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Caithness Field Club Bulletin
The John o' Groats Legend: Fact or
Fiction? (by George Watson)
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 .
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.
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.
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