Land's End to John O'Groats Cycletouring Trip Part 2

Day 43 - Thurso to John O'Groats

Leaving Thurso, and heading towards John O'Groats (which is now tantalisingly close) I pull off the road to visit Castlehill, which was the centre of the flagstone industry in the 19th century.

It was Sherrif James Traill of Rattar (1758-1843) who opened up Castlehill quarry and built the harbour here. The first shipment of stone was made in 1825. Flagstone had been traditionally used in the area, but it was James Traill who would build a worldwide industry of it.

The quarry was located about 400 metres from the harbour and connected to it by a rail track. A cutting yard located near the harbour initially used long 2 man hand saws to cut the stone using coarse sand from Loch Norse as a cutting medium. Later however, water powered cutting machines were used.

The hamlet of Castlehill turned into a long linear village with the success of the industry. At its peak it employed as many as 500 workers and shipped as much as 35,000 tons of flag a year.

The flagstone was split from the nearby horizontal beds by means of wedges and levers. Blasting was avoided as it tended to fragment the stone. The work was seasonal, the weather in the winter being too cold.

In the early 1900's, the costs of transport and labour had risen, and some of the quarries became uneconomic to run. In 1912 there were large pay-offs with many workers emigrating to Canada. Finally, competition from concrete blocks at a third of the price in comparison to flagstone brought the industry to an end in the 1920's.

Since then, only limited quarrying by individuals for their own local paving and fencing was being carried out.

There are many examples in the local area of the flagstone being used for fencing, roofing, walls and also for other uses such as the poles for clothes lines. A couple of the photographs here show this.

Castlehill now is a very quiet place, and it is haunting to consider that this was the centre of an industry exporting flagstone the world over to pave the streets of cities in places such as India, Australia and South America.

Leaving Castlehill, I could not resist a trip to the tip of Dunnet Head, the most northerly point on the British Mainland. This was about 5 miles extra and the weather was pretty poor but I was determind to get there. The wind was against me all the way. Once there I took the opportunity of taking some photographs before whizzing back with th wind now behind me.

I finally arrive at John O'Groats, and meet a group of 4 other cyclists at the milepost. We celebrate by taking photographs, shaking hands and then dropping into the Groat Inn for a relaxing drink.

The name John O'Groats comes from a Dutch man called Jan De Groot. He was the leader of a small group of Dutchmen who settled in the area and started up the first regular ferry service to The Orkneys. This was on the order of King James IV, sometime during his reign from 1488 to 1513. Previous to this, the Orkneys had been part of the combined kingdom of Denmark and Norway, and the monarch now wanted to link these islands more closely to the mainland.

Jan charged 4d per trip, and this denomination later became known as a 'Groat'.

As Jan grew older, one year during the family's annual feast, a quarrel broke out among his seven descendants as to which of them would succeed him as head of the family. To keep the peace, he built an eight sided house. Each member of the family entered by their own door and sat at one side of the octagonal table in the middle.

The site of this old house is marked by a mound and a flagpole close by the John O'Groats Hotel, whose main tower is eight sided.

Jan is now buried nearby in Carnisbay churchyard.

After the celebrations, I call in over the road at the campsite to stay for the night. Price is only £4 with showers 20p.

The front page of the press and journal today shows a beautiful picture of a section of railway track on the main line near Pitlochry, a fair few miles south from here, which has been undermined to a depth of about 6 foot by local flooding. I was wondering how this might affect me getting home, as when coaches are used to replace trains they tend not to allow bicycles on board.

The distance travelled today was 20 plus the diversion, so I estimate about 25 miles.

Photographof an old quarry building at Castlehill
An old quarry building at Castlehill

Photograph of Castlehill Harbour
Castlehill Harbour, Caithness, Scotland

Photograph of the shoreline at Castlehill
The shoreline at Castlehill

Photograph showing flagstone used for fencing between fields
Flagstone used for fencing

Photograph showing flagstone used for making stone walls
Flagstone used in walls

Photograph showing flagstone used for roofing material on a barn
Flagstone used in roofing

Photograph of me at Dunnet Head, the most northerly point on mainland Britain
Me at Dunnet Head, the most northerly point on mainland Britain

Photograph of the lighthouse, the visitors information board and a marble plaque at Dunnet Head
Dunnet Head, Caithness, Scotland

Photograph of the cliffs at Dunnet Head
The cliffs at Dunnet Head

Photograph of the 'welcome to John O'Groats' sign
Arriving in John O'Groats

Photograph of me at the John O'Groats milepost on the 20th August 2002
Me at the John O'Groats milepost, on the 20th August 2002

Photograph of the Groat Inn at John O'Groats
The Groat Inn, John O'Groats

Photograph of the first and last house at John O'Groats
John O'Groats

Photograph of the 'Last House' at John O'Groats
The 'Last House', John O'Groats

© Copyright  Piers Pettman - This page last updated 08 July 2006
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