John O’Groats Transformation

1 Jul 2012 in Heritage, Highland, Showcase, Visual Arts & Crafts

“John O’Groats is part of the English language,” says Carol Gunn quite simply. “The journey from John O’Groats to Land’s End is recognised wherever you go in the English speaking world.”

HER problem, however, is that the Scottish village which sits at the northernmost point of the British mainland bears nothing like the same iconic reputation as a tourist destination. Quite the opposite, in fact – those who have been there speak of it in quite disparaging terms as one of the least inspiring settlements in the country, and in 2010 it was nominated for a dreaded Carbuncle Award for just that reason.

GUNN’S job is to change that perception. As Head of Transformational Projects with Highlands and Islands Enterprise, she’s leading the campaign to put John O’Groats on the map as something other than one end of the longest journey in the country. “It’s a bit of a personal pilgrimage for many people,” she says, “and an emotional journey, especially for those who are travelling the length of the country. But then it’s visited by many locals as well, you can’t stereotype the people who go there.”

Louise Scullion and Matthew Dalziel

Environmental artists Louise Scullion and Matthew Dalziel

A 2009 report by GVA Grimley into the condition of John O’Groats made many recommendations in terms of infrastructural changes which might be needed, and eco-holiday company Natural Retreats are already building modern holiday chalets in the area. Yet a second report earlier this year attempted to get right to the heart of John O’Groats’ persona as a place and to figure out what signals it should be sending to the world by exploring the potential for landmark public art installations in the area.

“It was quite depressing when we first went there,” laughs Louise Scullion, one half of Scots artist duo Dalziel + Scullion, who wrote the latest report. “Matthew (Dalziel) said he felt quite angry, because it’s such a famous name and it made us angry to think, god, is this how we’re being represented?”

The intention behind the pair’s involvement, though, wasn’t to charge in and tell the local community what they’ve been doing wrong. “It did feel very down at heel,” says Scullion, “but I can appreciate it’s complex and very challenging to make a living in a place with a small population through something as transient as tourism. We weren’t trying to be judgemental – what was lovely was that the project involved a lot of evening sessions with local people who wanted to discuss how these commissioning projects evolve. They happened on quite miserable nights and they were all well-attended, so there’s obviously a lot of people who care and who feel equally frustrated about how things have evolved.”

What Dalziel and Scullion most clearly took away from these sessions was a wealth of local stories and locations which are unique to John O’Groats and which aren’t known about anywhere else. “Some were funny, some were quirky, some were poignant,” she says. “What came through was that with this incredibly rich resource, the stories weren’t being told. The image that’s being sold to people is very ordinary and generic, it’s not about what’s authentic to John O’Groats.”

“There’s a fantastic coastal environment, a big open sky, views across to Orkney,” says Gunn. “It’s quite spectacular, but people are tumbling out of cars looking for signposts telling them what there is for them to see and there aren’t any. We want to say hold on a minute, look at the landscape we’ve got here, look at the sea stacks at Duncansby Head, look at the bird colonies. You can see killer whales, dolphins, porpoises… the biggest predator in the world on your doorstep. But these things have been hidden, so we have to highlight them. It’s about supplying information, but not just handing people an A4 sheet, you know?”

John O'Groats Hotel transformed

John O'Groats Hotel transformed

Gunn describes everything that’s happened so far as part of a process, including a temporary graffiti exhibition using the old hotel as a canvas and a sculptural display of sails on lampposts by local artist Gavin Lockhart, as well as community and schools events involving storytelling and model boat building, for example. “These things are about making a statement that John O’Groats is changing,” she says, “that things are different and we’re moving forward.”

Paper Boats

Paper Boats

Dalziel and Scullion’s report, which can be downloaded from the HIE website (see link below), is an aspirational document containing various suggestions and rough costing estimates regarding a range of potential works, including smaller permanent and semi-permanent installations designed to emphasise a sense of arrival and departure from what is a gateway into and away from the mainland, and other works which accentuate the biodiversity of the area and the coastal routes which might be found nearby. Most prominent is what they have provisionally named The Call, which is intended to be a large-scale public artwork that will become synonymous with John O’Groats.

Already the first series of works are due for completion in July 2012, again by Lockhart, this time a walking trail of commemorative sculptures which will be sited along the coast. “Around the time of the Second World War a lot of sand was removed from beaches for land improvement,” says Gunn, “so the beaches in some parts of the harbour area have gone. Gavin’s created some large stone works to commemorate them, because these weren’t just beaches, they were part of the local identity.”

Work in progress on Gavin Lockharts's sculptures

Work in progress on Gavin Lockharts's sculptures

While work done so far has been funded by Highlands & Islands Enterprise and the Highland LEADER Programme, the potential of John O’Groats will only be realised through the gaining of public and private awards and sponsorship. “I suppose you have to be realistic about what’s feasible,” says Scullion, ”but there are very basic things which can be improved, like a messy aesthetic of different signage, so quite simple things can be done to give it a more holistic, a more interesting feel. Then with the art commissions that might happen, it gives everyone more confidence in what they’ve actually got there, which is just the beginning of the process of giving the place back its identity.”

“What we want,” says Gunn, “is for people who come to John O’Groats to feel a sense of welcome, that they’ve arrived somewhere, and to look back on it as somewhere that’s meant something to them. A bit like going to the Grand Canyon – that it’s an iconic place and a real destination.”

© David Pollock, 2012