A LITTLE over a week ago, as I write this, I awoke in my hotel room in Dunnet and threw back the curtains to find a cloudy sky and puddles on the ground. The heavy rain, forecast to appear for an hour the previous day, had stubbornly remained through the night. But, while it had clearly continued until not long before I awoke, I was pleased to see that it had finally stopped, which meant I could start on my trek for the day…
After breakfast, I emerged into the village of Dunnet (Dùnaid, ‘fort place’) to find the weather strongly blustery. And if it was blowy in the village, it promised to be even more so out on Dunnet Head, which I had missed out the evening before and so felt the need to visit now. I had a choice of two ways to get there, but I could put off that decision for a whole 250 m. It wasn’t a lot of procrastinative distance but I made the most of what I’d got.
Immediately behind the Northern Sands Hotel, where I had stayed the night, was Dunnet’s parish church. Parts of it date back to 1270, though most of it is the result of later (16th-19th century) rebuilding. Though not much to look at ― I appear to have been sufficiently unmoved as to have neglected to photograph it ― it has had some surprisingly influential ministers in its time…
The most impressive to me is Timothy Pont (c. 1565-c. 1614), a mathematician and cartographer who was the first man to produce detailed maps of Scotland. He was minister from 1601 to 1614 apart from 1608 when he took a year’s sabbatical to do his map thing. His maps are now held by the National Library of Scotland and available online but, sadly, they do not hold one for eastern Caithness.
A century and a quarter later, between 1726 and 1750, the minister was James Oswald (1703–1793), a local man who went on to serve as Moderator of the General Assembly in 1765, i.e., the head of the Church of Scotland.
It was around this time that another early and pivotal cartographer, William Roy (1726-1790), was compiling his military survey map to aid the government in quelling the Jacobite Risings. Roy’s map specifically calls out “Dunnet Kirk” as a feature.
The following year, in 1751, an Orcadian named George Traill (1723-1785) became minister. He was not especially remarkable in himself but his son James Traill, who was born in 1758, would go on to become a significant local landowner and Sheriff-depute of Caithness, promoting agricultural reform and building up the flagstone industry in nearby Castletown as mentioned last time. He will also come up again later.
Dunnet sits upon the junction of the A836 and the B855, which lies just fractionally northeast of the church. I strode briskly up to that junction and turned left onto the B-road, which leads all the way to Dunnet Head. The question was, did I want to take that route?
Just 130 m later, where the B855 turned right at a crossroads, I found myself confronted with that choice. If I turned right, I would take the road all the way. If I turned left, I would pass by Mary Ann’s Cottage on my way to Dwarwick Pier. From there, a coast path would carry me up to the head. I had assumed, when planning, that I would do the latter, but now I was not so sure.
The Pail Scale
A chat in the hotel with someone who knew the path well had confirmed that it was muddy and precarious in places. I had nonetheless been willing to consider it right up until I got outside.
Thanks to the heavy rain, the ground was looking like it would fall between “plop” and “splosh” on my Pail Scale – i.e., what noise would it make if you tipped out a bucket of the stuff? The clincher was the wind, which was blowing in from that direction, ensuring that the cliff path would entail sea spray being driven relentlessly into my left ear.
I have, I might remind you, no rules about going closest to the coast. In fact, I have only one rule, which is “it’s meant to be fun”. A constant, ice-cold, saline earwash and blow-dry was not a natural fit for the “fun” category.
Blow that, I thought appropriately. I’ll take the road route please! The concept of “Doing it properly” can just go slip off a cliff; I will choose fun every time…
Mary Ann’s Cottage
My choice did mean that I would miss out on Mary Ann’s Cottage. However, as it is only open to the public from June to September, I wasn’t going to see much of it anyway. It is a traditional Caithness crofter’s cottage, built in 1850 by a man named John Young. He was succeeded in his tenancy by his son, William, and then by William’s daughter Mary Ann and her husband John Calder.
Mary Ann Calder continued to live there until 1990 when, at the age of 93, she moved to a nursing home. The cottage has been preserved as she left it and serves as a museum example of a Caithness crofter’s cottage. When it’s open, that is.
St John’s Loch
I had gone approximately no distance at all, when I became aware of a body of water to my right, about half a mile across. This is St John’s Loch according to my modern Ordnance Survey map, although it was labelled as “Loch Dunnet” on Roy’s map and “Dunnet Loch” on that of Aaron Arrowsmith in 1807. Its modern name may, in fact, be the older of the two even if it fell into disuse for a while.
St John’s Chapel
Also in disuse is an old Catholic chapel (dedicated to St John), which formerly stood upon its eastern shore. While the chapel failed to survive the Reformation, a belief that the loch had healing waters limped on until at least the 1840s, much to the exasperation of Dunnet Church’s then-minister, Thomas Jolly (1754- 1845). Thomas had been George Traill’s assistant, taking over the ministry upon his death.
The loch is stocked with trout. Initially, this was by a Dr John Jolly (presumably Thomas’s relative) “a few years” before 1840. These days, the fish are kept plentiful by the St John’s Loch Improvement Association, which was formed in the 1960s.
It seems only fair that the loch should have healing properties, given that one tradition has that it appeared miraculously overnight! The earliest known account of the loch, written in 1700, refers to its miraculous appearance, stating that, according to tradition, it was a pleasant meadow on St Stephen’s Day (i.e., 26th Dec) but had become a loch by St John’s Day.
The problem with this, is its lack of specificity – there were more than one saint with the name John. The account is clearly implying an impressive overnight inundation, which it would be if the feast day of St John the Evangelist is meant. Alternatively, if it’s St John the Baptist, then a rather less-impressive, seeping six-month submersion is implied; the latter seems not only more probable but, thematically, the more appropriate John (what with the immersion and all).
Further supporting the non-miraculous filling of the loch are the traces of three mills on the Burn of Dunnet, strongly suggesting deliberate blockage of the outflow to build up a good head of water.
After about a mile and a half, the B855 brought me to Brough (to rhyme with “loch”). This tiny hamlet is the most northerly village on the Scottish mainland and hence on the island of Great Britain. It was labelled as “Brugh” on Roy’s map.
Brough was a traditional crofting and fishing village until the late 20th century when the old ways dwindled and tourism became the dominant industry. Not that there’s much of Brough to tour. Mostly, people pass just through it whilst travelling to or from Dunnet Head. Well, who am I to argue?
At a crossroads in the village, the B-road did that thing where the B-designation turned left and the actual road continued unclassified (it was actually the C1010 but C-roads are not usually labelled as such on road signs or maps). I stuck with the B-road as it was going to Dunnet Head and so was I.
On its way out of Brough, the road passed right next to the coast. Or, more accurately, the coast veered closer to the road. Either way, I found myself atop a cliff, looking out over Brough Bay towards a rocky stack named Little Clett.
“Clett” is a toponym found in northern Scotland and used for uninhabited islets. It derives from Old Norse klettr, meaning a rock, and contrasts with hólmr (a small islet that could be habitable) and sker (a skerry or rocky ledge or reef, barely out of the water).
Little Clett was shown on both Roy’s and Arrowsmith’s maps, labelled simply as “Clet” in both cases.
Walking not Wading
The B-road turned left, heading inland, then veered around to head northwards again. As I followed it, I espied a few tracks and footpaths and confirmed to my grim satisfaction that they required more wading than walking as I had feared. The asphalt, by contrast was, reassuringly supportive underfoot.
Before long, I encountered an indicator that I was already halfway. A mile further onwards, another milestone promised I was getting close…
On its way north, between those two milestones, the B-road passed many lochs. The Many Lochs, to be precise, this being the gloriously descriptive name given to a chain of three lochans off to its left. They have had this accurate but unimaginative name for a while, as Roy labelled them the same circa 1750.
The road, which had been pretty straight up till now, suddenly described a z-bend in order to zig-zag its way partly up Burifa’ Hill. I paused at the top of the ascent to look back to Brough and its bay.
During WW2, Burifa’ Hill was the site of master and monitoring stations for the Gee chain. Gee was a radio navigation system used by the RAF, which measured the time delay between two radio signals to get a fix on position. The system entered service in 1942 and persisted through to the 1960s, finally shutting down in 1970, replaced by LORAN.
The B-road now levelled off and straightened out again, running with Burifa’ Hill rising above it on my left and the Long Loch on my right. This body of water was labelled as “Loch Sherry” on Roy’s and Arrowsmith’s maps but had become the Long Loch by the time the 1st edition OS map was published in 1873. It is, however, less than half a mile long.
Dunnet Head Fishing Club
The Long Loch, along with the Many Lochs and various other Dunnet Head lochans are stocked with brown trout, being restocked every two years by the Dunnet Head Fishing Club. Presumably so that they can the deplete their numbers by fishing, necessitating the next restocking. I don’t really get fishing, but what do I know? I think putting one foot in front of the other constitutes “fun”…
Loch Long Well
I was partway along the Long Loch when I encountered a small doorway in the hillside.
Sadly, the little sign next to it disabused me of the idea that it was home to the Wee Folk. The doorway is, of course, an old well, which at one time provided fresh water for Dunnet Head Lighthouse. The lighthouse later had a pumped supply from the Long Loch and the well, which probably dates from 1831 (when the lighthouse was built) was allowed to fall into disrepair. Works atop Burifa’ Hill subsequently disrupted its supply, so now it barely raises a trickle.
The overgrown and partly-buried well was restored in 2011 by the Brough Bay Association as part of a wider programme of works that comprised the Brough Community Harbour Project. In the course of so doing, they found evidence of previous repairs, made using Portland cement.
Dunnet or Easter Head
The road passed between the top end of the Long Loch and Loch Burifa’ before zig-zagging again to ascend the actual headland that marks Dunnet Head (Ceann Dùnaid), also known as Easter Head.
With its name deriving from dùn, meaning “fort”, the existence of an ancient hill fort on the site is implied. Remains believed to be Pictish dwellings have been found there and the 2nd century geographer Claudius Ptolemy (c. 100-c. 170) named the headland as Tarvodunum (“bull fort”) in his Geography. This was a handbook for drawing maps of the known world, based in part on the prior works (now lost) of Marinus of Tyre (c. 70-c. 130).
With dramatic cliffs plunging 300 ft (about 91 m) into the turbulent waters of the Pentland Firth below, Dunnet Head is the furthest you can go north on Great Britain without swimming.
Going further north by swimming is not at all recommended. Quite apart from waters being perilously cold, they are also just straight-up perilous. The Pentland Firth’s English name is assumed to derive from Norse Petlandsfjörð ― “the fjord of Pictland” ― but it is not really a firth/fjord. Its Gaelic name An Caol Arcach ― “the Orcadian Strait” ― gives a better description, as it is the strait that separates Great Britain and Orkney.
With the North Sea to the east and the open Atlantic Ocean to the west, the firth is known and feared for its tidal currents and the overfalls, whirlpools and tidal races that they can form. The firth’s currents are properly fearsome and count amongst the fastest in the world, with a staggering 16 kn (about 18½ mph) having been measured off the Pentland Skerries.
When the surface of the sea has distinct topological features, they naturally attract names. These include: the Merry Men of Mey, the Swelkie, the Duncansby Race and the Liddel Eddy. Over the years, they have eaten many boats and ships, and continue to do so to this day.
As recently as 2018, the Netherlands-registered cargo ship MV Priscilla ran aground on the Pentland Skerries, stranding her on rocks for seven days until refloated.
Highly pertinent to this particular accident are two facts: firstly, the officer of the watch at the time of the accident had earlier drunk two beers to celebrate his birthday and secondly, for a couple of hours before the accident, he had been watching music videos on his phone instead of, say, paying attention to his course in extremely dangerous waters!
Having suddenly realised the ship was off course, he tried to correct it, aiming between two small islands. In doing so, he relied only on radar data, not nautical charts, and so failed to realise that there was a submerged reef between them. HM coastguard, detecting his course via radar, radioed Priscilla to advise a course correction but he didn’t seem to quite understand what they were saying. At the last minute, he consulted the charts and realised his error but it was too late…
Although Priscilla was damaged, none of the six crew suffered any lasting harm, although I imagine the officer of the watch’s career was probably over. The same cannot be said for the eight crew of the Cyprus-registered MV Cemfjord, which capsized and sank with all hands in 2015.
It is not known exactly what happened ― the ship was subsequently discovered upside down on the seabed ― but the Marine Accident Investigation Branch concluded that she had simply been overwhelmed by violent sea conditions caused by gale force winds and a strong, opposing tidal stream (common conditions in the firth). The bodies of her crew were never recovered.
Dunnet Head Lighthouse
With such waters offshore, it is perhaps no surprise that a lighthouse should be deemed necessary on Dunnet Head. It was built in 1831 by engineer Robert Stevenson, whose family were all prolific lighthouse-builders with the notable exception of his grandson Robert Louis Stevenson (the author of Treasure Island and Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde). The light was automated in 1989.
Dotted around headland just east of the lighthouse were the remnants of various WW2 emplacements, including a Chain Home Low radar station and a bunker used by the Royal Observer Corps during the Cold War.
In theory, I could see the Orcadian island of Hoy, eight miles away across the Pentland Firth. In theory.
On the landward side of the old Lloyd’s station was the high point of Dunnet Head, which is not labelled on OS maps but which Roy called “Windy Knap” on his. There is an observation point atop it, and I duly ambled up to take a look. And by “take a look” I obviously mean “be buffeted by winds of ungodly ferocity”.
In the photo above, the loch on the left is the Loch of Easter Head, with Brough Bay behind it. On the right is the Long Loch, the B855 road and Burifa’ Hill.
Departing Dunnet Head
I descended Windy Knap and followed the road (now a rough track) around to its ultimate end. This is the track you can see in the last photo coming in from the left in front of the Loch of Easter Head. It ended, as you can see, at an empty rectangle that probably held something important in WW2.
From there, I followed an extremely boggy foot trail through a gap in the stone wall and curved around to re-join the road just north of the Long Loch. I had very wet feet by the end of it but I just wanted to prove to myself once and for all that I had been right to stick to the road until now. The case was now proven and closed! (Squelch! Squelch!)
I traipsed back along the road, past the Long Loch, the well and both milestones until I reached Brough. There, at the corner where the road came close to the cliff edge, I decided to take the short spur down to Brough Slipway, just because.
Northern Lighthouse Board
While the natural harbour at Brough has been used for fishing boats for centuries, the slipway only dates to 1830, when it was built by the Northern Lighthouse Board (NLB) to service Dunnet Head Lighthouse. A storehouse was also constructed, which bears a panel stating “2 miles 30 r and 11 yd from the Lighthouse 1830”.
A committee was formed to maintain the slipway in 1970, just in time to rebuild it after a particularly serious storm in 1978. It remained the legal property of the NLB, however, until 1983, when it was formally transferred to the committee.
A set of steps built in 2011 saved me retracing my way all the way along the access road, and I was soon back atop the cliff, from where I returned to the crossroads. Turning left, I abandoned the B855 and passed out of Brough, following the C-road (C1010) towards Ham…
Note the low walls formed from flagstones, which are abundantly available in eastern Caithness. They are actually a terrible material for wall-building, as betrayed by the vast numbers of them listing at 45°.
Ham & Rattar
Burn of Ham
The road headed east for a while (as seen above) but then turned south before hitting the sea. It crossed over the Burn of Ham, which was cascading down to the sea from a millpond, over a series of weirs. Looming over this was the flagstone-faced rectangle of Ham Mill.
Originally a girnal (i.e., granary), Ham Mill was constructed in the early to mid-18th century – it appears quite obviously on Roy’s map ― and was converted to a water-powered corn mill in the mid-19th century. Apparently, it’s an excellent exemplar of such a mill, which makes it a terrible shame that I didn’t think to take a picture of it.
It currently serves as a farmyard garage for the single farmstead that, with it, constitutes Ham. I read somewhere that the village had declined but, judging from various maps, this is all it ever really comprised.
The Burn of Ham empties into an embayment across a short beach, close by the decayed remains of a harbour, whose piers have largely disintegrated into vague heaps of stones. If the 7th ed OS map is to be believed, this was an intact structure as recently as the 1960s.
The inlet was long used by local vessels, and was a served by a ferry to Melsetter on Hoy in the early 18th century – in 1700, this was owned by Captain James Moodie (1645-1725) of Melsetter and would land at Ham or Scarfskerry, according to convenience.
By 1791, a pier had been erected by the Rattar Estate to ship grain from Ham Girnal (not yet a mill). The actual harbour came around 1830 when James Traill (1758-1843) ― I told you he’d come up again ― had it built to supplement his main harbour at Castlehill, which had proven inadequate for the ever-growing output of flagstone. As at Castlehill, local engineer James Bremner of Keiss (1784-1856) designed it and supervised its building.
From Ham, the road headed south for about two thirds of a mile to a junction, next to which sat a school. Inevitably, in this part of the island, it lays proud claim to being the northernmost primary school on Great Britain. It did not appear on the 1st ed OS map of 1873 but was there by the time the 2nd ed came out in 1906.
According to the Highland Council’s website, it has “a very pleasant situation looking onto Dunnet Head and the Pentland Firth.” It would have been churlish of me, not to turn around and enjoy it, then.
Mill of Corsback
The school is called the Crossroads Primary School but the junction on which it sits is now just a T-junction, its westward arm being an overgrown, disused track.
In times past, this led to the Mill of Corsback, which sat on the Burn of Ham, but both the mill and its access road are long gone. It was described in the OS Name Book (used in compiling the 1st ed OS map) as “’a small corn mill with a dwelling house near it.”
Today, the name Corsback applies to a few scattered dwellings off the A836, lying south of where was the mill was but, interestingly, Roy showed “Corsvag” north of the old mill’s position, where no structures now stand.
I didn’t turn right to fight my way down the mill road, not least because it would have been going in exactly the wrong direction. Instead, I turned left and followed a long, straight road north-eastwards.
The narrow road carried me past an unremarkable farmstead that I thought nothing of at the time but now realise was Rattar House, where James Traill had lived. He married Lady Janet Sinclair, second daughter (and seventh child) of William Sinclair, 10th Earl of Caithness, whose residence Rattar House was.
On the earl’s death, in 1779, it passed to Janet’s elder sister, Lady Isabella Sinclair, but she subsequently sold it to James.
The original house ― labelled “House of Ratter” on Roy’s map and “Ratter” on Arrowsmith’s ― no longer exists as it was, having been rebuilt in the early 19th century and then remodelled later. It was listed 1984.
Scarfskerry & Mey
From Rattar House, the road continued north-eastwards, with two opportunities to turn off for the A836 (which I ignored). It thus came to the linear village of Scarfskerry (Sgarbh Sgeir, “cormorants’ rock”), where the road was forced to curve around to the east, sandwiched as it was between the Pentland Firth on one side and the Loch of Mey on the other.
Scarfskerry is labelled “Scarskerry” (without an “f”) on Roy’s map but as “Scarffskerry” (with two) in the OS 1st ed. By the 2nd ed, it had settled down a bit and was content with an average one “f”.
There’s not much to it; it’s a scattering of houses, strung out linearly along the road. It has its own small harbour and pier, the Haven, which probably sees way more use by cormorants than people although it is popular with divers on account of the wrecks.
In 1930, the steamer SS Linkmoor of London suffered engine trouble in a heavy sea state. She was driven by wind and waves into the harbour mouth, where she sank, temporarily blocking it. All 32 people aboard were saved and the harbour mouth cleared. Her wreck remains, with bits of the bow visible at low tide and the rest visible only to those who are willing to dive it.
About 350 m west of the harbour lies another wreck, SS Victoria. She struck rocks in 1891, detonating part of her cargo of explosives!
The crew, which included several Germans, were rescued by Longhope Lifeboat, which rowed for ten hours across the firth to do so. This exhausting feat not only earnt Coxswain Benjamin Stout an RNLI Silver Medal but also a gold watch from Kaiser Wilhelm II (the Kaiser also gave £24 to the crew)!
Millton of Mey
The road, technically the C1247 (although only a diseased mind would dream of looking up that sort of thing), turned northeast again and conveyed me to what Roy labelled “Millton of Mey” on his map but is now basically the east end of Scarfskerry. This was, you’ll no doubt be shocked and amazed to learn, the site of the Mill of Mey.
Once a large meal mill belonging to the Earl of Caithness, the mill is a ruined shell now, though its adjoining cottage has been rebuilt, giving it the appearance of a derelict extension to the house.
From the ruins of the Mill of Mey, the road turned southeast for a little over two thirds of a mile, coming to what I suppose was technically a crossroads but was more like a crow’s foot, if said crow had a lame and withered toe.
Here, what would have been a right turn at a true crossroads (but was actually more like straight on) would have led me south to the A836 and the village of Mey. The left turn was the withered digit, leading through a gully to what a road sign said was Harrow Harbour.
What the road sign called Harrow Harbour, OS maps call Phillips’s Harbour but it was originally Wester Haven before James Sinclair, 14th Earl of Caithness (1821-1881) had it developed. He named it after his wife’s family, she being Louisa Georgiana Phillips, and he used it – in something of an ongoing theme – for exporting flagstone slabs.
In a slightly surreal development, the harbour was restored in 1978-79 by the Highland Council, who had it officially reopened by Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin. Like you do.
I guess if you’re going to have a Stairway to Heaven, it might as well be made from Caithness flagstones. I mean, good intentions certainly wouldn’t do, that road would take you somewhere else entirely.
Castle of Mey
Taking what would have been straight on in a proper crossroads but was in fact one of two lefts, I allowed the coast road to take me somewhere else entirely, in this case meaning within sight of the Castle of Mey.
The castle was built between 1566 and 1572 by George Sinclair, 4th Earl of Caithness, for his younger son William. Unfortunately, William got murdered by his own brother, John, who promptly got murdered in return. This left the third son, George, the surprised recipient of the castle. George junior founded the cadet line of the Sinclairs of Mey but eventually, in 1789, his descendent James Sinclair became the 12th Earl of Caithness; he changed the castle’s name to Barrogill Castle.
The structure was altered and extended several times, most notably in 1821 when Tudor Gothic alterations were designed by architect William Burn (1789-1870), who would later design St Peter’s & St Andrew’s Church in Thurso.
George Sinclair, 15th Earl (1858-1889) died aged 30 from epilepsy. In his will, he bequeathed the castle estate to his friend, the zoologist Frederick Granville Heathcote (1857-1914) on the two strict conditions that he took the name of Sinclair (which he did) and that he lived in the castle for at least 3 months of each year (which he also did).
In 1929, it was purchased by Captain Frederic Bouhier Imbert-Terry, former High Sheriff of Devon.
The Queen Mother
The castle was used as an officers’ rest home during WW2 and afterwards, in 1950, the estate farms were sold off.
Barrogill Castle had become semi-derelict state when, in 1952, the estate was purchased by Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother (1900-2002), who restored it. She visited regularly from 1955 until her death in 2002.
Thereafter, the castle and garden were opened to the public by the Castle of Mey Trust, the stewardship of which passed to The Prince’s Foundation in 2019, making the Duke of Rothesay (as Prince Charles is known in Scotland) responsible for it.
I crossed a bridge over a small burn and left the paved road, following an unmade track that ran atop a low cliff, overlooking the Slates of Fulliegoe. This stopped just short of Easter Haven, a natural shelter undeveloped as a harbour (though a boat house was shown on the 2nd ed OS map).
It seemed like a great place to sit down and take a rest.
When I’d had the fatigue pummelled out of me by wind gusts, I staggered to my feet and pressed on. The path turned inland, putting the wind at my back and I let it help propel me forwards as the dirt track turned back into road. It headed directly east, slowly climbing Mey Hill (73 m) until, at an elevation just shy of 60 m, it turned abruptly south.
A footpath also led north to St John’s Point and the Men of Mey and I fancied this half mile detour (each way) would be worth doing.
St John’s Point
I got about fifteen paces at most; the path was basically under water. You’d think it would flow down the hillside, but no, it somehow managed to pool as far along the path as I could see.
I quickly changed my mind.
Continuing along the road, I followed it until it joined the A836, on the eastern edge of East Mey. With east being seemingly so popular, I went with the theme and headed east along the A-road, slowly descending from Mey Hill.
The road quickly brought me back to the coast in the scattered crofting township and former fishing village of Gills. There didn’t seem to be a lot to Gills apart from its sizeable yet oddly ramshackle pier.
Historically, Gills Bay was always the main crossing point to Stroma, Swona and Orkney. Known as the Short Sea Crossing, it was generally considered to be the quickest and safest route of the Pentland Firth, where safety is still very much relative. How relative is perhaps well illustrated by the recent history of Gills Pier…
Although Gills already had a pier made in 1905, in the 1980s, Orkney Island Council decided to upgrade it in order to re-introduce the Short Sea Crossing from Gills Bay to Burwick on South Ronaldsay.
After tens of millions of pounds had been spent improving facilities at both ports, service began in August 1989. Exactly one month and one day later it ceased for good on account of damage due to bad weather. Although the Gills Bay service never resumed, Burwick now receives a seasonal passenger ferry from John o’ Groats.
Almost a decade passed before Pentland Ferries entered the fray, securing the lease on Gills Pier. They had it heavily rebuilt and then still found it inadequate, eventually extending it with an old floating dock from Lerwick (which they then permanently sank, which seems ironic). Gills Bay now once again operates a year-round service to Orkney, albeit now to St Margaret’s Hope on South Ronaldsay.
The harbour also shelters a handful of local boats, including those that service Stroma. This island had been a crofting and fishing community for centuries but declined in the 20th century until it was abandoned by its inhabitants in 1962 and became completely deserted in 197, when its lighthouse was automated.
Today it belongs to the family of Jimmy Simpson, one of the former inhabitants who subsequently bought the island to use as sheep-grazing pasture. He died in 2019 but the family continue to farm sheep on Stroma (but not live there).
Much as I’d love to go to Orkney at some point (I’m pretty sure I’ve been before but was too young to now remember it), this was not the day. I set my back to Gills Pier and pressed on eastwards, noting that my shadow was now stretching before me as I went.
A mile or so onwards, I came to Kirkstyle, which isn’t really a place, so much as its Canisbay’s parish church, lurking edgily half a mile northwest of its village as if it’s too cool to mix with any of those mere houses. This is a no everyday village church, at least in its mind.
Actually, to give Canisbay Church its fair due, some of the memorials in its graveyard are pretty cool, with a veritable crowd of artsy angels. And, while the present church is 15th century, it dates back as a church site to at least 1222 and possibly centuries earlier if its dedication to St Drostan (7th century) is anything to go by.
Jan de Groot
Jan de Groot, the ferryman who founded John o’ Groats (where this day’s trip would end), is buried in Canisbay’s churchyard. The church porch (an 1891 addition) incorporates a tombstone commemorating various members of his family. The inscription reads (in part):
“Donald Grot sone to Johne Grot laid me heir April XIII Day 1568.”
After Kirkstyle, the road continued eastwards but the coast bulged northward, effectively sending me inland. I’d gone just over a third of a mile when I passed the farmstead of Quoys, which is named on Roy’s map. A quoy is an area of wasteland or common land, now enclosed for farming; it is a fairly frequent toponymic element in this part of the country.
A short distance on from Quoys was a junction, where the road curved sharply north and a lesser road met it as a T-junction but branched sharply just paces from the junction. This seemed bizarre but old maps reveal what has happened. It is an old crossroads but now remodelled so that the west and north arms are a curve of the A836, while the south and east arms meet separately to form a joint spur that connects jointly to the A-road. My destination lay at the end of the A-road, so I shrugged and moved on…
Huna & Duncansby
The road headed northeast, then turned ninety degrees to head southeast, with a spur going straight on. At this junction was a building that I hoped might be a shop and certainly was a post office once. Alas, I was out of luck. This was the village of Huna.
A small remote crofting township with a sheltered haven, Huna is a possible candidate for Höfn, which, according to St Olaf’s Saga, was the burial place in Hlodvar Thorfinnsson (c. 945-c. 988), Earl of Orkney. The other possibility, thanks to sound changes over time, is Ham (with its later mill and ruined harbour).
Aaron Arrowsmith’s map of 1807 indicated that there was a Houna Inn at the end of the spur road. This apparently formed the north side of a courtyard of farm buildings which survive amidst modern counterparts.
In the 1870s, the Huna Hotel was built to replace it. Sadly, the hotel has long since closed down and fallen into dereliction, having been gutted by fire. This is a shame, because I’d run out of water and really wanted a drink. Nothing for it but to grin and bear it and continue…
John O’Groats Mill
The road veered left until it was heading due east, which brought me in time to the John o’ Groats Mill, which sits beside Duncansby Burn. This is almost certainly the last water-powered mill to be built in Scotland, having been constructed, in its current incarnation, as late as 1901.
There are actually two mills here, one built in 1750 as a threshing mill, and the other in 1846 as a grain mill (oats and barley) sharing the same lade. The 1901 construction rebuilt the old mill and reversed their usage. It was designed by engineering student William Campbell Houston, nephew of the miller.
In total, six generations of the Houston family operated these mills from the first in 1750 until 2001, when the last miller died; most similar mills had ceased work at least fifty years earlier. The John O’Groats Mill Trust, formed in 2017, is now trying to reverse twenty-odd years of dereliction.
Ha’ of Duncansby
At the mill, the road dipped southeast and then ran dead strait again. A third of a mile later, it passed a location that Roy labelled “Whitehall” but which has consistently been Ha’ of Duncansby on subsequent maps. A farmstead, it now offers B&B accommodation.
A similar distance on and I reached the modern village of John o’ Groats, which, historically, isn’t John o’ Groats at all. Roy labelled it “Dungsbay” on his map, which sounds… fragrant… but even OS maps were still labelling it as Duncansby into the 1960s until the siren allure of tourism won out over communal identity.
The original name Duncansby is Norse-derived, although incorporating a Gaelic personal name, and is given in the Orkneyinga Saga as Dungalsboer. It literally just means “Duncan’s settlement”).
There is also a Gaelic version of the name, Dùn Gasbaith, where dùn means fort and gasbaith is additional meaningless noise because it’s just a Gaelicised version of “Duncansby”.
At Duncansby, the A836 ended in a junction with the A99. Directly adjacent to the junction was the Seaview Hotel, where I was staying, while meant that I could – with delight and relief – drop off my bag and down that drink I had wanted.
John o’ Groats
From the junction of the A-roads there is about a third of a mile of A99 that extends northwards (it goes a lot further south). When I felt ready, I ambled up this terminal section until I reached the coast at the place actually called John o’ Groats (Taigh Iain Ghròt).
In this case, it is the Gaelic name that gives the game away, as it literally means “John o’ Groats’s house.” William Roy went with much the same idea, labelling his map with “Johnny Grotts House”.
Jan de Groot (“John the large”) was a Netherlander who came to Scotland with his brother and, in 1496, was granted a Caithness-Orkney ferry franchise by King James IV (1488 – 1513). At this point Orkney had only been Scottish for 24 years, having been given to James’s father, James III (1451-1488), in lieu of a wedding dowry for his bride (James IV’s mother), Margaret of Denmark (1456-1486).
Given that the place is named for a ferryman, it seems only fitting that a summer passenger ferry is today in operation between John o’ Groats and Burwick on South Ronaldsay in Orkney. This is 8 miles away, according to the tacky tourist signpost.
Journey’s End Sign
The original signpost was installed in 1964 and by the same Penzance-based company as that at Land’s End. The site was purchased as part of the hotel redevelopment and, when it reopened, a publicly accessible signpost was erected. This lacks the customisable text of the original but it also lacks the eye-gouging fees to photograph it, so that’s an overall win.
John o’ Groats House
A story relates that Jan’s seven sons quarrelled about precedence and he solved this problem by building an octagonal house with eight doors, one each for him and each of his sons. In it, he had an equally octagonal table, so that no one occupied the head of the table. How very Arthurian.
John o’ Groats Hotel
His house is long gone. In 1875, the John o’ Groats Hotel was built on or near it. This too went the way of the dodo in the mid-1990s and stood empty for a couple of decades until reopening in 20123 as “the Inn at John o’ Groats.” It is now composed of what I believe are perfectly pleasant self-catering suites, which doesn’t sound particularly inn-like, however lovely they might be.
With a satisfied sigh, followed by an involuntary shiver (the temperature was definitely dropping), I turned about and walked back to the Seaview Hotel. A hot shower and hearty food followed, followed by plenty of sleep. The following day, I would be walking to Wick…
This time: 20 miles
Total since Gravesend: 3,966½ miles