27 September 2017 by Kathrine Payne
Jay Wilson (right) and fellow trail-maker Sinclair Dunnett, walking at Ulbster
Picture the scene…
It’s more than two months since you left Land’s End in Cornwall, and you’ve walked north through 1,000 miles of beautiful British countryside. The glorious finish line of John O’ Groats is firmly within your sights.
However, barring the way is a dreary 120-mile trudge along the busy A9 trunk road, at times without even a pavement separating you from the 60mph traffic.
It’s hardly a fitting end to this iconic walking challenge – or an attractive option for visitors and residents walking smaller sections of the route.
Three years ago Ramblers member Jay Wilson decided it was time to fix the problem and create the ‘missing link’ – the first-ever dedicated walking route between Inverness and John O’ Groats.
Jay says, “I was getting more interested in long distance walks, and started thinking about the Lands’ End to John O’ Groats trek.
“My interest was drawn to what seemed to be the hardest part, the far north of Scotland. Yet there was no guidebook about it; and there didn’t even seem to be a trail to get to John O’ Groats. I had the idea that you should be able to walk the coastline for most of it.
“It represents the biggest public service project in my life, but it’s something that inspires me, so I haven’t held back.”
A Ramblers-led walk work day, joined by the Sutherland Walkers Group
There is still a lot of work to be done to get the trail up to scratch, but Jay is determined to battle the elements to make this wild and beautiful coastline much more attractive to walkers.
“It’s been described as the most spectacular long-distance walk in Scotland, but the real challenge is making it accessible to more walkers.
“It’s rough and difficult, and probably will be for years to come. Unlike climbing a mountain, the challenge isn’t fighting gravity, but rather battling long grass, bracken and the occasional barbed wire fence. By building stiles and marking the way, we have already made a more enjoyable challenge.
“Before it was only for the very adventurous, but now a typically fit hillwalker should be able to take it on. By next year, more markers will be up and there’ll be a few more stiles, and it will be even easier.”
The spectacular Duncansby stacks
Jay swapped the United States for Hertfordshire in 2010, before moving to Caithness in northern Scotland a few years ago. He joined the Ramblers in 2012, and came upon the John O’ Groats Trail idea the following year.
“I did two trips north to do some exploration. I walked it in stages, taking pictures and notes along the way. After posting on the Walkhighlands website, I met some local walking groups and realised people shared my idea, so we started working together.
“In 2016 we founded our charity, Friends of the John O’ Groats Trail. Several of our volunteers come from the Inverness Ramblers, including my first and most enthusiastic contact, Sinclair Dunnet, who is now treasurer of the charity.
“Since then I’ve moved up to live next to the trail, in Caithness. I’ve found the area to be warm and welcoming to me as an outsider, and I feel that it’s really becoming my home.”
As well as forming useful partnerships between Ramblers groups and other walking organisations in Sutherland and Caithness, Jay thinks the Friends of the John O’ Groats Trail can have a positive impact on the area’s economy.
“The far North is a really neglected area in many ways. We hope the trail will bring more walking tours to the area. Each stage ends at a settlement with accommodation and other services, and hopefully the local economy will benefit from more walkers.
“The project has worked with both Ramblers groups and independent walking groups in building the trail, allowing them to mix and meet each other. It’s great that the John O’ Groats Trail has been a conduit for connecting small communities across the far north of Scotland.”
The trail is an ambitious project that has captured the minds, hearts and legs of many Scottish walkers.
So far, establishing the trail has involved dozens of volunteers, funding from local sources and charities, and Jay’s steadfast commitment to the project. He even offers support to those walking the trail by putting his mobile number up on the website.
“We’re always working with the landowners to produce a continuous marked trail, and any support is completely voluntary. We’ve been so pleased with the co-operation we’ve received from the overwhelming majority of landowner, from great estates to crofters and smallholding farms.
“I gave out my phone number in case there are any issues with the farmer’s land – for example, spotting sick or distressed animals. I have the numbers of 95% of the farmers along the route, so I can let them know if there’s any trouble.
“In this way the trail is connecting two communities that don’t often come into contact. The majority of walkers are not farmers and may not know much about it – so we want to encourage walkers’ interactions with that way of life along the trail to be positive. Anything I can do to facilitate that is a good thing. And I haven’t had any prank phone calls so far!”
Volunteer Derek Bremner and farmer George Campbell shake hands at new stile while volunteer Donna Simpson looks on.
The John O’ Groats trail offers incredibly varied views of waterfalls, harbours, sand dunes and even a castle.
“There are so many sights on the trail and the far north of Scotland has such interesting geology. One of the largest sea arches in Britain is on the trail: ‘The Needle’, one mile north of Sarclet Harbour. It’s completely hidden; and you can only see it from land by walking the trail.
“The route also displays geos, which are a distinct local phenomenon where cliffs corrode in a rectangular pattern. This creates distinctive inlets, some of which have been turned into fishing harbours.
“One example on the route is Clyth Harbour. It’s just a magical place, and unless you’re walking the trail, you would probably never see it It’s one of a few beautiful old herring fishing harbours on the trail that were carved out of the rock. These harbours haven’t been used for 100 years or more, so when you happen upon them, they’re little gems – secret places that hardly anyone sees anymore.”
The John O’ Groats Trail is currently still a small charity effort with no official status. Jay hopes that the route will eventually be officially recognised, and gain government or council sponsorship. He even has a long-term ambition that it can become a Scottish Great Trail in the future.
Jay Wilson exhibits endless positivity and unwavering dedication towards the project. He is looking forward to the grand opening of the trail in spring 2018, which will involve the launch of a new website, map, and trail guidebook.
For more information about walking the John O’ Groats Trail, click here.
To find a walk in your area, click here.