It’s 273 miles from Edinburgh and 3,230 miles from New York. Living in Edinburgh, I was called to the first sign, and being from the Midwest I was impressed by the second – just think how much farther it is to Michigan! I might not have been an End-to-Ender, but, by God, I got my picture taken next to that signpost.
For years, people have taken on the challenge of walking from one end of mainland Britain, all the way in the south at Land’s End, to the other, all the way north at John O’Groats. These people, called End-to-Enders, traditionally get their pictures taken under the signposts in both spots to prove that they made the 876-mile journey. My mom and I cheated a bit and just hit up the northern end. Although, like I said, we did come all the way from Michigan, so we should get some brownie points for that dedication.
John O’Groats, contrary to both popular belief and the End-to-End tradition, is not the northernmost point of mainland Britain. That honor goes to nearby Dunnet Head, which is only 11 miles away. John O’Groats remains special, though, because it’s the northernmost inhabited point on mainland Britain.
Life in John O’Groats dates back to the late 15th century, when a Dutchman made his way to northern Scotland looking to make a buck. Jan de Groot was his name, and he made his way by running a ferry service to Orkney, which is just 6 miles off the mainland. His ferry cost a whopping 2 pence Scots (Scottish money at the time had all the same names and denominations as English money, but was backed by a different bank, and was therefore worth less than sterling). The locals liked Jan de Groot, and gave him a local name so that he might fit in better: Iain Ghrót, which was later anglicized to become John O’Groat. His ferry service was so successful that a 2p coin came to be called a ‘groat,’ since locals would probably hand it over to John O’Groat at some point.
A ferry service still runs from the town of John O’Groats to Orkney, but I have no idea if it’s the great-great-grandchild of Jan de Groot’s. The town is a quaint little coastal town, with roughly 300 year-round residents, four souvenir shops which double as ice cream parlors and tourist info points, a camping ground, a glamping ground, and a hotel which doubles as the local watering hole.
For as small and isolated as John O’Groats is, the people there are incredibly friendly and not at all surprised when foreigners, even us Midwesterners, show up unannounced. There’s exactly one bus that runs from Wick to John O’Groats, and the bus driver knows who’s a local and who’s a tourist and therefore needs be dropped off right in front of the hotel. There’s one road that runs from the hotel down to the ferry docks, about 300 yards away. Since it’s so small, there’s plenty of room for sheep!
Perhaps the most impressive bit about John O’Groats is that, despite all the tourist activity generated by the End-to-End challenge and its links to the Orkney islands, it still feels like a Highlands village. It’s quaint, it’s unique, and, if you show any interest at all in where you’re standing, some of the friendliest and most informative hosts you could want.