The Tale at the End of the Road

Tales from End to End
The Tale at the End of the Road

by Esme Duncan

Esme Duncan
Esme Duncan

I came to Canisbay Kirk for a month – and have stayed for 14 years. There is no Church at John o’Groats itself and so our church at Canisbay, less than three miles along the road, is the nearest one to the ‘End of the Road’. In fact, with one possible exception, we are the northernmost place of worship on the whole U.K. Mainland. The original church was probably built on the site of the earlier Roman Catholic chapel founded by, and named after, St Drostan. Drostan was a Briton from South Wales who headed a mission to the land of the Picts in the 6th century. Overlooking the Pentland Firth, Britain’s most notorious stretch of water, Canisbay is blessed with the most magnificent sunsets.

The story of John o’Groats is itself a fascinating one. There is a mound near the John o’Groats Hotel where John de Groot, a Dutchman, built his famous house during the reign of King James IV (1488-1513). His seven children quarrelled about who was the most important and so John built an octagonal house with eight doors (one for each child and one for himself) and an eight-sided table so that no one individual could say they were occupying the prestigious position of head of the table. (Little importance, we might notice, being given to his poor wife.) The Dutchman operated a ferry from the mainland to Orkney, charging a fare of 4d a trip, and the small coin of this value was known as a ‘groat’.

Inside our church stands the John de Groot Stone. This large gravestone used to lie under the floor of the church but was removed in 1898 and embedded in the south wall, underneath the vestibule window. The unusual lettering reads from the bottom corner with the inscription: ‘Donald Grot, sone to Johne Grot laid me heir April XIII day 1568 M.D.L. Lewys and Donald Grot and his gonaield lad and thaar faorbears of Donald whouse God cald me ye XIII day of April Anno Dominy MDL 1568’.

In more recent times, Canisbay Kirk has been privileged to have been the regular place of worship of Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother when her Majesty was in this area. After she had been widowed, the Queen Mother bought Barrogill Castle as a holiday home and renamed it the Castle of Mey, just a few miles along the coast from Canisbay. For nearly fifty years she came each year for holiday and attended Canisbay Kirk. She would then go back to Birkhall (near Balmoral) to meet the rest of the Royal Family when they were on holiday there. I was privileged to conduct services on two occasions at Canisbay when the Queen Mother was in attendance.

Royal Photo
Royal Photo

Prince Charles, when he comes to the Castle of Mey for holiday, also worships with us and he was responsible for commissioning the memorial plaque erected in the church to commemorate his grandmother’s association with us. In his role as the Duke of Rothesay and accompanied by his wife Camilla, Prince Charles came to unveil the plaque. This followed an all-age service involving all the children of Canisbay. The wording on the script reads:

Placed here by HRH The Prince Charles Duke of Rothesay in loving memory of his grandmother HM Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother who kept such a special place in her heart for this parish and who worshipped in this kirk for almost fifty years until October 2001.

The day following the unveiling ceremony, the plaque had to be drilled and mounted onto the church wall. This proved to be a longer process than had been anticipated and there was plaster and dust all over the place. The Prince had asked Major Johnny Perkins, an old friend of the late Queen Mother, to be present for the final mounting ceremony. When it was eventually fixed in place, the Major stepped up, took his red-spotted handkerchief, looked at the plaque, said respectfully ‘Excuse me, Ma’am,’ and wiped the dust from off her Majesty’s face.

Plaque in Canisbay Church
Plaque in Canisbay Church

Esme Duncan, currently based at Canisbay Church, is a Reader in the Church of Scotland and has ministered at different churches in the Caithness and Orkney districts. She is a former English teacher and has had a long association with the Scripture Union.