At eight o'clock in the morning we were comfortably seated in the coach which was bound for Wick, with our luggage and the two hampers safely secured on the roof above, and after a ride of about six miles we were left, with our belongings, at the side of the highway where the by-road leading in the direction of John o' Groat's branched off to the left across the open country. The object of our walk had become known to our fellow-passengers, and they all wished us a pleasant journey as the coach moved slowly away. Two other men who had friends in the coach also alighted at the same place, and we joined them in waving adieux, which were acknowledged from the coach, as long as it remained in sight. They also very kindly assisted us to carry our luggage as far as they were going on our way, and then they helped us to scheme how best to carry it ourselves.
We had brought some strong cord with us from Thurso, and with the aid of this they contrived to sling the hampers over our shoulders, leaving us free to carry the remainder of our luggage in the usual way, and then, bidding us a friendly farewell, left us to continue on our lonely way towards John o' Groat's. We must have presented an extraordinary appearance with these large baskets extending behind our backs, and we created great curiosity and some amusement amongst the men, women, and children who were hard at work harvesting in the country through which we passed.
My brother said it reminded him of Christian in John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, who carried the burden on his back and wanted to get rid of it; while I thought of Sinbad the Sailor, who, when wrecked on a desert island, was compelled to carry the Old Man of the Sea on his shoulders, and he also wanted to get rid of his burden; but we agreed that, like both of these worthy characters, we should be obliged to carry our burdens to the end of the journey.
We had a fine view of Dunnet Head, which is said to be the Cape Orcas mentioned by Diodorus Siculus, the geographer who lived in the time of Julius Cæsar, and of the lighthouse which had been built on the top of it in 1832, standing quite near the edge of the cliff.
The light from the lantern, which was 346 feet above the highest spring tide, could be seen at a distance of 23 miles; but even this was sometimes obscured by the heavy storms from the west when the enormous billows from the Atlantic dashed against the rugged face of the cliff and threw up the spray as high as the lights of the building itself, so that the stones they contained have been known to break the glass in the building; such, indeed, was the prodigious combined force of the wind and sea upon the headland, that the very rock seemed to tremble as if it were affected by an earthquake.
While on the coach we had passed the hamlets of Murkle and Castlehill. Between these two places was a sandy pool on the seashore to which a curious legend was attached. The story goes that -
a young lad on one occasion discovered a mermaid bathing and by some means or other got into conversation with her and rendered himself so agreeable that a regular meeting at the same spot took place between them. This continued for some time. The young man grew exceedingly wealthy, and no one could tell how he became possessed of such riches. He began to cut a dash amongst the lasses, making them presents of strings of diamonds of vast value, the gifts of the fair sea nymph. By and by he began to forget the day of his appointment; and when he did come to see her, money and jewels were his constant request. The mermaid lectured him pretty sharply on his love of gold, and, exasperated at his perfidy in bestowing her presents on his earthly fair ones, enticed him one evening rather farther than usual, and at length showed him a beautiful boat, in which she said she would convey him to a cave in Darwick Head, where she had all the wealth of all the ships that ever were lost in the Pentland Firth and on the sands of Dunnet. He hesitated at first, but the love of gold prevailed, and off they set to the cave in question. And here, says the legend, he is confined with a chain of gold, sufficiently long to admit of his walking at times on a small piece of sand under the western side of the Head; and here, too, the fair siren laves herself in the tiny waves on fine summer evenings, but no consideration will induce her to loose his fetters of gold, or trust him one hour out of her sight.
We walked on at a good pace and in high spirits, but, after having knocked about for nine days and four nights and having travelled seven or eight hundred miles by land and sea, the weight of our extra burden began to tell upon us, and we felt rather tired and longed for a rest both for mind and body in some quiet spot over the week's end, especially as we had decided to begin our long walk on the Monday morning.
Visions of a good hotel which we felt sure we should find at John o' Groat's began to haunt us, and the more hungry we became the brighter were our anticipations of the good fare that awaited us. But judge of our surprise and disappointment when a man whom we met on the road told us there was no hotel there at all! We asked if he thought we could get lodgings at John o' Groat's House itself, but the sardonic grin that spread over his features when he told us that that house had vanished long ago was cruel. The information gave us quite a shock, and our spirits seemed to fall below zero as we turned our backs on the man without even thanking him for answering our questions. We felt not too full, but too empty for words, as we were awfully hungry, and I heard my brother murmur something that sounded very like "Liar"; but the man's information turned out to be perfectly correct.
Our luggage also began to feel heavier, and the country gradually became more wild and desolate. Our spirits revived a little when a fisherman told us of a small inn that we should reach a mile or two before coming to John o' Groat's. We thought we had surely come to the end of everywhere when we reached the "Huna Inn," for it stood some distance from any other house and at the extreme end of an old lane that terminated at the sea. It was a small, primitive structure, but it was now our only hope, as far as we knew, for obtaining lodgings, and we could scarcely restrain our delight when we were told we could be accommodated there until Monday morning. It was an intense relief to us to be separated from our cumbersome luggage, and we must say that Mr. and Mrs. Mackenzie did all in their power to make us comfortable and happy and to make us feel at home. We contented ourselves with some light refreshments which to some non-pedestrians might have appeared decidedly heavy, and then decided to see all that remained of John o' Groat's House.
Walking along the beach for about a mile and a half, the distance we were told that separated the ruins from the inn, we failed to find them, and were about to return when we met a shepherd who said we had already passed them. We therefore returned with him, as he told us he was going to the inn, and he showed us a few mounds of earth covered with grass which marked the site of the foundations of John o' Groat's House, but the stones had been removed to build a storehouse, or granary, at a place he pointed out in the distance. We were rather disappointed, as we expected to find some extensive remains, and, seeing they were so very scanty, we wondered why, in a land where stones were so plentiful, some monument or inscribed stone had not been erected to mark the site where this remarkable house once stood, as, in the absence of some one to direct them, strangers, like ourselves, might pass and repass these remains without noticing them.
We were not long in reaching the inn, for the shepherd was a big man and took very long strides, and here we wrote a few short letters to our friends to advise them of our safe arrival at John o' Groat's, afterwards walking to the post office about a mile away to post them, and ordering a high tea to be ready for us on our return. It was half-past eight when we finished our tea, after which we were conducted to a little room close to the sea, with two tiny windows in it, one of them without a blind, and with a peat or turf fire burning brightly on the hearth. Mrs. Mackenzie then brought us a small candle, which she lighted, and handed us a book which she said was the "Album," and we amused ourselves with looking over this for the remainder of the evening. It was quite a large volume, dating from the year 1839, and the following official account of the Groat family, headed with a facsimile of the "Groat Arms," was pasted inside the cover:
THE CHIEF OF THE RACE OF JOHN O' GROAT IS ALEXANDER G. GROAT, ESQ., ADVOCATE, EDINBURGH.
NOTICES OF JOHN O' GROAT'S HOUSE.
It is stated in Sinclair's Statistical Accounts of Scotland, vol. 8, page 167 and following: - "In the account of Cannisby by the Rev. John Marison, D.D., that in the reign of James the Fourth, King of Scotland, Malcom, Cairn and John de Groat, supposed to have been brothers and originally from Holland, arrived in Caithness from the south of Scotland, bringing with them a letter in Latin by that King recommending him to the countenance and protection of his loving subjects in the County of Caithness."
It is stated in Chambers's Pictures of Scotland, vol. 2, page 306, "that the foundations or ruins of John o' Groat's House, which is perhaps the most celebrated in the whole world, are still to be seen."
Then followed the names and addresses of visitors extending over a period of thirty-three years, many of them having also written remarks in prose, poetry, or doggerel rhyme, so we found plenty of food for thought and some amusement before we got even half way through the volume. Some of these effusions might be described as of more than ordinary merit, and the remainder as good, bad, and indifferent. Those written in foreign languages - and there were many of them - we could neither read nor understand, but they gave us the impression that the fame of John o' Groat's had spread throughout the civilised world. There were many references to Stroma, or the Island of the Current, which we could see in the Pentland Firth about four miles distant, and to the difficulties and danger the visitors had experienced in crossing that "stormy bit of sea" between it and John o' Groat's. But their chief complaint was that, after travelling so far, there was no house for them to see. They had evidently, like ourselves, expected to find a substantial structure, and the farther they had travelled the greater their disappointment would naturally be. One visitor had expressed his disappointment in a verse more forcible than elegant, but true as regarded the stone.
I went in a boat
To see John o' Groat,
The place where his home doth lie;
But when I got there,
The hill was all bare,
And the devil a stone saw I.
The following entry also appeared in the Album: -
Elihu Burrit of New Britain, Connecticut, U.S. America, on a walk from Land's End to John o' Groat's, arrived at Huna Inn, upon Monday Sep. 28th, 1863. He visited the site of that famous domicile so celebrated in the world-wide legend for its ingenious construction to promote domestic happiness, and fully realised all he had anticipated in standing on a spot so rich with historical associations and surrounded with such grand and beautiful scenery. He desires also to record his testimony to the hospitality and comfort of the cosy little sea-side Inn, where he was pleasantly housed for the night, and of which he will ever cherish an interesting remembrance.
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