Early in the morning, you witness a stream of charity cyclists departing from outside the derelict John o’ Groats Hotel, headed for Land’s End.  After breakfast, day trippers arrive to board the passenger ferry and make a choppy passage to Orkney across the Pentland Firth.  Later in the day, Dutch and German tourists arrive in Mondeos, mouthing – Is this it? – then wheel around in the car park and head back inland, looking for a hotel.  John o’ Groats is a point of departure: it’s a place for leaving Scotland behind, and John o’ Groats has been left behind by Scotland.  There is no sense of arrival here, nor anything to attract anyone other than the abstract notion of the edge of Scotland.

The car park at World's End

John o’ Groats threw away its natural advantages – the sublime sandstone cliffs at Duncansby Head, the rich wildlife, and the dramatic light which rakes Stroma, across the sound.  The area around the village is a low-density rubbish dump, littered with abandoned buses, rusty roadrollers and wrecked cars.  These fields are also dotted with sheep, plus a mixture of small cottar houses and overgrown bungalows: in that respect it’s exactly like the rural south-west of the Irish Republic.  These are scattered communities with no centre, afflicted instead with a rash of executive ranch-style bungalows which the crofters have built.  All of that would mean nothing if this wasn’t John o’ Groats, but this place advertises itself as a great tourist draw, hence moulding peoples’ impressions of Scotland. 

John o' Groats Hotel

The bitterest sight at John o’ Groats is the famous signpost, with fingers which should point to the North Pole, London, New York and so forth.  The pole is concreted into the ground right enough, but should you want your photo taken beside it, you call a phone number.  A while later, a “photographer” will turn up with the fingers, slot them into the pole and charge you £18 for the privilege.  A few days later, he will send you a couple of prints of the occasion – although overseas postage is extra.  That sums up the tawdry feel of John o’ Groats, and must leave a poor impression of Scotland with all those Dutch and German tourists.  It’s an insult to them, treating visitors cynically and making a fool of the Scots in the process.  Rip-off Scotland: so much for our bonhomie.

Derelict for a decade…

The backdrop to the signpost is the John o’ Groats Hotel, which must surely win an award … for being the most northerly derelict building in Scotland.  It’s surrounded by a clutter of timber huts, caravans, portacabins and untended landscaping.  The sad thing about it is that many people would like to think a better John o’ Groats exists.  This place is so much more famous than the other cardinals – Fife Ness, Ardnamurchan Point, Cape Wrath – yet in the past has been left to people like Peter de Savary to fleece visitors without putting anything back in.  A long time ago, there used to be only two buildings at John o’ Groats – the hotel, and the Last House, a neat white-painted cottage which sold a few postcards and souvenirs.  In some respects, that was enough – and rather than rip people off with a demountable signpost, it might be better to go back to that simple model. 

Hotel, and the signpost at the end of the world

Now there are plans to revamp this piece of terminal architecture, but the images released suggest that redevelopment will make things worse.  Although the hotel will be re-opened, the car park will be extended into an even larger tract of windswept tarmac, and the two will be connected with a twee “outlet village” housed in an ersatz “High Street” along the lines of the architectural parasite which clings to Gretna Green.  Robert Adam’s drawings suggest neither modern Scots Baronial (which can work well, as at the House of Bruar) nor proper vernacular (the croft houses or meal mill in the vicinity of John o’ Groats).  Instead, it appears to be the offspring of Andres Duany’s Seaside.  His current influence over the Highlands may yet do real damage to our heritage.

Departure point: the Pentland ferry

Redevelopment could be an opportunity to break down and disperse the parking into pockets, screening each with Caithness flag fences or drystane dykes.  Picnic areas and viewing platforms could be similarly sheltered from the wind, with openings framing views out over the Pentland Firth.  Any new buildings could be clustered to create a point of arrival, a symbol of the start of Scotland, rather than its current dispersed state as the end of the line.  In such an exposed situation, traditional Scots architects built protected courtyards: why not here?  The “High Street” demonstrates ignorance of the site’s character, and the Scottish context – it will funnel the wind from the Firth and blast tourists off their feet. 

Bus graveyard on the road to the End of the World.

For me, John o’ Groats should win the Carbuncles, because not only does it have great natural advantages which nevertheless have been thrown away, but the redevelopment plans may well make things worse, rather than redeeming the signpost at the end of the world.


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