John O’ Groats is a popular tourist destination on the northern-most 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.
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Review of John O’ Groats
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, that 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 looking out over the North Sea with the isles of Orkney and Stroma forming a 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.
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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 where there’s 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.
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 northern 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.
Things to do at John O’ Groats
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) so you could just stop there for a photo before racing off to do the rest of the NC500 if you like, but that would mean missing out on the best bits of the 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.
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.
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. 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.
- It’s an iconic attraction that doesn’t have to cost a penny – unless you visit the tourist souvenir shops.
- John o’ Groats makes a great destination to get a ferry to Orkney and there is a lot to view while you wait.
- The wildlife and scenery around this part of Scotland are fantastic. Take your binoculars with you and spend time looking out to sea. See my guide to recommended binoculars to use in Scotland.
- Take a walk to Duncansby Head while you’re at John O’ Groats. My Complete Guide to Duncansby Head will help you make the most of a visit.
- The signpost is horrendously busy at midday so it’s really difficult to get a photo of it. Try again early morning or early evening.
- Want to look for orcas? Head to Duncansby lighthouse as it offers elevated views of the sea from the car park.
Photo gallery and video
Things to do near John O’ Groats
- 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 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 machir fields often have sheep in them therefore it is not advisable to take dogs.
More places to visit in The Highlands
- The Highland Wildlife Park – Highland: Complete Visitor GuideSitting in around 260 acres of beautifully managed parkland in the Cairngorms, the Highland Wildlife Park showcases some of the wildlife that can be found in the mountains and wilderness areas of Scotland, as well as several species that are currently endangered in mountainous regions all over the world.
- The Cairngorm Mountain Funicular – Highland: Complete Visitor GuideThe Cairngorm mountain is the UK’s sixth-highest and is well-known for being Scotland’s premier snowsports destination.
- The Glenfinnan Monument – Inverness-shire: Complete Visitor GuideThe Glenfinnan Monument sits at the north-east head of Loch Shiel where it has commanded spectacular views of the Highland landscape since its construction in 1815.
- The Complete Guide to Free Attractions in The HighlandsDiscover the best free attractions in Scotland with my list of free attractions in The Highlands