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John o’ Groats Trail founder reveals story of the route

American Jay Wilson says new Scottish trail changed the direction of his life

Written by Fiona

January 29 2024

My interview with Jay Wilson coincides with a new Cicerone guidebook Walking the John o’ Groats Trail. (I receive a small commission for sales through Cicerone.)

Jay Wilson on the John o’Groats Trail.

Jay Wilson’s walking dream

Jay Wilson’s dream to walk from Land’s End to John o’ Groats completely changed the direction of his life – although he has never actually completed the route.

In fact, the aerospace engineer from Virginia, US, did not even start the UK’s iconic end-to-end trail.  Instead, he became the passionate pioneer of a final “missing link” of the LEJoG walking route.

A decade on, the 145-mile John o’ Groats Trail is now a way-marked walk that extends north from Inverness to the most north-easterly point in mainland Britain. This year, the first guidebook to the trail was published by Cicerone. 

Jay reveals his path to a new Highlands life. He says: “Back in 2013, when I was making a plan to walk from Land’s End to John o’ Groats, I assumed there would be a hiking trail to follow all the way.

“I’m from east coast America ,where I was very familiar with the Appalachian Trail trail, which is a 2200-mile hiking-only route through 14 states. 

“While the LEJoG route does have walking trails for much of the way in the south, I realised that once walkers reached Inverness, there were only roads north. I decided that I didn’t want to start an end-to-end walk that I couldn’t properly finish on hiking trails.

“This got me thinking about what could be done to create a new trail in the Highlands.”

The creation of a new Scottish walking trail

Jay, who now lives close to the trail in the tiny coastal village of Berriedale in Caithness, quickly threw his heart and soul into his plan. 

He says: “I was living in Hertfordshire in England at the time and, in 2014, I travelled to Inverness to see what options there were on the ground for a new trail. 

“I did a recce of much of the route that is now the John o’ Groats Trail and that started a long process of developing a new route. I spent a lot of time talking to local people, including landowners and estate managers, as well as walking groups and walkers to see what would be possible.

“I was fortunate enough to be able to retire at this point and when a house became available in Caithness, I made the move. It was better to be close to the trail as the project demanded more of my time. 

“This was the beginning of the creation of what is now the John o’ Groats Trail.”

What is the John o’Groats Trail?

The JoGT trail starts in the grounds of Inverness Castle in the capital city of the Highlands, then crosses three bridges over three different firths and two peninsulas in Ross & Cromarty. 

Hugging the north-eastern shoreline of Sutherland and Caithness, route continues north with walkers enjoying a variety of terrain through woodland, across dunes and vast sandy beaches and along wild and spectacular cliffs. 

Attractions include ruined castles, sea arches and stacks and there are plentiful opportunities to spot wildlife, including grey seals, commons seals, ospreys and many sea birds.

The terrain is varied but generally fairly level overall and there is accommodation available every night, on the route or nearby. The end point is John o’ Groats on the north coast of  mainland Scotland.

The new Cicerone walking guide was co-authored by Andy Robinson, who has also written another Cicerone guide, The End to End: Land’s End to John o Groats on Foot.

Jay says: “When I was planning and walking the John o’ Groats Trail, I made lots of notes and I also created a basic website. I had always thought I would write a guidebook eventually.

“Then Andy, who was working on a second edition of his End to End book, got in touch to ask if I would like to work with him on a book of the John o’ Groats Trail. I welcomed the suggestion.”

Over the course of creating the trail, Jay believes he has walked the route some 10 times in total. He has completed the full length twice and many shorter stages repeatedly.

He says: “When you are developing a new route and writing about it, you walk sections many times over. I’ve spent a lot of time chatting with land and estate owners, most of whom were on board with the trail.

“Then you identify places that need work, such as stiles over fences or new bridges, and then there is signposting. When you are writing a guidebook, you have to check the route is in place and then check it again.

“I have walked well over 1000 miles in the process of the development.”

Jay gives praise to Andy for his work on the book and especially the maps. He says: “The End-to-End book and Walking the John o’ Groats Trail book are unique for Cicerone because of the hand-drawn maps.

“Ordnance Survey maps did to have enough up-to-date details for use in the book, so Andy has drawn his own maps, which are also overlayed with text to guide walkers on the route. They work really well and it means walkers can have confidence in route finding.”

The project has required finance and, in 2019, Jay set up a charity, the Association of Northern Trails Scotland, also known as Friends of John o’ Groats Trail, to manage and develop the trail. He has welcomed funding support from Caithness & North Sutherland Fund, the Beatrice Fund, the Coastal Communities Fund and Ramblers’ Scotland, among others.

The charity is also grateful for the help of many volunteers, who have supported fund-raising, trail work and upkeep of the path.

Jay says: “It has taken 10 years from my initial thoughts of the trail to the guidebook being launched.

“One day soon, I hope to finally walk the full end-to-end route from Land’s End to John o’ Groats, which was my dream all those years ago.

“I just need to find a few months to do this because I will want to take my time to complete the route and to immerse myself in it.

“You could say the John o’ Groats Trail has changed my life. It has given me a new home in the far north of scotland and many new friends and acquaintances. I’m very proud of what we’ve achieved and I hope that more people will discover the beauty of this part of Scotland’s coastline. 

“Certainly I think it is a wonderful route that is amazingly wild and scenic.”

Jay Wilson moved from America to Scotland.

Jay’s favourite sections of John o’Groats Trail

Helmsdale to Berriedale: 9 miles

Jay says: ‘This is a section of the route where we have done some our most extensive and important work. For example, we created a bridge crossing at a steep gorge. 

“The route is through wild and remote moorland and with nice views and lots of historical interest.”

Kiess to John o’ Groats: 13 miles 

Jay says: “The final stage has one of the best sections for views because of a stunning coastal architecture. There are many impressive geos, which are formed in cliffs by erosion of the waves, and especially just south of Duncansby Head.”

More details: John o’Groats Trail website.

A version of this interview has been published in The Scots Magazine.

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