John O' Groats is reborn in multi colour

Scotland’s in the news politically. But what about the architecture? Take a look at what’s happened at John O’ Groats. Neil McAllister of GLM explains the project.

John O' Groats, The Inn

John O’ Groats is one of the most well-known places in all of the UK, attracting 100,000 visitors every year, many of them having made the arduous journey by bicycle or on foot from the furthermost point on the mainland, Land’s End.

But over the years it had fallen into significant decline, becoming a severe disappointment to visitors and an embarrassment to the local community, Caithness and Scotland. It was dubbed the ‘Most Dismal Town in Scotland’ by Urban Realm receiving the Carbuncle Award in 2010.

For decades there was talk of revitalising John O’Groats and the local people were justifiably jaded by several failed initiatives. All that was put behind when tourism operator and develope Natural Retreats, together with JV partner Heritage GB with support from Highlands & Islands Enterprise, presented the GLM design team and project managers with the opportunity to tackle this challenging redevelopment.

The disused site stood as a depressing symbol of commercial unviability and presented two major challenges: How do we unlock the commercial potential of this remote location while still respecting its significance as a well-loved landmark and how do we transform John O’ Groats into a welcoming destination and one that would be memorable for the right reasons?

Inspiration came from Scandinavian fishing villages – expressing the Norse heritage of Caithness – and the traditional British beach hut. 

Although it would probably have been cheaper to flatten the site, our natural inclination was to bring the former hotel building back to life but it was a challenging path. Working on the principle that the most sustainable building is the building you already have, the retention of the existing hotel structure was a top priority. In a flash of inspiration, we put forward a distinctive and colourful extension.

The design responds to its harbour front location facing onto the Pentland Firth with a street frontage of brightly coloured gabled ‘tofts’ contrasted with the restored Victorian baronial John O’Groats House Hotel.  Inspiration came from Scandinavian fishing villages – expressing the Norse heritage of Caithness – and the traditional British beach hut.  This provides a welcome splash of colour in a sometimes bleak landscape and signals to the world that something new has emerged from the dereliction.

As well as The Inn, we constructed 23 luxury holiday self-catering residences, a completely remodelled co-operative café selling local produce and dishes, and The Outfitters, an activity centre and retail space formed within the famous “Last House”. The whole project has been underpinned by strong sustainable principles, making use of locally sourced materials such as Caithness stone, Scottish larch and sedum roofs. Large high performance glazed screens maximise the sweeping views.

One of the keys to the success of the project has been the use of a construction management procurement route, a departure for us from conventional so-called traditional procurement. It enabled us to maximise the use of local skills, labour and resources and to deliver the project within tight budgetary and programme constraints. Although challenging, this was in effect a double win – our client got what they wanted and we gained valuable experience that we can apply to other projects.

Now, four years after receiving the infamous Carbuncle Award, the Inn at John O’Groats has gone on to win several prestigious awards including an RIAS Award, the RIAS Best Use of Timber Award, a Scottish Design Award for regeneration and is currently shortlisted for the Andrew Doolan Best Building in Scotland Award. On RIAS awards night, our team received comments that it was something completely different and stood out from the crowd – eccentricity is clearly the way to go!


Neil McAllister is the project architect with GLM

If you would like to contact Jackie Whitelaw about this, or any other story, please email jackie.whitelaw@infrastructure-intelligence.com.