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John O'Groats (supp. fl. 1496/1523), supposed ferryman, who gave his name to what is popularly believed to be the most northerly inhabited place in Scotland, is likely to be either identical with or related to the John Groat who in 1496 received a grant of land in Duncansby from William Sinclair, second earl of Caithness, or to the John O'Grot of Duncansby who in 1523 was recorded as the earl of Caithness's bailie in those parts. There is no contemporary evidence to support later legends that this John was a Dutchman originally named Jan Groot, who was appointed by James IV to run a ferry between Scotland and the Orkney Islands, but the story of the ferry is given at least some substance by a deed of November 1549, by which Earl George ordered that John Groat, son of Findlay Groat, should be infeft ‘in the ferry-house and ferry and 20 feet round about the said house’ (Calder, 285). The Groat family remained in the north of Caithness for some two centuries afterwards. At least four generations are commemorated by tombstones in the churchyard at Canisbay. A ferryman named John Groat is recorded in 1656, and the ferry remained in the hands of his presumed descendants until 1741, when they fell on hard times and had to dispose of land, the meal mill, the ferry house, and boats.

Legends abound concerning the Groat family and the place name John o' Groats. For instance, it is told that the Groats held an annual feast to celebrate their arrival in Scotland from Holland, gatherings that became increasingly disputatious as a result of conflicting claims to the right to sit at the head of the table. The original John Groat is therefore said to have built a symmetrical eight-sided house, with eight doors and an octagonal table, so that none of his kinsmen could justly claim any position of seniority at future meetings. The diplomatic John's name became attached to his house and to the local community, and a late nineteenth-century hotel (built in 1876) added an eight-sided room to perpetuate the story, which, however, is first recorded only in Sir John Sinclair's Statistical Account of Scotland of 1793. Nevertheless, the late nineteenth-century antiquary John Nicolson is reported to have claimed to have found the old foundation of a house with eight sides close to the hotel. Another story associated with John O'Groats relates that the ancestor of the Groats was a ferryman plying between Caithness and Orkney who charged 1 groat (4d.) for the journey. The ferryman became John o' the Groat, and gave his name to the district. Since the fare for crossing the Pentland Firth in the seventeenth century was £4, this tale can be dismissed. The unreliability of such stories notwithstanding, its picturesque name and geographical location serve to keep John o' Groats in the public eye, above all as the starting or the finishing point for innumerable extended walks, many of them undertaken for charitable purposes.

Donald Omand

Sources  

J. T. Calder, History of Caithness (1887) · J. Sinclair, Statistical account of Scotland, 1791–1799 [new edn], ed. J. Withrington and I. R. Grant, 20 vols. (1977–83), vol. 8 · Murray's handbook for travellers in Scotland, 6th edn (1894), 418; repr. (1971)