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Caithness Field Club

Caithness Field Club Bulletin

The John o' Groats Legend: Fact or Fiction? (by George Watson)
When in 1791 the Rev John Morison used the ‘John O’Groats’ legend as a tail-piece to his Statistical Account of Canisbay, he had two thoughts in mind. First, it provided a “not unpleasing” reason for the fame of John O’Groats, which up until that time had rested on “its mere local situation at the northern extremity of the island” and secondly as might be expected of a parish minister, it “furnishes a useful lesson of morality.” He had no reason to question its historical accuracy. for, “The particulars ........ were communicated to John Sutherland Esq.of Wester, above 50 years ago, by his father, who was then advanced in life, and who had seen the letter wrote (sic) by James IV, in the possession of George Groat of Warse.”

William Sutherland of Wester, the source of the story, was described, in 1762, by Bishop Forbes as, “ a gentleman of reading, and had been bred to the sea, whereby he had visited many foreign Countries: particularly he was once nigh to the city of Jerusalem, but some incident or other had prevented his seeing it.” At the time of the Bishop’s visit William was an old man and it is possible that when younger he had seen ruins near the later ferry house.

The outline of the tale in the OSA is, that John de Groat the ferryman had solved a disagreement, about precedence, which had arisen among the eight branches of the clan, by building an octagonal house so that each family could enter by its own doorway to sit at an octagonal table, thereby giving all of them equal status. Their progenitors are said to have been three brothers Malcom, Gavin and John de Groat, thought to have come from Holland in the reign of James IV (1488-1513).

This account is now accepted as the traditional history of John O’Groats and the octagonal shape has been adopted by the hotel and tourist kiosks.

It is reasonable to dismiss the Dutch origin of the family as a late accretion, because Malcolm and Gavin are unlikely Christian names for Dutchmen and none of the older charters use the form de Groat .
The present location of the letter from James IV is not known, but Calder’s History of Caithness has a list of ‘Groat’ charters. The earliest dated 14th March 1496, from the Earl of Caithness to John Groat, son to Hugh Groat, is for one pennyland in Duncansbay. This places the Groat family in Duncansby in the reign of James IV and possibly earlier. Later, in 1523, John is described as “baillie to the Earl, in these parts”. These records do not mention ferries but it is quite likely that James IV would have wanted to strengthen existing communication with Orkney which had been pledged to Scotland in 1468. King James was also a regular pilgrim to St Duthac’s at Tain and a reliable ferry across the Firth would have encouraged pilgrimage between St Duthac’s and St Magnus’ in Kirkwall.

John Groat, son of Findlay Groat, was certainly infeft in the ferry-house and ferry and 20 feet round the said house, by the Earl of Caithness in Nov. 1549, and the family were still operating the ferry in 1735 when Aneas Bayne wrote, “Two miles East of the Church of Canesbay is the most Northerly Point of the whole Island of Brittain, called Duncansbay Head or Dungesbey Head, near to which there is a house commonly called John O’Groatts because possessed by men of that name in a continual succession from father to son near two centuries bygone. Strangers who visit the Shire have a strong curiousity to be here and commonly carve their names on an old Table preserved in the house, that posterity may see how far travelled they are. But it is mortifying to know (which is a matter of fact) that their names are razed out every 12 years or so, and the table fitted for new Impressions at the desire of new visitors.” This table is also mentioned in the footnote to the OSA (1791) as “The remains of the oak table have been seen by many now living, who have inscribed their names on it.” If this table had been other than rectangular its unusual shape would surely have been mentioned.

The same comment could be applied to the house itself. Thomas Kirk who crossed from Orkney on Monday 2 July 1677, noted in his journal, “The Firth is twelve miles over, and infested with more than twenty different tides, it is one of the dangerousest ferries in Scotland, and cannot be passed but at level water, We waited till nine at night before the ferryman would venture, and then we left [Mr] Kinnard and the Orkneys: in two hours’ time we came safe to land, and entered John of Groat’s house. Our weariness caused us to enter mean beds, and we might have rested had not the mice rendezvoused over our faces. Our horses came to us in the morning.” The famous house at this time was obviously a rest-house or inn for ferry passengers.

On the 11th July 1760 Bishop Pococke took an evening ride eastwards from the Castle of Mey and “came to Johnny Grott’s House which is in ruins, and from a quondam inhabitant of that name gives the appellation to this angle of Scotland.” Two years later (Wed Aug 11 1762) Bishop Forbes described the house, “Now a ruine, in the Parish of Cannesbay , and three long miles from May. It has been a low House of a Ground-Story only, and 4 or 5 Rooms in length, of Stone and Lime standing on a pretty little Green, close upon the Coast. It would appear that a Chapel and Burying Place have been here of old. The walls of a Barn and Kiln are still standing.” When the mound under the flagpole was excavated, some years before 1910, rectangular foundations were uncovered.
As might be expected, some elements of this traditional tale stand up to scrutiny better than others. The presence of the Groat family in Canisbay in the reign of James IV and their hereditary operation of the ferry for over two hundred years cannot be doubted. However claiming a Dutch origin for the family seems less secure and the historical and archaeological record would indicate that the ferry house was rectangular.

Although the oral account given by William Sutherland of Wester, to his son John, is the only one to mention an octagonal house, it is also the earliest, and could take us back to the late 17th early 18th century. If this was indeed the last trace of an unusual building near the ferry house it is worth speculating on what it might have been.

An octagon is an unusual shape for a vernacular building, but there are a number small churches, throughout Europe, thought to be modelled on the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, in Jerusalem. These churches are usually round, similar to the one at Orphir in Orkney which has been dated c1120, but a few are octagonal in plan. Now in 1762,Bishop Forbes noted “a Chapel and Burying Place have been here of old.” In the past this was thought to refer to Lady Chapel about 500 metres east of the harbour. However when the ground to the south of the flag-pole mound was first taken under cultivation about 1840 a number of skulls were ploughed up and at intervals since then casual digging has unearthed human bones. In 1989 when the latest craft shops were being built, a professional archaeological excavation revealed part of a burial ground with two distinct periods of use. A late Norse phase in the 11th-12th centuries together with some 17th century burials which respected the earlier inhumations. A chapel associated with the graveyard is quite likely but so far its location and ground plan remain a mystery.
Strangely the building which most closely parallels the description of John O’Groats House lies across the Atlantic on Rhode Island. The Newport Tower, thought to be medieval, is a round tower of rubble masonry. The open ground floor consists of eight columns linked by Romanesque arches: corresponding to the eight doors at John O’Groats. On the upper level is a single room with a fireplace and a small window. Unfortunately controversy surrounds its origin and use.. Various possibilities have been suggested from a church tower to a beacon tower, none of which can be substantiated.
In passing it is worth mentioning that the Groat tombstone in Canisbay church, dated 13th April 1568, carries the names of Jhone and his son Donald Grot. The circumstances of its discovery leave no doubt that it is a genuine memorial to members of the Groat family but their relationship to the ferrymen is not clear.. Its remarkable condition is due to the fact that John Nicolson re-cut the inscription shortly after it was found.

The Statistical Account of Scotland, ed Sir John Sinclair, Canisbay Parish 1791.

History of Caithness, J T Calder, 2nd Ed reprint 1973, page 284.

A Short Geographical Survey of the County of Caithness, A Bayne, 1735, Transcribed M Pottinger 1993.

Tours in Scotland 1677 & 1681, ed P H Brown, 1892 page 32.

Bishop Pococke’s Tour Through Sutherland and Caithness in 1760, D W Kemp 1888, page 26.

Bishop Forbes First Journal, ed Rev J B Craven,1884, page 203.

RCAHM Third Report, County of Caithness, 1911.

Viking Age in Caithness, Orkney and The North Atlantic, ed C Batey et al, 1993, see I Fisher page 375

Ordnance Survey Name Book, Canisbay Parish.

Rescue Excavations of a Prehistoric Settlement and Viking Age/ Medieval Cemetery at John O’Groats 1989. S T Driscoll et al.

The Sword and The Grail, Andrew Sinclair, 1992, page 14


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