John O’ Groats

By Craig Neil
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Summary

John O’ Groats is a popular tourist destination on the northernmost tip of Scotland that has gained popularity since becoming a major stop on the NC500 tourist trail.

The site includes several family-friendly attractions including an art gallery, gift shops and restaurants, but it is the signpost that’s the real draw and getting a photograph taken under it is at the top of most North-Scotland visitors ‘must-do’ lists.

Address:John O'Groats,
Wick,
Scotland,
KW1 4YT
Opening Hours:24/7. Shop opening times vary.
Admission Price:Free
Parking:Free on-site car park
Contact:https://www.visitjohnogroats.com/contact-us/
Facilities:Shops, cafe, restaurant, toilets, accommodation, sea tours

The highlights

1: This is an iconic attraction that’s completely free to visit. The famous signpost won’t take long to see (other than waiting in line to snap a selfie) but there are several souvenir shops to pop into afterwards.

2: John o’ Groats is a good place to catch a ferry to Orkney and there is a lot to see in the area while you wait.

3: The wildlife and scenery around this part of Scotland are fantastic. Take your binoculars with you and spend time looking out to sea for dolphins. See my guide to recommended binoculars to use in Scotland.

John o Groats

Visiting tips

1: Take a walk to Duncansby Head while you’re at John O’ Groats. The Complete Guide to Duncansby Head will help you make the most of a visit.

2: The signpost is horrendously busy at midday so it’s really difficult to get a photo without strangers being in the way. Try in the early morning or early evening when the attraction is empty.

3: Want to look for orcas? Head to Duncansby lighthouse as it offers elevated views of the sea from the car park.


Overview

I think it’s fair to say that most people have heard of John o’ Groats, the northern-most point of the UK mainland with its iconic signpost overlooking the harbour, which like its twin at Lands End in Cornwall offers more photo opportunities than you can poke a selfie stick at.

This is a tourist attraction that’s been a favourite destination for road-trippers for many years but it exploded in popularity in 2015 when the North Coast 500 route was launched by the tourist board of the North Highland Initiative.

Since then it has been heavily advertised as a major stopping-off point of the NC500 and each year tens of thousands of hikers, cyclists, bikers and drivers come to the site to stand on the raised platform and look out over the North Sea.

John o Groats

It’s not a bad view to be honest, with the isles of Orkney and Stroma presenting an attractive backdrop against the signpost that points towards Edinburgh (273 miles), Orkney (8 miles), Lands End (847 miles), and New York (a mere 3,230 miles).

But is it worth visiting just to get a photo of a sticker-covered signpost?

Well, I’d have to say yes it is, but don’t go expecting to spend an entire day at the visitor centre. Instead, I suggest you get out and explore the Caithness coastline which is one of the nicest in Scotland (and much more photogenic than a pole stuck in the ground).

John o’ Groats is an attraction that’s been created around a single feature – the northern-most point of Britain – but if you delve a little deeper you’ll find lots of wildlife, dramatic views, and several really good walks in addition to the over-priced coffees and tourist-trap plastic souvenirs.

John o Groats

There are actually two parts to John O’ Groats. The first is the village that’s slightly inland and is officially the most northern inhabited settlement in mainland Britain, and the second is the End of the Road harbour area where you’ll find the shops and cafés.

While there isn’t a huge amount to see in the village (unless you need a post office or want to stock up on eggs from the grocery store) you’ll find a few things to do in the harbour area.

The site features an art gallery, a snack van, a couple of places to eat, and a gift shop with all the Scottish-themed t-shirts, pens and tea towels you could ever wish for.

Nearby you’ll find a tourist information point where you’ll be able to pick up a map of the area (useful for exploring the coastal walks on offer) and the brightly coloured lodges of the John O’ Groats Inn that has been restored as part of a multi-million-pound regeneration of the area.

John o Groats

And of course, standing proudly in the middle of all this is the gleaming-white signpost, proudly displaying sites around the world with their distances to the most northern point of Britain.

It’s a bit of a shame then, that the most northerly point of Britain is actually 15 miles around the coast at Dunnet Head.

Still, if you’re in this part of Scotland I think you’ll enjoy a visit to John O’ Groats, and you’ll get plenty of opportunities to update your Instagram and Facebook photos as well.

John o Groats

Tourist information

As already mentioned I wouldn’t bother visiting the village unless you need some shopping but the visitor centre should keep you occupied for a couple of hours at least.

Bonus points go to the owners of the site for offering free car parking (unlike its southern counterpart at Lands End) and free photos of the signpost (again, unlike Lands End).

You could just stop there for a photo before racing off to do the rest of the NC500, but that would mean missing out on the best bits of this tourist attraction.

First off there’s an octagonal-shaped gift shop that was designed in commemoration of the man that the place is named after – Jan de Groot.

John o Groats

Originally from Holland, Jan de Groot settled in this part of Scotland in the 1400s where he ran a successful ferry business carrying people and livestock from the mainland to Orkney.

As his family grew his seven sons began fighting over who should become the next head of the family so in a clever attempt to stop the in-fighting he built an octagonal house with eight doors and an eight-sided table.

The story goes that each son would enter the house via his own door and take a seat at the octagonal table – which meant none of them could ever be head of the table.

It’s not by coincidence that the gift shop is also octagonal as it’s located close to the John o’ Groats House Hotel that’s believed to be the original location of the de Groot family home, although it now provides modern luxury lodging with panoramic window views across to the isles of Stroma and Orkney.

In a way, the de Groot family business continues to this day because you can still catch a ferry to the Orkney islands from the harbour – although I’m guessing the modern diesel engine ferry crossing of 40 minutes is considerably faster than Jan de Groot’s wind-powered vessel.

John o Groats

If you’re not intending to take the ferry then one recommendation I’ve got for you is to pop inside the John O’ Groats Gallery and take a look at the arts and crafts made by local artists.

Some of the pieces in there are lovely and would make a great memento of your time in this part of Scotland, especially the locally-sourced wood carvings.

There’s a decent café in the visitor centre that’s got outside seating and there’s another coffee shop and a snack van towards the harbour if you’re feeling peckish – which you will be after enjoying a walk along the coast.

There are rough footpaths heading both east and west but I think the best choice is to head west towards the Duncansby Stacks.

John o Groats

It’s an easy walk that takes you across rolling fields of wildflowers to Duncansby Head with its old lighthouse and impressive gorge that has vertical cliffs down to the crashing waves over a hundred feet below.

You might be lucky enough to see nesting Atlantic puffins during their May-July breeding season and you’ll be able to see guillemots, razorbills and fulmars throughout the year as well as grey seals, sea otters and even the occasional orca.

The coastline is stunning around John O’ Groats so I’d make it your main priority, with the famous signpost relegated to just one last thing to see after an epic walk.

Explore this area with a detailed paper map from Ordnance Survey:

Thurso & John o’ Groats – 451 Explorer.

Thurso & Wick – 12 Landranger.

Orkney – Southern Isles – 7 Landranger.

OS Explorer Maps: Best for walking, mountain biking, and finding footpaths. 1:25,000 scale (4cm = 1km in real world). Buy OS Explorer maps direct from Ordnance Survey.

OS Landranger Maps: Best for road cycling, touring by car, and finding attractions. 1:50 000 scale (2 cm = 1 km in real world). Buy OS Landranger maps direct from Ordnance Survey.


Things to do nearby

Duncansby Head. Wick KW1 4YS. 7-minute drive A promontory that is within walking distance of John O’Groats and is officially the most northern part of Britain.

There is a historic lighthouse with a visitor car park and the trail to the impressive Duncansby Sea Stacks offers stunning clifftop walks.

Wick. Wick KW1 5EN. 24-minute drive. One of the largest towns in Caithness, a hundred years ago it had one of the busiest herring fishing industries in the world.

Today, many visitors use Wick as a base to explore the remote surrounding area. The town centre has modern conveniences such as food stores, restaurants and petrol stations.

Castle and Gardens of Mey. Mey, Thurso KW14 8XH. 14-minute drive. A restored fortress overlooking the North Sea that features extensive grounds.

The castle dates from the 16th century and was the home of the Queen Mother before opening to the public. There is a gift shop and a café on site.

Nybster. Nybster, Wick KW1 4XR. 12-minute drive. A much-visited coastal region that has a variety of wildlife walks along the seafront where visitors can watch puffins, seals and a variety of seabirds. There are also several brochs (ancient fortifications) in the area.

Bay of Sannick. Wick KW1 4YS. 30-minute walk. Picturesque bay with a golden sand beach that is an easy walk from John O’ Groats. The surrounding machair fields often have sheep in them therefore it is not advisable to take dogs.


Frequently asked questions

How do I get to John O’ Groats?

Address: Wick, Scotland, KW1 4YT

Directions map: Google Maps

What is special about John O’ Groats?

John O’ Groats is billed as the most northerly point in Britain and is twinned with Land’s End in Cornwall, which lies 867 miles to the south.

Why is it called John O’ Groats?

John O’ Groats is named after the Dutchman Jan de Groot who settled in the area in the late 1400s and ran a successful ferry service between the mainland harbour and the Isle of Orkney.

Is there anything at John O’ Groats?

John O’ Groats has a large car park, gift shops, cafés serving hot food and drinks, and a hotel. There are extensive coastal walks, especially around the coastline to the east and the Duncansby Stacks.

The harbour at John O’ Groats has a number of pleasure cruises for wildlife spotting, as well as ferry sailings to Orkney. Visit the official website for updated information on available facilities.

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