Robert Naylor.

From John O'Groats to Land's End online

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brother murmur something that sounded very like "Liar"; but the man's
information turned out to be perfectly correct. Our luggage also began
to feel heavier, and the country gradually became more wild and
desolate. Our spirits revived a little when a fisherman told us of a
small inn that we should reach a mile or two before coming to John o'
Groat's. We thought we had surely come to the end of everywhere when we
reached the "Huna Inn," for it stood some distance from any other house
and at the extreme end of an old lane that terminated at the sea. It was
a small, primitive structure, but it was now our only hope, as far as we
knew, for obtaining lodgings, and we could scarcely restrain our delight
when we were told we could be accommodated there until Monday morning.
It was an intense relief to us to be separated from our cumbersome
luggage, and we must say that Mr. and Mrs. Mackenzie did all in their
power to make us comfortable and happy and to make us feel at home. We
contented ourselves with some light refreshments which to some
non-pedestrians might have appeared decidedly heavy, and then decided to
see all that remained of John o' Groat's House.

Walking along the beach for about a mile and a half, the distance we
were told that separated the ruins from the inn, we failed to find them,
and were about to return when we met a shepherd who said we had already
passed them. We therefore returned with him, as he told us he was going
to the inn, and he showed us a few mounds of earth covered with grass
which marked the site of the foundations of John o' Groat's House, but
the stones had been removed to build a storehouse, or granary, at a
place he pointed out in the distance. We were rather disappointed, as we
expected to find some extensive remains, and, seeing they were so very
scanty, we wondered why, in a land where stones were so plentiful, some
monument or inscribed stone had not been erected to mark the site where
this remarkable house once stood, as, in the absence of some one to
direct them, strangers, like ourselves, might pass and repass these
remains without noticing them. We were not long in reaching the inn, for
the shepherd was a big man and took very long strides, and here we wrote
a few short letters to our friends to advise them of our safe arrival at
John o' Groat's, afterwards walking to the post office about a mile away
to post them, and ordering a high tea to be ready for us on our return.
It was half-past eight when we finished our tea, after which we were
conducted to a little room close to the sea, with two tiny windows in
it, one of them without a blind, and with a peat or turf fire burning
brightly on the hearth. Mrs. Mackenzie then brought us a small candle,
which she lighted, and handed us a book which she said was the "Album,"
and we amused ourselves with looking over this for the remainder of the
evening. It was quite a large volume, dating from the year 1839, and the
following official account of the Groat family, headed with a facsimile
of the "Groat Arms," was pasted inside the cover:



It is stated in _Sinclair's Statistical Accounts of Scotland_, vol.
8, page 167 and following: - "In the account of Cannisby by the Rev.
John Marison, D.D., that in the reign of James the Fourth, King of
Scotland, Malcom, Cairn and John de Groat, supposed to have been
brothers and originally from Holland, arrived in Caithness from the
south of Scotland, bringing with them a letter in Latin by that King
recommending him to the countenance and protection of his loving
subjects in the County of Caithness."

It is stated in _Chambers's Pictures of Scotland_, vol. 2, page 306,
"that the foundations or ruins of John o' Groat's House, which is
perhaps the most celebrated in the whole world, are still to be

Then followed the names and addresses of visitors extending over a
period of thirty-three years, many of them having also written remarks
in prose, poetry, or doggerel rhyme, so we found plenty of food for
thought and some amusement before we got even half way through the
volume. Some of these effusions might be described as of more than
ordinary merit, and the remainder as good, bad, and indifferent. Those
written in foreign languages - and there were many of them - we could
neither read nor understand, but they gave us the impression that the
fame of John o' Groat's had spread throughout the civilised world. There
were many references to Stroma, or the Island of the Current, which we
could see in the Pentland Firth about four miles distant, and to the
difficulties and danger the visitors had experienced in crossing that
"stormy bit of sea" between it and John o' Groat's. But their chief
complaint was that, after travelling so far, there was no house for them
to see. They had evidently, like ourselves, expected to find a
substantial structure, and the farther they had travelled the greater
their disappointment would naturally be. One visitor had expressed his
disappointment in a verse more forcible than elegant, but true as
regarded the stone.

I went in a boat
To see John o' Groat,
The place where his home doth lie;
But when I got there,
The hill was all bare,
And the devil a stone saw I.

The following entry also appeared in the Album: -

Elihu Burrit of New Britain, Connecticut, U.S. America, on a walk
from Land's End to John o' Groat's, arrived at Huna Inn, upon Monday
Sep. 28th, 1863. He visited the site of that famous domicile so
celebrated in the world-wide legend for its ingenious construction to
promote domestic happiness, and fully realised all he had anticipated
in standing on a spot so rich with historical associations and
surrounded with such grand and beautiful scenery. He desires also to
record his testimony to the hospitality and comfort of the cosy
little sea-side Inn, where he was pleasantly housed for the night,
and of which he will ever cherish an interesting remembrance.

_Saturday, September 16th._

"Now for the shells!" exclaimed my brother, as we awoke early in the
morning, for we expected to have a hard day's work before we gathered
shells enough to fill our large baskets. So we hurried on with our
breakfast, and then, shouldering our hampers, walked quickly along the
beach to the place where we had been informed we should find them. When
we got there we saw a sight which surely could not have had its parallel
in the British Isles, for the beach was white with them for the greater
part of two miles. We were greatly astonished, for in some places the
beach was so thickly covered that, had we possessed a shovel, we could
have filled both our baskets with shells in a very few minutes. We
decided therefore to select those best suited to our purpose, and we
worked away until we had filled both our hampers. We then carried them
one at a time to the "Huna Inn," and arranged with Mr. Mackenzie to have
them carefully packed and delivered to the local carrier to be conveyed
by road to the steamboat office at Wick, and thence forwarded by water
to our home, where we knew their contents would be appreciated for
rockery purposes. The whole of our operations were completed by noon,
instead of occupying the whole of the day as anticipated, for we had a
great advantage in having such an enormous number of shells to select
from. Our host told us that farmers occasionally moved them by
cart-loads to serve as lime manure on their land. Their accumulation at
that particular spot was a mystery which he could not explain beyond the
fact that the shells were washed up from the Pentland Firth during the
great storms; so we concluded that there must be a land of shell fish in
or near that stormy deep, perhaps corresponding with that of the larger
fish whose destruction we had seen represented in the Strata of Pomona
in the Orkneys.

[Illustration: ROCKS AT DUNCANSBAY.]

We must not forget to record, however, that amongst the vast number of
shells we had turned over we found some of those lovely little shells
known as "John o' Groat's buckies," so highly prized by visitors. They
were difficult to find, as they were so very small, but we found quite a
number, and considered them to be perfect little gems, and so very
pretty that we reserved them for special presents to our friends. We
afterwards learned that they were known to science as Cyproe Artoca, or
European Cowry.

* * * * *

An interesting account of John o' Groat's House and the shells was
written in the year 1698 by the Rev. John Brand, Commissioner of the
General Assembly: -

The landing-place was called John o' Groat's House, the northernmost
house in Scotland; the man who now liveth in it and keepeth an inn
there is called John Grot, who saith his house hath been in the
possession of his predecessors of that name for some hundreds of
years; which name of Grot is frequent in Caithness.

Upon the sand by John Grot's house are found many small pleasant
buckies and shells, beautified by diverse colours, which some use to
put upon a string as beads, and account much of their rarity. It is
also observed of these shells that not one of them can be found
altogether like another, and upon the review of the parcel I had I
discovered some difference among them which variety renders them the
more beautiful.


After our midday dinner had partially digested, for we had eaten rather
too much, we started for Duncansbay Head, following the coast line on an
up-gradient until we reached the top, which formed the north-eastern
extremity of Scotland, and from where we had to start on Monday morning.
It was a lonely spot, and we were the only visitors; but we had a lively
time there, as the thousands of wild birds whose homes were in the
rocks, judging from the loud noises they made as they new about us in
endless processions, resented our intrusion into their sacred
domain - hovering around us in every direction. Perhaps they were only
anxious to ascertain whether we were friends or foes, but we were very
much interested in their strange movements. They appeared to be most
numerous on and about two or three perpendicular rocks which rose from
the sea like pinnacles to a great height. These rocks were named the
"Stacks," or the "Boars of Duncansbay," their sides and summits being
only accessible to birds, and forming safe resting and nesting-places
for them, and on the top of the highest stack the golden-coloured eagles
had for ages reared their young. The "Stacks" might once have formed
part of the headland or of some adjacent island which had been wasted
away by the winds and waves of ages until only these isolated portions
remained, and these were worn into all kinds of crevices and fantastic
shapes which impressed us with a sense of their great antiquity. We
walked along the top of the cliffs, which here presented the appearance
of one vast amphitheatre lined with precipices, with small promontories
here and there jutting out into the sea resembling fortresses, some of
them having the ruins of ancient castles crowning their highest points.
We could scarcely bring our minds to realise that these were the very
rocks we had seen from the deck of the s.s. _St. Magnus_ only a few days
since. We had passed through so many scenes, and had had so many
adventures both by night and day since then, that the lapse of time
seemed to us to be more like years than days. We retraced our steps to
the head, and stood there for some time watching the ships far out at
sea, trying to distinguish the _St. Magnus_, as it was just about the
time she was again due on her outward journey; but the demands of our
hungry insides were again claiming urgent attention, and so we hastened
our return to the "Huna Inn." On our way we again encountered the
shepherd who had shown us the site of John o' Groat's House, and we
invited him to look us up in the evening, as we were anxious to get
further information about John and his famous house. "Huna Inn," in
spite of its disadvantages, was quite a romantic place to stay at, as it
was situated almost on the edge of the boiling torrent of the Pentland
Firth, which at times was so stormy that the island of Stroma could not
be reached for weeks.

The "Swalchie," or whirlpool of Stroma, has been mentioned by many
ancient writers, but the most interesting story is that of its origin as
given in the old Norse legend headed, "Fenja and Menja," and containing
a famous ballad known as the "Grotta Songr," or the "Mill Song," grotta
being the Norse for mill, or quern.

Odin had a son by name Skjold from whom the Skjoldungs. He had his
throne and ruled in the lands that are now called Denmark but were
then called Gotland. Skjold had a son by name Fridleif, who ruled the
lands after him. Fridleif's son was Frode. He took the kingdom after
his father, at the time when the Emperor Augustus established peace
in all the earth, and Christ was born. But Frode being the mightiest
King in the Northlands, this peace was attributed to him by all who
spake the Danish tongue and the Norsemen called it the Peace of
Frode. No man injured the other, even though he might meet, loose or
in chains, his father's or brother's bane (murderer). There was no
thief or robber so that a gold ring would lie a long time on
Jalanger's heath. King Frode sent messengers to Sirthjod, to the King
whose name was Fjolner, and bought there two maidservants, whose
names were Fenja and Menja. They were large and strong. About this
time were found in Denmark two millstones so large that no one had
the strength to turn them. But the nature belonged to these
millstones that they ground whatever was demanded of them by the
miller. The name of the mill was Grotte. But the man to whom King
Frode gave the mill was called Hengekjapt. King Frode had the
maidservants led to the mill and requested them to grind for him gold
and peace and Frode's happiness. Then he gave them no longer time to
rest or sleep than while the cuckoo was silent or while they sang a
song. It is said they sang the song called the "Grotte Song," and
before they ended it they ground out a host against Frode, so that on
the same night there came the Sea-King whose name was Mysing and slew
Frode and took a large amount of booty. Mysing took with him Grotte
and also Fenja and Menja and bade them grind salt, and in the middle
of the night they asked Mysing whether he did not have salt enough.
He bade them grind more. They ground only a short time longer before
the ship sank. But in the ocean arose a whirlpool (maelstrom,
mill-stream) in the place where the sea runs into the mill-eye: the
Swalchie of Stroma.

The story "Why is the sea salt?" or "How the sea became salt," has
appeared in one form or another among many nations of the world, and
naturally appealed strongly to the imagination of the youth of a
maritime nation like England. The story as told formerly amongst
schoolboys was as follows:

Jack had decided to go to sea, but before doing so he went to see his
fairy godmother, who had a strange looking old coffee-mill on the
mantelshelf in her kitchen. She set the table for tea without
anything on it to eat or drink, and then, taking down the old mill,
placed it on the table and asked it to grind each article she
required. After the tea-pot had been filled, Jack was anxious for
something to eat, and said he would like some teacakes, so his fairy
godmother said to the mill:

"Mill! Mill! grind away.
Buttered tea-cakes now I pray!"

for she knew Jack liked plenty of butter on his cakes, and out they
came from the mill until the plate was well filled, and then she

"Mill! Mill! rest thee now,
Thou hast ground enough I trow,"

and immediately the mill stopped grinding. When Jack told her he was
going away on a ship to sea, his fairy godmother made him a present
of the old mill, which he would find useful, as it would grind
anything he asked it to; but he must be careful to use the same words
that he had heard her speak both in starting and stopping the mill.
When he got to the ship, he stored the old mill carefully in his box,
and had almost forgotten it when as they neared the country they were
bound for the ship ran short of potatoes, so Jack told the Captain he
would soon find him some, and ran for his mill, which he placed on
the deck of the ship, and said to it:

"Mill! Mill! grind away,
Let us have some potatoes I pray!"

and immediately the potatoes began to roll out of the mill and over
the deck, to the great astonishment and delight of the sailors, who
had fine fun gathering them up. Then Jack said to the mill:

"Mill! Mill! rest thee now,
Thou hast ground enough I trow,"

and immediately the mill ceased grinding.

The Captain determined to get the mill from Jack, who would not part
with it, and tried to steal it, but did not succeed, and when they
reached the port, Jack took the mill ashore with him, and rented a
shop that happened to be empty, and had a sign-board placed over it
with the words painted in large letters, "All sorts of things
supplied here on the shortest notice," and he soon got a pile of
money, the last order being one from the King, who wanted clothing
for his soldiers in a hurry, as war had broken out unexpectedly.
Jack's good fortune was soon heard of by the Captain, and when his
ship was ready to sail he contrived to get one of his friends to
invite Jack to a party that evening, and then with the help of some
of his crew he broke into the shop and stole the old mill.

When Jack returned in the morning his mill was gone, and he could
just see the sails of the ship far out at sea. But he did not care
much, as he had now money enough to keep himself for many years.
Meantime the Captain in his hurry to get away had forgotten to bring
some things that were wanted, and when he found they had no salt on
board, he brought the old mill on deck, and said:

"Mill! Mill! grind away
Let us have some salt I pray,"

and immediately the mill began to grind salt at a great speed and
presently covered the deck all round where it was working, but the
Captain had forgotten the words spoken by Jack when he stopped the
mill, and though he used all the words he could think of, the mill
kept on grinding, and was rapidly filling every available space on
the deck. The Captain then ran to his cabin and brought out his
sword, and with a terrific blow he cut the mill in halves; but each
piece formed itself into a mill, and both mills continued grinding
until the ship sank to the bottom of the sea, where the mills are
still grinding in the terrible Swalchie of Stroma, and that is why
the water in the sea is salt!

There had been a ferry at John o' Groat's years before our visit, and
mails and passengers had been carried across the Firth to and from the
Orkney Islands, the distance across being shorter from this point than
from any other in Scotland; but for some unexplained reason the service
had been discontinued, and the presence of the ferry would probably
account for so many names being written in the album. The day was
already drawing to a close as we sat down to tea and the good things
provided by Mrs. Mackenzie, and we were waited upon by a Scotch lassie,
who wore neither shoes nor stockings; but this we found was nothing
unusual in the north of Scotland in those days. After tea we adjourned
to our room, and sat down in front of our peat fire; but our
conversational powers soon exhausted themselves, for we felt uncommonly
drowsy after having been exposed so long to the open air. We sat there
silently watching the curling smoke as it went up the chimney and
dreamily gazing into the caverns which had been formed in the fire
below, imagining that we could see all kinds of weird objects therein,
and then we thought of the times when we should not have been able to
rest so securely and comfortably in the "Huna Inn," when one Scottish
clan was trying to exterminate another not so far away from where we
were then sitting, for no more apparent reason than that the Scots were
born soldiers, and if they had no foreigners to fight they must fight
among themselves. We must have been nearly asleep when our reveries were
interrupted by the entrance of the shepherd, whom for the moment we had
entirely forgotten. He had come in response to our invitation to talk
with us about things in general, but particularly about John o' Groat,
and we were glad to see him, and we now give -


John o' Groat was a fisherman belonging to Holland who was caught
when at sea in a great storm which damaged his sails so that his boat
drifted almost helplessly across the sea. When he came in sight of
the Scottish coast he was carried with the current into the Pentland
Firth, and as he could not repair the sails in the boat and could not
get back to Holland with them in their damaged condition, he decided
to land on one of the islands and repair them on shore. His wife was
very much opposed to his landing on Stroma, as she thought it was a
desert island, so he got his boat across from there to the Scottish
coast; but when he attempted to land at Huna, the natives opposed his
landing, for they thought he was a pirate. Fortunately for him he
had a few kegs of gin in his boat, and when the canny Scots saw these
they became more friendly, especially as they had a great respect for
Holland's gin, and so they allowed him to land, and even helped him
to mend his sails. They afterwards allowed him to settle amongst them
on condition that he did not attempt to go into the interior of the
country, and that he built his house on the seashore. He got on well
amongst his new friends, and in time became their chief and had eight
sons, and on one festive occasion, when they all came to see him,
they quarrelled as to which should have precedence at his table, so
John told them that the next time they came he would have matters so
arranged as to avoid that kind of thing in the future. He therefore
built an entirely new house with eight sides to it and a door in
each, and made a table inside of the same octagonal shape, so that
when they came to see him again each of them could enter by his own
door and sit at his own head of the table.

In reply to our questions the shepherd said he thought this event
happened about 350 years ago, but the house had long since disappeared,
and only the site of the foundations which he had shown us previously
now remained. He also said that heaps of ladies and gentlemen came there
to picnic on the site, and he had seen them take even small stones away;
but though he had lived there for fifty years, he had never seen John o'
Groat's any different from what it was now. We asked him why John did
not return to Holland, and he said it was because he had a letter from
the king. We thanked the shepherd for his story, and, having suitably
rewarded him, bade him farewell and hurried off to bed in the fading
light of our rapidly diminishing candle.

_Sunday, September 17th._

The strict observance of the Sabbath Day in Scotland was to us a most
pleasing feature in Scottish life, and one to which we had been
accustomed from early childhood, so we had no desire to depart from it
now. We were, therefore, very pleased when Mr. and Mrs. Mackenzie
invited us to accompany them to the Free Kirk service, and, as half-past
ten o'clock was the time fixed for our departure from the inn, we
concluded that the kirk could not be far away, as that was the hour that
service began in our village church in Cheshire, but we could not
remember seeing any kirk in the neighbourhood of the "Huna Inn." We
continued walking one mile after another for more than an hour, and must
have walked quite four miles before we came in sight of the kirk, and we
were then informed that the service did not commence until twelve
o'clock! The country through which we passed was very bare, there being
a total absence of hedges and trees, so we could see people coming
towards the kirk from every direction. Everybody seemed to know

Online LibraryRobert NaylorFrom John O'Groats to Land's End → online text (page 5 of 66)