As my parents live in nearish-by Thurso, I've been to John O'Groats many times. In fact we bought a lovely pair of baby tartan slippers when I was pregnant in one of the tourist-attraction shops.
There is free parking - plenty of it to spare -, a caravan and camping site, a small retail village, a ferry and wild life tours (quite fancied to seal tour when I was there but sadly it was only offered on a seasonal basis.)
The myth about John O'Groats is that it's the most northerly point in the UK when in actual fact it's the most northerly end of the longest distance between two points on the British mainland - with Land's End being the other and hence why so many people cycle between the two points in all weathers and all seasons, usually to raise funds for charity. On the drive up to Thurso you actually see many cyclists contending with the twisty-turny treacherous roads.
There are also many café's in John O'Groats who will cater - when asked - to all various diets. There is also a few Gaelic exchanges to be heard in most of the shops when regulars drop by - this isn't an uncommon thing in the Highlands of Scotland and even though I'm Scottish and could turn on the TV to hear this mystical language that is native to Scotland, hearing it in reality is a different story. It sounds comical.
The public toilets leave something to be desired as they charge 20p a head - so if you're going for a bite to eat, use the the toilets there, for free ;).
John O'Groats has a local newspaper named after it; The John O'Groats Journal. It's your local rag type of journalism, you know, two sheep got loose on Friday night and someone stole another's scone but it makes a good souvenir, I suppose.
Speaking of souvenirs you can have your picture taken (for a fee) at the marker, usually where a lot of cyclists congregate after having pedalled their way up from Land's End. They set up the markers and even have a chain link fence around them to stop tourists getting free snaps - of course I have to be cheeky and say I've known a few people who might have snuck behind the chain link fence for a free snap :P. The purpose of the marker sign is to mark the journey taken from Land's End and if you haven't done that then to show your family and friends how far you've come in your travels, I suppose.
Even in summer John O'Groats is a cold place to be. Go in winter at your peril. Always take a sweater and of course a camera with a full charge and empty memory card to capture some truly amazing views of the waves bashing against the cliff tops :).
Come on! He say's lets go out for the day and see what the top end of scotland has to offer.
Ok say's I and off we trek.
A long drive through places like Wick and Thurso later to reach our final destination.
John O Groats.
Well by the time we got there it was blowing a gale, long gone the nice hot sunshine we had left that behind us somewhere around Wick and rolling over the hills was a great looming cloud threatening the rain again.
But we managed a look around the place and was thoroughly dissapointed with what there was to offer.
Because the only Hotel there was boarded up and left to decay into the ground, the shopping area as it was not quite a precinct was almost as derelict, the few remaining shops trying to drum up business were to say the least failing miserably due to lack of general interest. and the food shops very uninspiring. that was all there was in the commercial sense there apart from the obligatory toilet block which you had to pay to get into.
Looking around the scenery was beautiful and we went for a short walk around the place with our hound Guiness, picking up anything he may have left behind if you know what I mean?
I hate those that do not clean after their dogs it irritates me. So I always carry poopy bags.
The cliff side walks are good but very blowy, or at least they were when we went.
But again not really that much to see or do there.
We came away feeling somehow cheated. Much the same as when we visited Lands End.
It is such a shame as I feel that an area of such beauty should be given a bit of a boost and maybe visitors like myself would suggest their friends to go and see it and not as in my case say well apart from the scenery there really isn't much there to warrent the visit.
Shame but true.
I feel we as a nation are letting the side down by not promoting such site seeing areas and giving them the well needed boost they need to make a good crowd drawing revenue building enterprize.
Maybe I was missing the point? who is to say? I did enjoy the scenic views and I suppose that is what I went for but I was hoping I suppose for just a little bit more.
Maybe some craft centres with home grown crafts like wool jumpers from the islands and meat grown on the island and possibly other fayre along the lines of jams and cheeses made by the wifie.
Something with craft jewellery would be good and shawls made from local fabrics and the like.
Just a few ideas that come to mind.
Ok so its a long way to go for craft shops and such but that Hotel could be turned into a good alround hotel come craft and spa enterprize by the right person with a few quid in his pocket MR Ballantine are you listening.
Or maybe instead of the golf course causing so much controvercy maybe our American friends could hep us out, what say you Mr Trump and co.
I wish I had the money to put some life back into the place but I sadly donot.
So in summary I found the area beautiful but in need of a big lift and some cash.
Wick however is a different story.
I will write about that later.
John o' Groats, the famous northerly point in Scotland supposedly takes its name from Jan de Groot, a Dutchman who obtained a grant for the ferry from the Scottish mainland to Orkney, the islands having been recently acquired from Norway, from King James IV in 1496
An early important point to make is that, as has been said, John o' Groats is not the most northerly point in the mainland UK as there are actually various places which are further north and Dunnet Head being the place most widely credited with being the real most northerly point. However, the village is still full of plenty of kitsch end of the line memorabelia and the end point of many end-to-end trips of Britain so anyone looking for that experience will not be disappointed.
I'm surprised at the other reviews on John o' Groats being very positive as to be completely honest, aside from the ticking of boxes to say that you have been to this well known end point it is not a remotely inspiring place. Indeed Lonely Planet descibed it as a'seedy tourist trap'. Not that LP is the authority on everything but in this case they are spot on. The village is small (maybe 300 people live here) and drab-it mostly consists of grey, dreich and slightly run down houses from the '50s and '60s, not quaint or pretty traditional Scottish cottages. The area up on the bay where the tourist tack is, is even worse. The buildings for the sports centre, cafe and shops are all very square, very dull and have absolutely no charm-there is something very badly-maintained council estate about them.
The shops sell a lot of tacky souvenirs as you might expect, but these really are bad-the type that will probably break two minutes after you leave the shop. The cafe was also quite expensive and frankly, not very good-the coffee was weak and the paninis were hard and fairly tasteless.
The one building that is worth having a look at is the John o' Groats House Hotel established in 1875 and on the site of Jan de Groot's house in the village which is a rather stately building with a famous octagonal shaped side room. Unfortunately this is currently under refurbishment and it is unclear if and when it will reopen.
The most annoying part of the John o' Groats experience is probably the fact that the 'Journey's End' famous sign with the distance to Land's End is privately owned meaning that you must pay for a man to take the sign out his car and take your photo. Apparently this is the same as at Land's End but the idea of having to pay to get a photo at a sign that could easily have been made public is maddening. Just off the main hillock with the main sign by the pier is a sign nailed on a wall with all the same stuff on it. It isn't as picturesque getting a photo against a white wall instead off a wooden sign against the grass and sea but it really irritated me that someone would try to make money out of something like that so I refused to pay. I don't know how much it is and can't seem to find it on the internet other than people moaning that you have to pay 'too much'!
The scenery around John o' Groats is pretty although it isn't as spectacular as many areas on the coastline around this northern part and so I wouldn't make a detour to come here for that. It is possible to walk along the coast for around 2 miles to the point which is the furthest possible to travel in one line from Land's End and this is a pleasant walk along a windswept and pretty path. However, I would still say you are better to go elsewhere and have prettier scenery and nicer towns.
The best point about the town is that there is a ferry service that crosses to Orkney in around 1 hour and that parking is free. My overwhelming memory of the village is as a large grey carpark and being ripped off, the complete opposite to most of my experiences in the highlands and islands where people were warm, welcoming and not just after money from tourists. Only recommended if you really want to get a photo of that signpost!
If you want to visit the most northerly point on the British mainland, don’t go to John o’Groats. (Brief pause to allow digestion of confusing information) Don’t misunderstand me. I do, very much, want you to visit this spectacular, if somewhat remote, outpost. But don’t be misled by the propaganda. The most northerly point is Dunnet Head, a little to the west. Am I being pedantic? Not intentionally. We’re going to visit both, and a little more besides. Head north from Wick on the A9 (making sure to turn right at Reiss – the main road goes straight on, but the A9 turns right!). Put your foot down and go straight to ‘Groats. We don’t want you stopping at Nosshead and disturbing David’s tranquility. (If you haven’t already done so, read daseaford’s op on Nosshead – I wish I could capture the feel of these wonderful remote places like he does.) Like every destination in the north, you think you’re never going to get there. But you do. And you’re faced at first with a hotel and a guesthouse and a straggle of cottages. This is not it. Continue for a half mile, and you can’t go any further. Except into a large expanse of tarmac surrounded by what appears to be industrial units. This is still not it. This is the local authority’s idea of development. Forgive me a gripe, but I preferred John o’Groats BC (Before Council). When you parked on the verges of the single track road, and walked down to the old harbour, past the one, wooden souvenir shop and the signpost to Land’s End, and maybe nipped into the John o’Groats Hotel for a reviving pint and a sandwich. Before heading out again into the constant bracing wind forever blowing off the Pentland Firth, and wondering if you could stomach a boat-trip. Back to the industrial estate. Don’t be put off. These units actually house some very interesting craft workers, an
d are not just retail outlets. You can see candles being made, pots being thrown, and artists at work. Closeby there is a camping/caravan site. A bit basic perhaps, but an ideal stopover point. From ‘Groats, there is an unclassified road to the east, to Duncansby Head. This is not tourist country. Don’t expect toilets and coffee shops and the comforts of home. Take a good OS map or a local guide book from one of the tourist offices. And get up on your back legs and walk along by and around the Stacks of Duncansby. This has to be some of the most spectacular cliff and coastal scenery in the country. If you’re there in spring or early summer, the cliffs will be teeming with puffins, auks, guillemots and other seabirds. Shags and razorbills. Even rockdoves. But don’t worry if you’re outwith the breeding season. The cliffs themselves are worth the effort. An even better view can be had by boat, and boat trips to the Stacks of Duncansby are available from ‘Groats harbour, according to season and weather conditions. And for me, this is what John o’ Groats is about. Not Council Car Parks or souvenirs, or novelty value. Look beyond that, and appreciate the stark, scenic coastline and watch Nature’s hand in this wild place which for some commercial reason we are trying to tame. Done that? Okay, it’s time to move on. Leave ‘Groats and head west. If I describe every item of interest, we'll be here all night – and I’ve got to leave you some mystery . . . So the highlights are – As you drive, look mostly north. There is the island of Stroma, now uninhabited unless you count the sheep (don’t – you’ll fall asleep :) ). Stroma had a thriving, if small, population, until early this – sorry, last – century, and it’s history is portrayed wonderfully in a small exhibition at ‘Groats. Stop by at Gills
Bay. There’s little indication of it except a lay-by on the north side of the road, but keep your eye on the map and you’ll find it. At the right time of year, you will see so many seals basking here, you’ll think you’ve stumbled upon seal heaven. Soon you approach Mey. That’s right, Mey. As in Queen Mother’s holiday Cottage. The Castle itself is not visible from the main road, being screened by one of the few woodlands to have established successfully in this somewhat inhospitable climate. But if you’re a QM fan, here’s a tip. Take a right (north) turn off the main road (A836), on to an unclassified road at map ref ND311739. It heads for the coast and back again to the main road in a loop. And from its northernmost point, you have uninterrupted views south west to the Castle of Mey. Been there? Right. Keep going. Next point I’ll note is Dunnet Forest. Now to anyone from south of Wick this is a scrubby, scruffy clump of straggly stunted trees. But in this environment, this is a hugely successful piece of arboricultural engineering. Remember, in this part of the world, it’s hard enough to get grass to grow. From the roadside, you see some stunted, twisted Lodgepole Pine. But to the landward side is a thriving commercial spruce plantation. Not very environmentally friendly, perhaps, but better than nothing. The 30 – 50m wide band of Lodgepole was planted to the seaward side (from where the damaging, salt-laden winds come), as a sacrificial shelterbelt, to absorb the salt and the gales, and allow the commercial Sitka to establish. And even if you have no interest in forestry, take a moment to observe these trees. And see how the ones on the coastal side are almost prostrate, and indeed many have died but still provide shelter, and gradually the forest grows taller as it moves inland, and the outer trees take the brunt of all that nature throws at them. And now that it’s a bit
more mature, a forest walk has been established. A grand chance to walk out of the wind, and the dog will love it. And so to Dunnet Bay, and Castletown. Windsurfers like Dunnet Bay. Although they like Thurso and Scrabster better, but that’s beyond this remit. Sorry, I almost forgot. Dunnet Head, the most northerly point of the British mainland. Turn right (north) by the Dunnet Bay Hotel. Or stop there for a while. Last time I was there – and it’s not long ago – it had an Italian owner, and the mix of Scottish and Italian cuisine was excellent. (Not on the same plate, obviously). Keep on the single track, dead-end road to Dunnet Head Lighthouse. Park. Wrap up well. Walk. Anywhere you fancy. Cliffs to die for. Big skies and long vistas. Look across on a clear day to Orkney. Relax. Absorb. Take mental photographs, and run through them in the stressful weeks/months ahead. This is a different world. Take a piece of it home in your mind. Back to the main road, and thence to Castletown. Just before you enter the village, take the road right to Castlehill harbour. This is a fascinating place for two main reasons. One. You’ve all heard of Caithness Flagstone, that most natural of paving products. It’s in production again, after a lapse, but now with the aid of mechanisation. But Caithness Flagstone production started back in the 1790’s, here at Castlehill. From this tiny harbour, flagstone was loaded by hand on to tiny steam ships, and exported to pave the Strand in London, not to mention the concourse of Euston Station, and apparently even the floor of a meat factory in Argentina. It was also shipped to Australia, New Zealand and India. All from this tiny harbour. Follow the heritage trail. There’s some great information here. But where did it come from? Leads me nicely to Two. Castlehill Quarry, once the source of Flagstone as described above, eventually became a landfil
l site. Then was filled in and restored to agricultural use. But now it is planted with trees (albeit very hardy ones!), and laid out with footpaths and picnic tables. And an added bonus is a sculpture trail, with contributions from sculptors/artists both local and from further afield. But all the works are produced using – you’ve guessed – Caithness Flagstone. A nice touch, I thought. I’d love to take you further, but this is as far as I think I should go under the heading John o’ Groats. Thank you for staying with me on a self-indulgent geographical ramble. I love this part of the world. Perhaps you’ll excuse me for that. :)
Everybody in Britain should try to visit the wonderful town of John O’Groats at the North East tip of Scotland at least once. Almost everybody knows of this town but very few people seem to have visited it. This area of Scotland is beautiful, with its lovely futile land leading down to the coast. By the harbour of John O’Groats there are a number of small shops selling local produce as well as tasteful souvenirs for the tourists, but the biggest attraction is the quiet and the cleanliness. The air is fresh and clean, the sea is clear and bright and the town is neat and tidy. From the harbour you can take the ferry to the Orkney Isles, or in the afternoon the ferry boat takes visitors on a wildlife cruise, where you can see Puffins, seals, whales, porpoises and many other species of wildlife. When the porpoises are swimming along with the boat and leaping into the air it is a beautiful sight and one to be remembered forever. The boat will take you past the Island of Storma which is now uninhabited, an eerie feeling when you see all of the original crofting cottages now standing empty and idle. It may take a long drive to reach John O’Groats, but once you are there, every mile of that journey seems worthwhile.