John o'Groats (Gaelic: Taigh Iain Ghròt) is a village in the former county of Caithness on the far north coast of Scotland. With a population of about 300, it makes its living from tourism, as it's the traditional north terminus of the British mainland road network.
Jan de Groot was a Dutchman who came here in 1489 with his brothers and set up a ferry service to Orkney. Legend claims that he built an octagonal house with eight doors so the brothers could enter independently with no "After you, Alphonse - no Gaston, after you I insist" time-wasting, but the legend is tosh and no trace of such a building has been found. What was real was a boost in travellers, who might be held up for days by bad weather, so they'd need accommodation. The Orkney Islands were Norwegian until ceded to Scotland in 1472, in lieu of the unpaid dowry of Queen Margaret of Denmark. Trade and pilgrimage then increased across the narrow but dangerous Pentland Firth. Another legend says that the fare was a groat (a third of a shilling or four pre-decimal pence), but the ferryman's name means Jan the Great or Big John.
Not much else happened here for another 500 years. The prehistoric dwellings and medieval castles of Caithness gradually succumbed to storms and the sea, but were not built over, and these and the scenic cliffs are the main attraction once your 20 minutes around the tourist signpost are up. The big conflicts and battles were away south, but in the 18th century these prompted construction of military roads that became the backbone of the Scottish Highland main roads. The network was formalised in 1923, with routes radiating from the main Post Office in Edinburgh: A1 to London, A7 to Carlisle, A8 to Glasgow, and similarly A1-6 radiating from London. The A9 ran from Edinburgh via Falkirk, Stirling and Perth to Inverness but was soon extended to Wick and John o'Groats. In 1982 the section just north of Inverness was improved and shortened by the opening of Kessock Bridge. Traffic to the far north was mostly to Thurso, for the car ferry to Orkney, so in 1997 that road was re-designated A9 and the former last stretch through Wick to John o'Groats became A99.
So John o'Groats is the British mainland's most northerly, um, what? Not the most northerly point, which is nearby Dunnet Head. Most northerly settlement? That could be disputed by the little places around Castle of Mey, you can probably buy ice cream and souvenir tea-towels further north; and in any case such claims only apply to the mainland, and are trumped by Shetland. North terminus of the UK mainland highways is about the best that can be said. It was invented as a tourist destination in the 1960s, as a series of long-distance walkers, wacky vehicles and fund-raisers made the journey from John o'Groats to Land's End (less often the reverse), filmed by the media in grainy black-and-white. (Yes, including Jimmy Savile, hero of the hour.) In 1964 a private company set up the famous signpost and charged you for a photo, as they did at Land's End, and made a notorious tourist-tacky mess of both sites. They quit in 2013 and now you see it for free.
The Tourist Information Centre is next to the big car park, +44 1955 611373, open Apr-Oct: M-F 10AM-4PM. They can advise on travel, accommodation and other local sights. The ferry ticket office is next door.
The spelling used on this and related pages is "o'Groats" as o' indicates "of" or "the" - O'Groats (capitalised) would imply a member of Clan Groats, which doesn't exist. Local businesses and signage mostly give it the capital letter.
Follow A9 north through Inverness. Historically this ran to John o'Groats, but nowadays the last leg is A99, branching off at Latheron village and passing through Wick. The road is a good undivided highway, but it's a long way. Reckon 280 miles from Edinburgh or Glasgow, and 110 miles (say 2 hours) from Inverness. How are you doing for fuel?
Park at the large free car park at the edge of the village.
Bus 77 runs from Wick to John o'Groats, three times M-F taking 30 min, and in summer a couple of extra buses continue to Gills Land for the ferry.
Bus 80 runs from Thurso every couple of hours M-F, taking 55 min via Dunnet and Mey. Thurso is the best railway connection, with trains from Inverness.
There are three routes from the Orkney Islands:
- John o' Groats Ferries sail from Burwick to John o' Groats May-Sept twice a day, 40 min. A single is £16, but the bus + ferry ticket at £20 includes the Burwick - Kirkwall transfer. Bicycles free, no vehicles.
- Pentland Ferries car ferry sails from St Margaret's Hope to Gills Bay, one hour.
- Scrabster near Thurso has ferries from Stromness.
The village is tiny and only takes a few minutes to walk around. You need wheels for the outlying sights, though Bus 80 is just-about frequent enough for Castle of Mey and Dunnet Head.
In the village
- 1 The signpost is the end of A99, and compulsory photo since the rest of the settlement is ho-hum. The first signpost, with pointers to Land's End, Orkney and Shetland, Edinburgh and New York, was a catchpenny affair installed on private land in 1964. You paid to have your photo next to it, and more to customise it with a pointer to your own home town. (You were paying the same company that made a tacky mess of Land's End, and tried for other iconic sites until howled down.) That was replaced in 2015 by a freely accessible signpost. This is not customisable, though there's nothing to stop a member of your group juxtaposing a sign, like a hitchhiker at an on-ramp. But please don't climb or swing on it, as some idiot did in 2020, and inevitably a pointer snapped.
- The Orkneys are clearly visible from anywhere along this coast, until the rain and mist set in. Hoy is the cloud-wreathed island well north and to the west. South Ronaldsay is to the east, low-lying and pastoral. Swona is the islet just west of its tip, uninhabited and with no transport. See below for the two islands close to John o'Groats: Stroma (larger and west) and Muckle Skerry (tiny and east) - both part of Caithness not Orkney, but the sheep don't care.
Further west and north
- 2 Canisbay Parish Church is where the Queen Mother attended when at Mey. Jan de Groot the ferryman lies in the graveyard.
- 3 Gills Bay is the little harbour for the ferry to St Margaret's Hope on Orkney. It was first used as a port from 1724, when kelp was valuable for soda ash, and was also a base for ships pilots through the Pentland Firth, and for fishermen. A larger pier was built in 1905 with the intention of creating a commercial port for steam ships, ignoring the obvious: the bay is rocky and exposed, only suitable for small craft in summer. There are other boat trips, and shepherds cross to Stroma to tend their flocks.
- 4 St John's Point is a scenic headland. There are scraps of machinery from the 19th century herring trade, but the 7th / 8th century chapel is barely visible.
- 5 Castle of Mey, Mey KW14 8XH (6 miles west of John o'Groats), ☏ . May-Sep: W-Su (but closed late July-early Aug) 10:30AM-4PM. It was built as a defensive tower house around 1570, and down the years transitioned into a genteel residence, when it was called Barrogill Castle. It was derelict in 1952 when it was bought by Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother (1900-2002) shortly after the death of her husband King George VI, and restored as a summer home. The interior you see now is Edwardian-plus-Sanderson wallpaper. It's in the keeping of the Duke of Rothesay, which is how the Prince of Wales likes to be styled when he's in Scotland. He and Camilla continue to visit late July to early Aug so the castle is closed then, check website for dates. With extensive gardens and views towards Orkney. Adult £13, conc £10.50, child £7.
- Weird waves: "Men of Mey" and similar wave formations are sometimes seen from the coast hereabouts. There's a tide race through the Pentland Firth, as the Atlantic floods then drains the North Sea, especially dramatic during "wind-over-tide" such as the ebb tide meeting a howling westerly gale. Then they tower up into columns, the "men". Heaven help any mariners caught in this maelstrom, or the lifeboat crews who attempt to save them.
- 6 Dunnet Head is the most northerly point of the UK mainland, the island of Great Britain: you can drive there on B855. There's a Stevenson lighthouse built in 1831 (now automated), some World War II fortifications, and 300-ft cliffs swirling with sea birds. Great views across the Firth but what you can't see is the UK's most northerly point, way over the horizon. That's the islet of Out Stack off Unst in Shetland.
- 7 Mary Ann's Cottage, West Dunnet KW14 8YD. Jun-Sep: Tu-F 2-4:30PM. Charming and totally authentic crofting cottage. It was built in 1850 and occupied (and very little altered) by the family until 1990, when Mary Ann Calder retired to a nursing home, dying six years later on the eve of her 99th birthday. So what you see now is a real depiction of a traditional way of life on these windswept farmlands. Donation.
- 8 Brabster Castle, built in 1650, survives only as a single wall incorporated into a corn-drying oven.
- See Thurso for Castletown and points further west along the coast.
- 9 Stroma is the island just north of John o'Groats, only two miles out and part of Caithness county but separated by a dangerous channel — strom is Norse for a tide race, as in "maelstrom" and "Stromness". Its last crofters left in 1962, and the lighthouse keepers left in 1997. There are many prehistoric, medieval and haunting modern village remains, and boat trips sometimes visit.
- 10 Muckle Skerry is the island seen further west, with a Stevenson lighthouse of 1794. It's almost a mile long, but is low-lying and therefore spray-lashed and uninhabited.
Further east and south
- 11 Duncansby Head is the northeast tip of Great Britain mainland. It's the furthest you can reach by road from Land's End and might have been the start for all those 1960s pilgrimages, but that damned signpost scooped the trade. The lighthouse was built in 1924.
- The Great Glen is the fault line that defines the coast to the south, so the other side of it here is the sea. It slices diagonally north up to Shetland, and southwest through Inverness, Loch Ness, Fort William, Islay and Donegal.
- Duncansby Stacks are a mile south, angry pyramids jutting from a roiling sea.
- Ness Broch half a mile north of Bucholie Castle is Iron Age, on a rugged promontory.
- 12 Bucholie Castle is a 15th-century ruined redoubt on an inaccessible headland, which was the point of building it there.
- See Wick for Nybster Broch and points south.
- The coastal trail has short hikes with big views.
- Trek to Land's End: The journey from Land's End to John o' Groats (LeJog, or vice versa JogLe) has often been completed as a personal challenge and to raise funds for good causes. There's no set route; the usual on-road distance is about 900 miles (1400 km), but it can be much longer. It's usually done by walking or cycling, but it's also been done by running, on horseback, driving or by public transport. Feel free to invent your own conveyance; the weirder it is, the more media coverage and public response you'll get.
- Marine life: John o'Groats Ferry have trips daily May - Aug. Watch for puffins, skuas, guillemots and grey seals.
- Mey Highland Games are held at the castle in early August.
- Gift shops and a bookshop are round the car park. There isn't a practical store here.
- "First and Last in Scotland" is a souvenir shop by the ferry pier, open daily 8AM-8PM. Their title must predate the 15th century, when Orkney and Shetland joined Scotland.
- The Cabin[dead link] next to the signpost is a fish & chips takeaway open daily 8AM-6PM.
- Stacks[dead link] by the car park does coffee, baking, deli and takeaway W-Su 9AM-5PM.
- John o'Groats Brewery is near the signpost and offers tours.
- 8 Doors Distillery (by the car park). Scotland’s most northerly mainland whisky distillery offers tasting tours (£15-24 per person).
- John o' Groats Campsite, County Road KW1 4YR (opposite car park), ☏ . Clean, friendly and efficient. Tent £12, caravan £21.
- John o’Groats Lodges, County Road KW1 4YR (by signpost), ☏ . The historic hotel by the harbour was built in 1875. Several colourful lodges have been bolted on, sort-of Tobermory meets Faeroes whaling station, for luxury self-catering. They still offer conventional short-stay hotel rooms. B&B double £170.
- 1 Seaview Hotel, County Road KW1 4YR (junction of A99 and A836), ☏ , firstname.lastname@example.org. Comfortable mid-range place with decent dining and selection of whisky. B&B double £120.
- 2 , County Road KW1 4YR, ☏ . Simple peaceful B&B. B&B double £90.
- 3 John o' Groats Guest House, KW1 4YR, ☏ , email@example.com. Bright, comfortable, family run guest house, from the road it looks like a retro-50s diner. B&B double £90.
As of July 2022, John o'Groats and its approach roads have a basic mobile signal from Three, but nothing from the other carriers. 5G has not reached this area.
- Head south to Land's End, but it's a bit of a walk. If your feet are nimble and light, you can get there by candlelight.
- West is Thurso, brooded over by the dome of Dounreay, and surrounded by ancient castles and duns.
- South is Wick, for more Iron Age sites than you could shake a stick at, yet they're planning to build more.
- Take a ferry north to the Orkney Islands. You can see Stromness, the major standing stones and burial cairns, and Kirkwall all within a day trip, but it deserves longer.
- North Coast 500 is a 500-mile circuit of Scotland's north coast passing though John o'Groats.
|Routes through John o'Groats
|→ Wick → Inverness