Robert Naylor.

From John O'Groats to Land's End online

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everybody else, and, as they came nearer the sacred enclosure, they
formed themselves into small groups and stood conversing with each
other, chiefly on religious matters, until the minister arrived to take
charge of his flock. He was a quaintly dressed and rather elderly man,
evidently well known, as he had a nod or a smile of recognition and a
friendly word for all. We followed him into the kirk, where we found
ourselves in the presence of quite a large congregation, and sat with
Mr. and Mrs. Mackenzie in their own pew in the rear of the kirk. The
form of the service was quite different from that to which we had been
accustomed. The congregation stood up while they prayed and sat down
while they sang the Psalms, with the exception of one man, who remained
standing in what we thought was the clerk's desk immediately below the
pulpit. This man acted as leader of the singing, but he failed to get
much assistance from the people, and had great difficulty in keeping the
singing going. Possibly the failure of the congregational singing might
be accounted for by the absence of an organ or other instrument of music
to assist and encourage the people to sing, the nearest approach to
anything of the kind being the tuning-fork which the conductor held in
his hand. There was also the fact that the sitting posture was not the
best position for bringing out the powers of the human voice; but we
came to the conclusion that music was not looked upon favourably in that
remote part of Scotland.

In front of the pulpit there was an enclosure, fenced in by the
communion rail, and inside this were seated the elders, or deacons of
the church. These were very old men with bent heads and white hair, and
had the appearance of centenarians; they were indeed the
queerest-looking group of old men we had ever seen assembled together.
But it was their noses that chiefly attracted our attention, as they
were so very long and crooked, and the strange feature about them was
that they were all of the same pattern. Their only rival, as far as we
could see, in length of nose was the minister, but we thought he had
enlarged his by artificial means, as we found to our surprise that he
was addicted to snuff-taking, a habit very prevalent in Scotland in
those days.

Then came the sermon. On the pulpit was the Bible, and beside it a
substantial box of snuff, to which the minister resorted occasionally in
the course of his long discourse. His pinches must have been
considerable, for every sniff lasted from two to three seconds, and
could be heard distinctly all over the kirk. This had a tendency to
distract our attention from his sermon, which, by the way, was a very
good one; but, owing to his rather slow delivery, we experienced a
feeling of relief when he reached the end, for it had lasted quite an

There was now a slight movement amongst the congregation, which we
interpreted as a sign that the service was at an end, and we rose to
leave; but, imagine our consternation when our friends told us that what
we had listened to was only the first part of the service, and that we
must on no account leave, as the second part was to follow immediately.
We therefore remained not altogether unwillingly, for we were curious to
know what the next service was like. It proved to be almost exactly the
same as the first, and we could not distinguish much difference between
the two sermons; but we listened attentively, and were convinced that
the preacher was a thoroughly conscientious man in spite of his
occasional long sniffs of snuff, which were continued as before, but
what astonished us was that the old gentleman never once sneezed! It
was the most remarkable service we had ever attended, and it concluded
exactly at three o'clock, having lasted three hours.

We had then to retrace our four-mile walk to "Huna Inn," but the miles
seemed rather longer, as Mrs. Mackenzie could only walk in a leisurely
manner and we were feeling very hungry. We whiled away the time by
talking about the sermons and the snuff, but chiefly about the deacons
and their wonderful noses, and why they were all alike and so strangely
crooked. Mr. Mackenzie suggested that they were crooked because if they
had grown straight they would have projected over their mouths and
prevented them from eating, the crook in them being a provision of
nature to avoid this; or, they might have descended from the Romans or
some other ancient race who had formerly inhabited the coast of that
part of Scotland. Books had been written and sermons preached about
noses, and the longer the nose the greater the intellect of the owner
was supposed to be. We told our host that there was only one-sixteenth
part of an inch between the length of Napoleon's nose and that of
Wellington's. We had forgotten which was the longer, but as Wellington's
was so conspicuous that he was nicknamed "Nosey" by his troops, and as
he had won the great battle of Waterloo, we concluded that it was his,
and gave him the benefit of the doubt. We quoted the following lines:

Knows he, that never took a pinch,
Nosey, the pleasure thence that flows?
Knows he the titillating joy
Which my nose knows?
O Nose, I am as proud of thee
As any mountain of its snows;
I gaze on thee, and feel that pride
A Roman knows.

Our host confided to us the reason why he was so anxious that we should
not leave in the middle of the service. The second service was
originally intended for those who had to come long distances to reach
the kirk, some of whom came from a place seven miles away, but in late
years the two services had become continuous. A few Sundays before our
visit some persons had left the kirk at the end of the first part, and
in his second sermon the minister had plainly described them as
followers of the Devil! so we supposed our host was anxious that we
should not be denounced in the same way.

We found our tea-dinner waiting our arrival at the inn. We sat down to
it at half-past four, and, as we rose from what was left of it at five
o'clock, having worked hard meanwhile, we may safely be credited with
having done our duty.

We had a walk with our host along the shore, and had not proceeded far
before we saw a dark-looking object some distance away in the sea. We
thought it looked like a man in a boat, rising and falling with the
waves, but Mr. Mackenzie told us that it was two whales following the
herrings that were travelling in shoals round the coasts. We were very
much interested in their strange movements, as they were the only
whales we ever saw alive, but we could not help feeling sorry for the
fish. Evening was coming on as we re-entered "Huna Inn," and when we
were again seated before our turf fire, joined by our host and hostess,
our conversation was chiefly on the adventures we had already had, the
great walk we were to begin on the morrow, and the pleasure it had given
us to see the manifest and steadfast determination of the people at the
kirk to observe the Commandment of the God of the Sabbath, "REMEMBER
THAT THOU KEEP HOLY THE SABBATH DAY." We wondered how much the
prosperity of the Scottish nation and its representatives in every part
of the "wide, wide world" was attributable to their strict observance of
the Sabbath. Who knows?


_Monday, September 18th._

We rose early and walked along the beach to Duncansbay Head, or Rongisby
as the old maps have it, gathering a few of those charming little shells
called John o'Groat Buckies by the way. After walking round the site of
John o'Groat's house, we returned to our comfortable quarters at the
Huna Inn for breakfast. John o'Groat seems to have acted with more
wisdom than many entrusted with the affairs of a nation. When his sons
quarrelled for precedence at his table, he consoled them with the
promise that when the next family gathering took place the matter should
be settled to the satisfaction of all. During the interval he built a
house having eight sides, each with a door and window, with an octagonal
table in the centre so that each of his eight sons could enter at his
own door and sit at his own side or "head" of the table. By this
arrangement - which reminded us of King Arthur's use of his round
table - he dispelled the animosity which previously prevailed. After
breakfast, and in the presence of Mr. and Mrs. Mackenzie, we made an
entry in the famous Album with name and address, object of journey, and
exact time of departure, and they promised to reserve a space beneath
the entry to record the result, which was to be posted to them
immediately we reached our journey's end.

[Illustration: JOHN O'GROAT'S HOUSE.]

It was about half-past ten o'clock when we started on our long walk
along a circuitous and unknown route from John o'Groat's to Land's End.
Our host and hostess stood watching our departure and waving adieux
until we disappeared in the distance. We were in high spirits, and soon
reached the junction of roads where we turned to the left towards Wick.
The first part of our walk was through the Parish of Canisbay, in the
ancient records of which some reference is made to the more recent
representatives of the Groat family, but as these were made two hundred
years ago, they were now almost illegible. Our road lay through a wild
moorland district with a few farms and cottages here and there, mainly
occupied by fishermen. There were no fences to the fields or roads, and
no bushes or trees, and the cattle were either herded or tied to stakes.

After passing through Canisbay, we arrived at the most northerly house
in the Parish of Wick, formerly a public-house, and recognised as the
half-way house between Wick and John o'Groat's. We found it occupied as
a farm by Mr. John Nicolson, and here we saw the skeleton of a whale
doing duty as a garden fence. The dead whale, seventy feet in length,
had been found drifting in the sea, and had been hauled ashore by the
fishermen. Mr. Nicolson had an ingenious son, who showed us a working
sun-dial in the garden in front of the house which he had constructed
out of a portion of the backbone, and in the same bone he had also
formed a curious contrivance by which he could tell the day of the
month. He told us he was the only man that studied painting in the
North, and invited us into the house, wherein several rooms he showed us
some of his paintings, which were really excellent considering they were
executed in ordinary wall paint. His mother informed us that he began to
study drawing when he was ill with a slow fever, but not bed-fast. Two
of the pictures, that of an old bachelor and a Scotch lassie, a servant,
were very good indeed. We also saw a picture of an old woman, a local
celebrity, about a hundred years old, which was considered to be an
excellent likeness, and showed the old lady's eyes so sunk in her head
as to be scarcely visible. We considered that we had here found one of
Nature's artists, who would probably have made a name for himself if
given the advantages so many have who lack the ability, for he certainly
possessed both the imaginative faculty and no small degree of dexterity
in execution. He pointed out to us the house of a farmer over the way
who slept in the Parish of Wick and took his meals in that of Canisbay,
the boundary being marked by a chimney in the centre of the roof. He
also informed us that his brother accompanied Elihu Burritt, the
American blacksmith, for some distance when he walked from London to
John o'Groat's.

We were now about eleven miles from Wick, and as Mr. Nicolson told us of
an old castle we had missed, we turned back across the moors for about a
mile and a half to view it. He warned us that we might see a man
belonging to the neighbourhood who was partly insane, and who, roaming
amongst the castle ruins, usually ran straight towards any strangers as
if to do them injury; but if we met him we must not be afraid, as he was
perfectly harmless. We had no desire to meet a madman, and luckily,
although we kept a sharp look-out, we did not see him. We found the
ruined castle resting on a rock overlooking the sea with the rolling
waves dashing on its base below; it was connected with the mainland by a
very narrow strip broken through in one place, and formerly crossed by a
drawbridge. As this was no longer available, it was somewhat difficult
to scale the embankment opposite; still we scrambled up and passed
triumphantly through the archway into the ruins, not meeting with that
resistance we fancied we should have done in the days of its daring
owner. A portion only of the tower remained, as the other part had
fallen about two years before our visit. The castle, so tradition
stated, had been built about the year 1100 by one Buchollie, a famous
pirate, who owned also another castle somewhere in the Orkneys. How men
could carry on such an unholy occupation amidst such dangerous
surroundings was a mystery to us.


On our return we again saw our friend Mr. Nicolson, who told us there
were quite a number of castles in Caithness, as well as Pictish forts
and Druidical circles, a large proportion of the castles lying along the
coast we were traversing. He gave us the names of some of them, and told
us that they materially enhanced the beauty of this rock-bound coast. He
also described to us a point of the coast near Ackergill, which we
should pass, where the rocks formed a remarkably perfect profile of the
Great Duke of Wellington, though others spoke of it as a black giant. It
could only be seen from the sea, but was marvellously correct and
life-like, and of gigantic proportions.

Acting on Mr. Nicolson's instructions, we proceeded along the beach to
Keiss Castle, and ascended to its second storey by means of a rustic
ladder. It was apparently of a more recent date than Buchollie, and a
greater portion of it remained standing. A little to the west of it we
saw another and more modern castle, one of the seats of the Duke of
Portland, who, we were told, had never yet visited it. Before reaching
the village of Keiss, we came to a small quay, where we stayed a short
time watching the fishermen getting their smacks ready before sailing
out to sea, and then we adjourned to the village inn, where we were
provided with a first-class tea, for which we were quite ready. The
people at the inn evidently did not think their business inconsistent
with religion, for on the walls of the apartment where we had our tea
were hanging two pictures of a religious character, and a motto "Offer
unto God thanksgiving," and between them a framed advertisement of
"Edinburgh Ales"!

After tea we continued our journey until we came to the last house in
the village of Keiss, a small cottage on the left-hand side of the road,
and here we called to inspect a model of John o'Groat's house, which had
been built by a local stonemason, and exhibited at the great Exhibition
in London in 1862. Its skilful builder became insane soon after he had
finished it, and shortly afterwards died. It was quite a palatial model
and much more handsome than its supposed original was ever likely to
have been. It had eight doors with eight flights of steps leading up to
them, and above were eight towers with watchmen on them, and inside the
house was a table with eight sides made from wood said to have been from
the original table in the house of Groat, and procured from one of his
descendants. The model was accompanied by a ground plan and a print of
the elevation taken from a photo by a local artist. There was no charge
for admission or for looking at the model, but a donation left with the
fatherless family was thankfully received.

We now walked for miles along the seashore over huge sand-hills with
fine views of the herring-boats putting out to sea. We counted fifty-six
in one fleet, and the number would have been far greater had not Noss
Head intervened to obstruct our view, as many more went out that night
from Wick, although the herring season was now nearly over. We passed
Ackergill Tower, the residence of Sir George Dunbar, and about two miles
farther on we came to two old castles quite near to each other, which
were formerly the strongholds of the Earls of Caithness. They were named
Girnigoe and Sinclair. Girnigoe was the oldest, and under the ruins of
the keep was a dismal dungeon.

It was now getting dark, and not the pleasantest time to view old
castles surrounded by black rocks with the moan of the sea as it invaded
the chasms of the rocks on which they stood. Amongst these lonely ruins
we spoke of the past, for had our visit been three centuries earlier,
the dismal sounds from the sea below would have mingled with those from
the unfortunate young man chained up in that loathsome dungeon, whose
only light came from a small hole high up in the wall. Such was John,
Master of Caithness, the eldest son of the fifth Sinclair, Earl of
Caithness, who is said to have been imprisoned here because he had wooed
and won the affections of the daughter of a neighbouring laird, marked
out by his father, at that time a widower, for himself. He was confined
in that old dungeon for more than six long years before death released
him from his inhuman parent.

During his imprisonment John had three keepers appointed over
him - Murdoch Roy and two brothers named Ingram and David Sinclair. Roy
attended him regularly, and did all the menial work, as the other two
keepers were kinsmen of the earl, his father, who had imprisoned him.
Roy was sorry for the unfortunate nobleman, and arranged a plot to set
him at liberty, which was unfortunately discovered by John's brother
William, who bore him no good will. William told his father, the earl,
who immediately ordered Roy to be executed. The poor wretch was
accordingly brought out and hanged on the common gibbet of the castle
without a moment being allowed him to prepare for his final account.

Soon afterwards, in order to avenge the death of Roy, John, who was a
man of great bodily strength and whose bad usage and long imprisonment
had affected his mind, managed to seize his brother William on the
occasion of his visit to the dungeon and strangle him. This only
deepened the earl's antipathy towards his unhappy son, and his keepers
were encouraged to put him to death. The plan adopted was such as could
only have entered the imagination of fiends, for they withheld food from
their prisoner for the space of five days, and then set before him a
piece of salt beef of which he ate voraciously. Soon after, when he
called for water, they refused to give him any, and he died of raging
thirst. Another account said they gave him brandy, of which he drank so
copiously that he died raving mad. In any case, there is no doubt
whatever that he was barbarously done to death.

[Illustration: GIRNIGOE CASTLE.]

Every castle along the seacoast had some story of cruelty connected with
it, but the story of Girnigoe was perhaps the worst of all, and we were
glad to get away from a place with such dismal associations.

About a hundred years after this sad event the Clan of the Campbells of
Glenorchy declared war on the Sinclairs of Keiss, and marched into
Caithness to meet them; but the Sinclairs instead of going out to meet
them at the Ord of Caithness, a naturally fortified position, stayed at
home, and the Campbells took up a strong position at Altimarloch, about
two miles from Wick. The Sinclairs spent the night before the battle
drinking and carousing, and then attacked the Campbells in the strong
position they had taken up, with the result that the Sinclairs were
routed and many of them perished.

They meet, they close in deadly strife,
But brief the bloody fray;
Before the Campbells' furious charge
The Caithness ranks give way.

The shrieking mother wrung her hands,
The maiden tore her hair,
And all was lamentation loud,
And terror, and despair.

It was commonly said that the well-known quicksteps, "The Campbells are
coming" and the "Braes of Glenorchy" obtained their names from this

The Sinclairs of Keiss were a powerful and warlike family, and they soon
regained their position. It was a pleasing contrast to note that in 1765
Sir William Sinclair of Keiss had laid aside his sword, embracing the
views held by the Baptists, and after being baptized in London became
the founder of that denomination in Caithness and a well-known preacher
and writer of hymns.

In his younger days he was in the army, where he earned fame as an
expert swordsman, his fame in that respect spreading throughout the
countryside. Years after he had retired from the service, while sitting
in his study one forenoon intently perusing a religious work, his valet
announced the arrival of a stranger who wished to see him. The servant
was ordered to show him into the apartment, and in stalked a strong
muscular-looking man with a formidable Andrea Ferrara sword hanging by
his side, and, making a low obeisance, he thus addressed the knight:

"Sir William, I hope you will pardon my intrusion. I am a native of
England and a professional swordsman. In the course of my travels
through Scotland, I have not yet met with a gentleman able to cope with
me in the noble science of swordsmanship. Since I came to Caithness I
have heard that you are an adept with my favourite weapon, and I have
called to see if you would do me the honour to exchange a few passes
with me just in the way of testing our respective abilities."

Sir William was both amused and astonished at this extraordinary
request, and replied that he had long ago thrown aside the sword, and,
except in case of necessity, never intended to use it any more. But the
stranger would take no denial, and earnestly insisted that he would
favour him with a proof of his skill.

"Very well," said Sir William, "to please you I shall do so," and,
rising and fetching his sword, he desired the stranger, who was an
ugly-looking fellow, to draw and defend himself. After a pass or two Sir
William, with a dexterous stroke, cut off a button from the vest of his

"Will that satisfy you," inquired Sir William; "or shall I go a little
deeper and draw blood?"

"Oh, I am perfectly satisfied," said the other. "I find I have for once
met a gentleman who knows how to handle his sword."

In about half a mile after leaving the ruins of these old castles we saw
the Noss Head Lighthouse, with its powerful light already flashing over
the darkening seas, and we decided to visit it. We had to scale several
fences, and when we got there we found we had arrived long after the
authorised hours for the admission of visitors. We had therefore some
difficulty in gaining an entrance, as the man whose attention we had
attracted did not at first understand why we could not come again the
next day. When we explained the nature of our journey, he kindly
admitted us through the gate. The lighthouse and its surroundings were
scrupulously clean, and if we had been Her Majesty's Inspectors of
Lighthouses, if such there be, we could not have done otherwise than
report favourably of our visit. The attendants were very kind to us, one
of them accompanying us to the top, and as the lighthouse was 175 feet
high, we had a great number of steps to climb. We had never seen the
interior of a lighthouse before, and were greatly interested in the
wonderful mechanism by which the flashlight was worked. We were much
impressed by the incalculable value of these national institutions,
especially in such dangerous positions as we knew from experience
prevailed on those stormy coasts. We were highly delighted with our
novel adventure, and, after regaining the entrance, we walked briskly
away; but it was quite dark before we had covered the three miles that
separated the lighthouse from the fishery town of Wick. Here we procured
suitable lodgings, and then hurried to the post office for the letters
that waited us, which we were delighted to read, for it seemed ages
since we left home.

(_Distance walked twenty-five miles_.)


_Tuesday, September 19th._

We had our first experience of a herring breakfast, and were surprised
to find how delicious they tasted when absolutely fresh. There was an
old proverb in Wick: "When the herrings come in, the doctors go out!"
which may indicate that these fish had some medicinal value; but more
likely the saying referred to the period of plenty following that of
want and starvation. We went down to the quay and had a talk with some
of the fishermen whom we met returning from their midnight labours.

Online LibraryRobert NaylorFrom John O'Groats to Land's End → online text (page 6 of 66)