THE ferry service that operates from John O’Groats is continuing a tradition that began 500 years ago with the enterprising Dutch seafarer who gave the village its distinctive name: Jan de Groot.
A mound and flagpole mark the site where Jan built his famous octagonal house during the reign of James IV, between 1488 and 1513.
Jan was the leader of a small group of Dutchmen who settled in the area to start up the first regular ferry service to Orkney on the orders of the king. Orkney had previously been part of the combined kingdom of Denmark and Norway, and the Scots monarch wanted a ferry to link the islands firmly to his domain.
Every year the little Dutch “clan” celebrated the anniversary of their landing in the far north with a feast. One year, however, Jan’s seven descendants quarrelled about who would succeed him as head of the family.
He knew that if word of a drunken brawl got around, the Groats – as the family became known locally – might lose their lands and the lucrative ferry, and he managed to keep the peace by promising that it would be decided by the time their next annual gathering came round.
Jan’s answer was to build an eight-sided house, with eight doors, and he put an octagonal table in the middle. Each of them entered by their own door – and they all sat at the head of the table!
And so the wily Dutchman gained immortality and preserved the family’s fortunes – so much so that the Groats continued to run the ferry for another 200 years. And to this day there are direct descendants in Caithness and Orkney.
Jan is buried in Canisbay churchyard but his seafaring legacy lives on. A passenger service to Orkney is operated by John O’Groats Ferries, offering a choice of day tours on the Pentland Venture every day from the beginning of May until the end of September.
The same firm provides wildlife tours around the coast on a daily basis between the middle of June and the end of August. These afternoon cruises last an hour and a half, giving close-up views of spectacular cliffs and abundant bird life.
Seals, dolphins and whales can also be seen off north-east Caithness – some of the stars of “the best marine wildlife show in the UK” promoted by North Coast Marine Adventures, which runs wildlife tours from Easter to the end of October. Its 11m rigid-hulled inflatable boat, NorthCoast Explorer, can carry up to 12 passengers. Waterproof clothing and lifejackets are supplied.
Grey and common seals can be seen, and you may be lucky enough to encounter pilot whales, orcas, minke and sperm whales, harbour porpoises and several types of dolphin. Birdlife in the area includes guillemots, razorbills, puffins, terns, skuas, gannets, fulmar, kittiwake, shag and gulls.
A car ferry to Orkney is operated by Pentland Ferries just along the coast at Gills Bay, using the modern catamaran Pentalina.
One landmark not to be missed at John O’Groats is the Last House in mainland Scotland, home to a small museum which offers a window into the past via photos of the local area. Nearby there are craft studios providing a showcase for knitwear, candles and pottery, along with souvenir shops.
John O’Groats has long been famous internationally for end-to-end fundraising marathons. Every summer sees a succession of journeys either from or to Land’s End involving cyclists, walkers or others who choose more offbeat modes of transport.
WITH spectacular scenery, superb seabird colonies and bracing sea air, the coastal walk from John O’Groats to Duncansby Head is an unforgettable outing for bird-watchers and keen walkers alike.
Two Caithness flagstone markers indicate the start of the route between the back of the Last House and the First and Last shop by the harbour pier. Follow the path along the foreshore, with the uninhabited island of Stroma just across the Pentland Firth and the low-lying Orkney Islands beyond. Keep a lookout for seals and eider ducks. The path continues to a burn where, if you’re lucky, you might catch a glimpse of an otter.
Over a stile and beyond a burn bridge lies Robert’s Haven, a beach leading on to the Ness of Duncansby. The best route is along the top of the beach – but remember to look out for “Groatie buckies”, small cowrie shells once used as a currency. Round the ness lie the white sands of Sannick Bay, and from here there is a climb to the Duncansby Head lighthouse car park, with the famous Stacks of Duncansby rising up from the sea over to your right.
Ages of pounding waves have carved the red sandstone cliffs into a unique combination of sea-stacks, caves, natural arches and bridges, as well as two spectacular narrow inlets with perpendicular sides.
Follow the fenced cliff edge round to these dramatic natural features and witness some of the thousands of seabirds that nest here during the breeding season.
To get back to John O’Groats, either retrace your steps or take a leisurely stroll along the single-track Duncansby Head road.
A FEW miles down the coast from John O’Groats is Buchollie Castle, constructed on the site of a Norse stronghold called Lambaborg. This is said to have been one of the bases of the 12th-century Caithness farmer, adventurer, warrior and Viking, Svein Asliefarson – otherwise known as “Sweyn the Pirate”.
The Swanson clan claims descent from this larger-than-life character who was called by one historian “the last of the Vikings”.
Svein’s local estate was situated at nearby Duncansby – Dungalsbaer, or “Dungal’s settlement”. Duncansby was also the site of a bloody battle between the local Norsemen, led by Earl Sigurd the Stout, and a Scottish army under the command of King Malcolm II.
A later earl, Thorfinn the Mighty, maintained a naval base at Duncansby where, the sagas say, he kept five well-manned longships. From Duncansby Head can be seen the island of Stroma. This was named by the Vikings Straumey, meaning “the island in the stream” – the stream in question being the turbulent currents of the Pentland Firth.
At the extreme south-westerly tip of the island are the ruins of the Norse stronghold of Mestag, which was called by the islanders “the Robber’s Castle”, and at the opposite end of the island off the north-easterly tip is the tidal whirlpool called the Swilkie. The Vikings believed this whirlpool was caused by two giantesses called Menja and Fenja who sat on the seabed here, grinding salt in a mill.
Local tradition says that one of King Hakon of Norway’s longships, damaged at the Battle of Largs in 1263, came to grief in the Swilkie. The bodies of the crew were later washed ashore and are reputed to have been buried on the north shore of the island.