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Edinburgh John O'Groat
Literary Society 1959
John O’ Groat’s is the mecca of tourists who visit Caithness, because, apart from its association with the Dutchman, Jan De Groot, they believe that they are visiting the northmost point of Scotland. This assumption is, of course, incorrect, because Dunnet Head has the rightful claim to being “farthest North.”
The last village in Scotland is the pretty village of Brough, near Dunnet Bay, near St.John’s Loch, and overlooking the sea, and, flanked by moorland, it surely deserves a much more attractive name. Once one leaves the village behind, the road winds up through the moors, criss-crossed with the scars of centuries of peat cutting, dotted here and there with “peedie” lochans, and with always the sea for companion, till ultimately one reaches the lighthouse, This, of course, is worth a visit, and one could write a lot about the lighthouses and lighthouse keeping, but at the moment we are concerned with the view obtained from this northmost point, and with the exhilarating breaths of fresh air of which there is naturally an abundance.
Looking over the wall one is awed by the majesty of the restless, rolling sea, the steep rock formations dotted with myriads of sea-fowl - the endless swoop and dive and curve of feathered bodies, part of the poetry of movement around our rocky shores, in tune with the dash of waves against the cliffs and with the lift and fall of lacy spume where sea and air and land commute and commingle. And all the time one listens to the endless song of the sea.
Beyond this vasty stretch of water, which is part of the Pentland Firth, where it is said seven tides meet, and where ~ll too often the “white horses” are galloping wildly, one sees the first of those islands of the sea which are known as the Orkneys. Unless there is a mist or fog when, of course, they cannot be seen, they look beautiful and mysterious, with lovely colourings or rose where the sun strikes the sandstone of the cliffs, The Old Man of Hoy stands sentinal, as he has stood for centuries, watching with impassive face the changing yet unchanging scene. Here and there a little boat is dotted on the sea, and if there is a heavy swell the St.Ola may be seen rising and dipping on that blue-grey stretch of water - but that brings back a memory!
Incidentally, the sea is slowly but surely encroaching on the land, as periodically the site of first one fog-horn and then of another has had to be abandoned. Maybe King Neptune is jealous, or maybe, the sirens of the sea, or maybe the witches who grind the salt, who knows?
Now come away down to that stretch between the Lighthouse and the Brough, to where there are remains of brick-built wartime installations, and climb up the very rough track, past some more semi-demolished buildings, and on to that spot where the peat moss is all around, arid only the sea lies beyond. This is the road the tractors take when they bring home the peats, but there are some brave souls who take their long-suffering cars up and down this stony track, and one sunny morning we were surprised to meet a car coming down with a naked Jehu at the wheel. Not an “atomic”, not a “naturist”, but one of the worthy citizens of Dunnet, who obviously had been getting very close to nature indeed! However, diverting as that may be, let us plod on to the top.
Here one is “away from it all”. Here one has time to “stand and stare” as the poet said, to be at one with the past as one gazes across a countryside little changed from byegone days, to be enjoying to-day, revelling in the peaceful beauty, breathing in that heady mixture of sea and moorland air, feeling relaxed and free, and so far as the future is concerned, knowing that if one is spared to do so, one can come back again many times for that “something” which some of us find only in the unspoiled places of Caithness.
Oftimes we came up here to work at the peats in the Summer, and always there was something new to give pleasure - the first tiny violets of parma and purple, the golden trusses of gorse, the soft green spiralling tendrils of young bracken, the bell- heather in its bright glory, and then masses and masses of heather stretching far and wide, till now, when it has all died down to a carpet of russet brown and deep dark wine red. There has always been the beauty of the skies with their majestic cloud effects, and in the quiet evenings, sunsets of beauty unsurpassed.
There must be many a crock of gold hidden in Dunnet Head, for often the end of a rainbow rests there and throws its span of loveliness across the sky and sea. How seldom do we remember that this arc of glowing colours is the symbol of divine promise that seedtime and harvest shall never cease?
And now when one has finished gazing around one can retrace one’s steps, wondering a little, perhaps, what they thought of it all, those strangers who lived and moved and had their being there, at Dunnet Head, during the War, “and whence and whither flown again, who knows?”
Their legacy is a better road, and the freedom to walk
its pleasant ways - a pleasure and a freedom which you, too, can enjoy when next you visit this Northmost point of Scotland.
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