THE first thing to decide is how to spell our subject. Big O? Small o? Is the o’ closed up to the G, as on a website dedicated to the subject, giving us John O’Groats, as if the place were an Irishman? Thankfully, I haven’t seen Groat’s, though I haven’t looked at Twitter yet.

When you add in de or De Groot, the Dutchman after whom the joint is named, it becomes almost as bad as the irritating Mc Mac nonsense of troublesome Scottish surnames. Anyway, I’m going with John o’ Groats, which I’ll shortly shorten to JoG, so that’s now the authoritative standard.

JoG is the end o’ the road, or the end of a road, at the north-eastern tip of Scotland, in Caithness, 2.5 miles north-east of Canisbay. Pedants take pleasure in pointing out that it’s not the most northerly point of mainland Scotland, which fascinating accolade goes to Dunnet Head, 10 miles west. Duncansby Head, a mile and a bit to the east, also sticks out a bit further.

Assuming all that hasn’t gone over your Head, you’ll know we’re talking about the tourist destination with the famous signpost. And thereby hangs a tale. You used to have to pay (£18 as recently as 2010) to have your photie took, with personalised message, at a post pointing to the North Pole, London, New York and so forth.

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That private enterprise came courtesy of a Cornish company, based near Land’s End, Britain’s southernmost tip 874 miles away.

According to a report in that Herald newspaper in 2013, this sign was moved to a caravan park 200 yards away when redevelopment of the area saw a new one erected, pointing to Orkney, Edinburgh and so forth, with no charge for posing to commemorate your visit.

Which was all academic when I visited a couple of years ago because no one could get near it for, if I have the collective noun correct, a bedlam of cyclists, who camped out there for the best part of an hour. The aforementioned Dunnet Head was similarly inaccessible due to a cock-up of camper vans.

I should start, now that I’m nearly half-way through, with some history. What is this o’ Groats baloney anyhoo? Well, Jan de Groot, as he misspelled his own name, was a Dutchman who, in 1496, was granted the ferry franchise from the local harbour to nearby Orkney.

It’s said his fares were fixed by the elected authorities (King James IV) at a groat, and that’s how he got his name. However, historical revisionists (aye, thaim) now say “de groot” means “the large” in Dutch. At any rate, people from JoG are known as “Groaters”, about which they’d do well to keep quiet.

Over time, Jan de Groot was translated into proper language as John o’ Groat, and the place given an added “s” with no possessive apostrophe to confuse the lieges. His own house was a tad eccentric. With seven sons arguing over precedence, he built an octagonal abode with eight doors – sounds a bit unhinged – and an eight-sided table so that no one could sit at the head of it. He seems to have been nothing if not impractical.

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The house, unsurprisingly, no longer stands and, according to my watch, we’ve moved on since the 15th century, so what’s JoG, the place, like now? Well, aside from the signpost, the most notable erection is the Inn at John o’ Groats, formerly the John o’ Groats House Hotel, originally built in 1875. A stark edifice, softened now with white paint, it fell into disrepair until revived in the wider regeneration of 2013.

It now offers self-catering holiday flats and has a series of colourful, if slightly garish, cod-Nordic extensions. Clustered around the signpost are an octagonal gift shop, craft “emporium”, cafe, ice cream parlour, coffee shop, gallery and, in what’s said to be the oldest building (pre-1700), the “visitor experience” of a local brewery whose beers include an oatmeal stout called Deep Groat.

You say: “Never mind that. Are there toilets?” Yes, there are, and as the “Visit John O’Groats” website points out, “they cost 20p but are award-winning”. That’s a relief. There’s also a car park, which is free “unlike Land’s End”. Ooh, bit of extremity rivalry there.

There are more holiday chalets, a wee harbour, and a summer ferry that runs, if that is the maritime term, to Orkney. A coastal path takes you to the Stacks of Duncansby a few miles away.

So, the place has come on a bit since 2005 when backpackers’ bible Lonely Planet described it as “a seedy tourist trap” and 2010, when it was it was awarded Urban Realm’s dreaded “Plook on a Plinth” accolade in that year’s Carbuncle Awards. It was, unofficially, “Scotland’s most dismal town”, against strong competition.

“John o’ Groats,” said the Scottish architectural magazine, “may be geographically on top of the world but its built environment is scraping bottom.” Ouchy! The general area (the signpost and so forth – a “motley agglomeration of buildings on the edge of the sea” – lie a little furth of the main village street) comprised a “disparate assortment of steadings struggling to assume the status of a hamlet”.

The main highlight was “a picnic bench marooned on a traffic island boxed in by recycling bins”. Meanwhile, at the actual iconic spot, “the overriding temptation upon reaching the famous northerly cliffs [was] to chuck oneself off them”.

Today, the Visit website says JoG “isn’t a Disney World, an Alton Towers, a theme park or even like Land’s End. It is a fantastic, unspoilt location …” I would go along with that. The harbour is pleasant, as all harbours are, and the place no longer looks run-down or tatty.

The settlement in the surrounding areas is just typical northern Scotland, though somewhat flatter, with the usual harled bungalows and suburban garages. The real assets of JoG are the bits untouched by the Earthlings: the coast, the sea, the sky which, given its undoubtedly interesting geographical location, still make it worth a visit.