depends on your route). It is a well known cycling challenge but has also been tackled through hitchhiking, public transport, skateboarding, running, walking and using a wheelchair. Yet John O’Groats is not, as is commonly believed, the northernmost point in Scotland. That accolade goes to Dunnet Head. John O’Groats is seen as the last inhabited point on mainland Scotland and as such has become one of the best known places in Scotland; as the crow flies Duncansby Head lies further from Lands End.
If you are travelling to John O’Groats I suggest you combine it with a trip to the Orkney Isles and/or a scenic summer journey from Inverness – some consider the landscape bare, yet I found it deeply beautiful with some wonderful coastal views (on the way back, that is – the journey up was shrouded in fog). You can take the opportunity to stop off at Wick or Thurso, or visit the Castle of Mey, the late Queen Mother’s residence in far north Scotland.
If you are considering travelling to the Scottish Highlands I would recommend The Rough Guide to Scottish Highlands & Islands (Rough Guide to the Scottish Highlands & the Islands) - a book I have found an invaluable resource.