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History of Caithness
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Civil And Traditional
Chapter 1 - Page Three
The following is the tradition respecting the far-famed John and his banqueting-house. In the reign of James IV. of Scotland, three brothers, Malcolm, Gavin, and John de Groat, natives of Holland, came the county, carrying with them a letter in Latin from that monarch, recommending them to the protection and countenance of his loving subjects in Caithness. They purchased, or obtained by royal charter, the lands of Wares and Dnncansbay, in the parish of Canisbay; and in process of time, by the increase of their families, and the subdivision of the property, there came to be eight different proprietors of the name of Groat.*
‘Dr Henderson says, “The first John O’Groat was most probably a Fleming. He held the ferry; and there is reason to believe that it was to take charge of it he was sent into the county, as the ferry appears to have belonged at one time to the Crown.”
An annual festive meeting having been established to commemorate the anniversary of their arrival in Caithness, a dispute arose on one of these occasions respecting the right of taking the door, the head of the table, etc., which increased to such a height as threatened to be attended with very disagreeable consequences, when John, who was now considerably advanced in years, happily interposed. He expatiated on the comforts which they had hitherto enjoyed in the land of their adoption, and conjured them, by the ties of blood and their mutual safety, to return quietly home, pledging himself that he would satisfy them on all points of precedency at their next meeting. They acquiesced and departed in peace. In due time, to fulfil his engagement, John built a house, distinct by itself, of an octagonal form, with eight doors and windows; and having placed a table of oak, of the same shape, in the middle, when the next meeting took place, he desired each of his friends to enter at his own door, and sit at the head of the table. By this happy contrivance any dispute in regard to rank was prevented, and the former harmony and good humour of the party were restored. Such was the origin of John O’Groat’s House.
The above interesting tradition, which furnishes an excellent moral, first appeared in the Old Statistical Account of Canisbay, drawn up by the late ingenious Dr Morison, minister of the parish. It is added in a note that John Sutherland of Wester, in the parish of Wick, had the particulars from his father, who was then advanced in life, and who had seen the letter written by James IV. in the possession of George Groat of Warse. The story, however, notwithstanding the imprimatur of Dr Morison, has been regarded by many as merely a beautiful myth. Certain it is that Mr Pennant, in his tour, says nothing about it; nor does Mr Pope of Reay, who was well acquainted with the ancient history of the county, make any mention of it in his appendix to that work. The latter merely says that “the town of Duncanshay and the ferry of old belonged to a gentleman of the name of Groat.” It is a pity that the letter said to have been written by the king—if there ever was any such missive —was not religiously preserved. It would not only have been an object of great antiquarian interest, but it would have completely removed all doubts as to the authenticity of the story.* But whether the tradition be true or false, there can be no question that a family of the name of Groat possessed for many ages the lands of Wares and Duncansbay.
* Robert Mackay, in his History of the House of Mackay, gives the following origin, purporting to be from tradition, of the name Groat :— “ It is said that the ancestor of the Groats was a ferryman betwixt Caithness and Orkney, and had frequent disputes with passengers about his fares, till at length the magistrates interfered, and fixed the rates at fourpence, or a groat, for each passenger; and that the ferryman, whose name was John, was thenceforward termed Johnny Groat.” There is no doubt that one of the family was proprietor of the ferry-boat that plied betwixt Caithness and Orkney but the writer of this sketch, who lived many years near John O’Groat’s, never heard the origin of the name ascribed to any such circumstance as that mentioned by Mackay.
About the end of the fifteenth century, the proprietors of the latter township appear to have been the Earl of Caithness, and Oliphant of Oldwick. In 1496, John Groat, son of Hugh, obtained by charter from William, Earl of Caithness, a portion of land in Duncansbay called One Penny land, paying yearly “tres modios Brasii” (three measures of malt) ; and in 1507, his son William Groat had a charter from William Oliphant, and Christian Sutherland, his spouse, of some Halfpenny land in the same locality, paying yearly 5 shillings Scots. One of the Groats became proprietor of Brabsterdorran, which in 1567 was given in tack to Andrew Calder of Lynegar. Previous to 1496 and 1507, the family of Groat is not mentioned in any of our local records. The name afterwards frequently occurs in the parochial records of Canisbay, and other public documents. In 1609 Donald Groat of Warse was killed in a fray in Kirkwall; and in the Scottish parliament of 1702, John Groat, portioner of Duncanshay, was commissioner of supply for the county. Next to the celebrated site of John O’Groat’s, and the wild and beautiful scenery about Duncansbay-head, the most interesting object to a stranger, historically speaking, is the Pentland Firth, which, in the old Norse was called “Petland Fiord.”* It forms a communication between the German and Atlantic Oceans, and is about fourteen miles long, and, at an average, eleven broad. It is calculated that about 10,000 vessels pass through it annually. The tide often runs in it at the rate of ten miles an hour; and when a vessel is met by this impetuous current, she may be seen, even with a favourable breeze, and under a press of canvas, drifting rapidly backward after the stern. The passage through the Pentland Firth has long been accounted a dangerous one; and, although its perils have been somewhat magnified, it requires mariners who are well acquainted with its numerous eddies and currents to navigate it with safety.
At St John’s Head, in the district of Mey, and at Duncansbay-head, near the eastern entrance of the firth, there arises a violent agitation of the waves, locally called the “Men of Mey,” and the “Boars of Duncansbay.” They appear only alternately; the former with the ebb,and the latter with the flood-tide; and the roughness, which is at times much greater than at others, is produced by the collision of currents running in opposite directions. The huge breakers jet up as from a boiling cauldron, and foam, and dance, and tumble over each other in the most frantic manner. Sometimes they spread to a considerable distance from the shore, and at other times they confine themselves to a certain spot, and may be seen raging furiously, even when the surrounding firth is as smooth as a mirror. It is a fearful sight to see a vessel, especially in a storm, labouring in one of these dangerous pieces of sea-the Scylla and Charybdis of the Canisbay shore-now whirling round like a ball, and now plunging down half buried amidst the white breakers. Captain Lyon, in the narrative of his expedition to the Arctic regions in 1824, mentions that the Griper, the ship in which he sailed, was twice whirled round in an eddy in the Pentland Firth, and with some difficulty got out of it. Generally, however, when the tide is with them, vessels are not long in passing through the “Men” or the “Boars.”
* The derivation of the term Pentland is uncertain. Blaeu, in his Geographical Atlas, gives the following tradition respecting the origin of the name. The Picts, on being defeated by the Scots, fled to Duncansbay whence they crossed over to Orkney, but meeting with opposition from the natives, they were forced to retire; and on their way back to Caithness they all perished in the Firth, from which catastrophe it was ever after called the Pictland or Pentland Firth. Buchanan calls it “Fretum Penthlandicum.” It owes its name most probably to some circumstance connected with the Picts,