National Geographic : 1956 Jul
The National Geographic Magazine "One such place," writes R.L.S., "has im pressed itself upon my memory beyond all others. On a rock by the water's edge, old fighting men of the Norse breed had planted a double castle; the two stood wall to wall like semi-detached villas; and yet feud had run so high between their owners, that one, from out of a window, shot the other as he stood in his own doorway." Following in Stevenson's footsteps, I passed the old castles of Girnigoe and Sinclair (page 44) and slept that night in the village of Keiss, where another grim ruin rears black towers skywards. At Keiss I arranged to spend the night in the home of a young fisher man and his sister. Only a few miles now separated me from my goal, but I scorned the suggestion of an other resident that I should take the bus. Well it was that I did, for my young friends were the means of introducing me to two de scendants of John o' Groat himself. This interesting couple, William Nicolson and his sister, lived in a dwelling known as the Half-Way House, a mile or two out of Keiss (page 48). Their father, John Nicol son, whose great-grandmother was a member of the famous Groat family, died in 1934 at the age of 91. One of the Nicolsons' oldest friends, Dr. Charles Malcolm, Keeper of the Signet Li brary in Edinburgh, has brought to light as much of the true story as is known of the famous ferryman, John o' Groat. John o' Groat May Have Been a Scot There seems no good explanation for the generally accepted statement that John was a Dutchman. A charter was granted to one John Groat by the Earl of Caithness (not by the King of Scotland, as is usually stated) in 1496 to the ferry and "ferrylands of Duncans bay." John was not only ferryman but also factor and chamberlain to the Earl of Caith ness, and two of John's sons, Hugh and Gil bert, entered the church as priests. John's house must have been an unusual one, for more than one old authority mentions it, though not very explicitly. Rumor credits him with tact, for his seven sons were of such turbulent dispositions that their father built a house with eight doors and an octagonal table, which would give all the men equal precedence! William Nicolson, an artist in his spare time, showed me his portfolio of water colors. Meanwhile his sister, also an artist, set on the table such a variety of home-baked dishes as I had not tasted in my long journey. Thus fortified, I set out on the last lap. The sun was shining as I topped a rise and looked out over Pentland Firth. On the shore stands a turreted hotel; its flagpole occupies the reputed site of John's octagonal house. Later I crossed on the ferry to visit Stroma and was hospitably housed at the manse. The island has some 275 inhabitants, a church, school, shop, and lighthouse, but no hotel and no piped water. On its towering cliffs millions of sea birds have their tene ments. Queen Mother Brings Romance The weather was now perfect. I could see the island kingdom of the Orkneys strung out to northward; even the tower of the Cathedral of St. Magnus at Kirkwall was visible beyond Scapa Flow. South of the islands the main land swung away to its northern extremity at Dunnet Head. The white church of Canisbay stood conspicuous in the foreground amid its tombstones, under one of which John o' Groat reputedly lies "across the last ferry." Still in sunshine, I left Stroma next day by ferry and made my way to Dunnet Head. Be hind a small wood I passed deserted Barrogill Castle, once called "Castle of Mey," which I was told was for sale. Another deserted house, I thought sadly. The delight and surprise of the people of Caithness can be imagined when it was announced later that the Queen Mother had bought it for a Scottish residence. When I visited Dunnet, the Queen Mother was expected soon on a private visit to friends, and the little village of Brough was in a state of suppressed expectancy. "I don't suppose I'll have much chance of seeing her, though," said an old woman who had asked me in to her fireside for a chat, "for she'll be in the car when she passes." Little did she think that in a very short time she would be a tenant on the Queen Mother's estate! Not far from Barrogill lies St. John's Loch, a placid sheet of reed-fringed water famed in olden time for its healing powers. I did not forget, before starting my return journey, to fling into its shining depths my groat of grati tude, a threepenny bit and a penny, for a happy journey. For they say the saint is as particular in exacting this tribute from travel ers as his namesake, the old ferryman.