“Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul alike.”
These are the words of John Muir, a man often regarded as the father of the worldwide conservation movement. Although John Muir is well-known in America, sadly this far-thinking and influential man is less well-known in Britain - despite being born in here in Dunbar.
In nineteenth century America, Muir fought to protect nature. This was a time when American wilderness areas were rapidly opening up for farming and urban development. Muir campaigned for outstanding landscapes to be designated as National Parks. He could see that some areas needed to be protected and that making money should not be America’s only aim.
This walk visits the places that Muir knew as a child. It reflects on how his early life in Dunbar and the landscape here on the southeast coast of Scotland influenced his later work. The walk was launched in 2014 as part of the commemorations of the centenary of John Muir’s death.
The walk was created by Martin Haslett, a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society.
Martin: “I have always had a great interest in our landscape and the forces that have formed the world as we see it today. I am also a conservationist and in my work as a town and country planner I have helped to protect the countryside from development.
The work of John Muir is important to me so I hope you enjoy finding out more about him, and exploring Dunbar and its coastline.”
From the Birthplace Museum look to the right along the length of the High Street.
2 The attraction of Dunbar
The town of Dunbar owes much to its strategic location on the main road between Newcastle and Edinburgh. The road passes through rolling country along the coastline, avoiding the more direct but more difficult route through the Lammermuir Hills.
This coastal location encouraged the growth of the town through the ages. The fertile soils of the area made an important agricultural centre and the abundant fish, particularly herring, landed at the harbour made Dunbar comparatively important.
The town has also prospered from its connections with the army. During the Napoleonic Wars (1803 to 1815) Dunbar was a recruiting centre. Local people made a living from supplying the men’s various needs and continued to do so in the following years. In fact it was the military that brought John Muir’s father, Daniel, to Dunbar in the 1820s. He was a British Army recruiting sergeant.
At that time Dunbar was a small but thriving town with a population of about 3,000 people. Today that figure has risen to nearly 7,000. The town’s economy has greatly changed, particularly due to the decline of the fishing industry.
Although there is local employment based on cement manufacture, brewing and nuclear power generation, many people commute to jobs in Edinburgh, just 30 miles away, a journey made comparatively easy by the good road and the mainline railway station.
John Muir’s name is respected across the world as one of the founders of the conservation movement, so this very modest Scottish house where he was born is very significant!
In the 1820s Daniel Muir (John’s father) married Helen Kennedy, who was the lessee of this building. Together they managed an oats and grain business from here. When Helen died prematurely in 1832, Daniel inherited the lease and business from her. He married Ann Gilrye in 1833 and their third child, born in 1838, was John.
It is worth noting that John’s family did not occupy the whole house – they lived in the room behind the shop on the ground floor. That is because this is a Scottish tenement, designed for several families to live in one building. In fact there were three families living here when John was born.
Tenements were often built directly onto the pavement but commonly had space to the rear, as in this case. The building has been the home of dozens of families and businesses through the years and many changes have been made to its appearance.
It has now been restored, however, to something like its appearance in John Muir’s time. The building is now known as the John Muir Birthplace Museum. It is well worth a visit to appreciate more of John Muir’s life and work. Admission is free of charge.
With the Birthplace Museum behind you turn left and go to the building next door, in the direction of the red stone building across the end of the street.
4 Happy childhood memories
By the early 1840s the Muir’s business was prospering and they soon were able to move out of the cramped tenement. In 1842 Daniel Muir bought outright this rather grand building next door. In an age when few people were able to buy their own homes, the purchase of such an impressive house was a clear sign of the family’s success.
John Muir’s early memories of life at home come from this building. Much later he wrote a memoir of his time in Dunbar called The Story of My Boyhood and Youth. The book is well worth the read for wonderful stories of what John and his brother David got up to.
According to the book the boys practised their mountaineering skills by climbing out of their garret bedroom window and up onto the roof. All while their parents thought they were safely tucked up in bed!
John also recalls how the two of them made nocturnal excursions into the room next to their bedroom. This room had been used by a doctor who had previously occupied the house and it was allegedly haunted. The boys’ visits were made even spookier as the doctor’s ancient equipment was still inside.
These childhood explorations and adventures were to prepare John for the outdoor challenges in the life ahead of him.
John Muir's birthplace and childhood home
Wikimedia Commons (CCL)
Stay where you are for the next stop.
5 A lifelong interest in nature
Much of John Muir’s interest in nature dated back to playing in the garden of this house, as well as in the countryside and on the seashores around Dunbar. We cannot see the garden but it formed such an important part of his upbringing that we need to pause here to consider it.
John took a great interest in nature from an early age and the garden had many examples of wildlife to study. Daniel Muir gave the children a small plot each in the garden to grow whatever they wished. John recalled that he used to dig up the larger seeds each day to see their progress – perhaps something many of us have done!
Other exploits were less harmless. To test whether cats always landed on their feet, the boys dropped a cat out of the top window of the house. Yes, the cat did land on its feet, albeit with one fewer of its nine lives left!
The boys could show great compassion too, however. When visitors stole baby robins from a nest in the garden, they were so distraught that they had to be comforted by their mother. John Muir’s interest in nature defined his life’s work and so much of that can be traced back to this house and its garden.
As he grew older, John and his friends would go on long walks in the countryside around Dunbar. They often annoyed local farmers and gamekeepers who distrusted the town boys. The boys were often greeted with “You’re up to mischief Ise warrant!”
Retrace your steps, keeping the John Muir Birthplace Museum to your right. Cross over the road at the pedestrian crossing and turn right. Continue along the High Street to the tall building with a clock tower. Stop next to the sculpture outside.
6 A respected family
This is Dunbar Town House, the Scots equivalent of the Town Hall. It was built in the seventeenth century and the Council Chamber is thought to be the oldest one still functioning in Scotland.
John Muir’s father and grandfather both served as councillors, indicating that they were established and respected members of the local community.
This and other buildings that we have passed were all here in John Muir’s boyhood, and the overall appearance of the street has not changed so much in the years since.
One of John Muir’s early memories was of his grandfather taking him along the High Street and teaching him to read from the signs above the shops. Perhaps it was clear to the older man that here was a rather remarkable boy.
The sculpture outside depicts John Muir as a young boy looking up at a flock of birds. It is mounted on a piece of Scottish sandstone.
It reflects the recent interest in marking the importance of Muir’s young life in Dunbar, even though all his pioneering work was to take place in America.
The building is now the Dunbar Town House Museum and Art Gallery. It is open to visitors during the summer months with guided tours usually available on request.
Return along the High Street, with the John Muir Birthplace Museum across the road on your left. At the red stone building across the end of the street, turn right into Victoria Street. Stop when you are outside the Wesleyan Chapel.
7 School days
In the 1840s children in Scotland were obliged to go to school until they were aged 12, although some managed to avoid it! Not so John Muir, whose father sent him to Mungo Suddon’s private school which was located here behind the Wesleyan Chapel.
Muir attended the school until he was seven or eight and there is no doubt that he received a good education. In his autobiography he recalls happy times at the school, although, if the book is to be believed, the boys spent much of their time fighting!
Later John attended the Grammar School in East Links, not so far from the railway station, which was a school for more academically gifted students. Even so, from his autobiography, the fighting seems to have been even more intense including pitched battles on Saturdays, probably against the adjoining Mathematical School.
Nonetheless, John learned his lessons well, mastering English, French, Latin, spelling, history, arithmetic and geography. These studies were to be very useful to him in later life - but all the fighting inevitably earned him the wrath of his disciplinarian father.
With the Chapel behind you cross over the road and turn right keep the high wall on your left and continue downhill into Castle Gate. Where the road forks, take the left fork and pass some houses. Stop when you reach a bench overlooking a harbour.
8 A busy harbour
This is Victoria Harbour. As John grew up, the view of hundreds of fishing boats here would have been one of the sights of Dunbar. When the boats came in the harbour would have come alive with the sights and sounds of fishermen, their wives, and fish merchants.
There has been a harbour in Dunbar since at least the eleventh century. This was when the monks of the Isle of May in the Firth of Forth are recorded as being granted a ‘toft’ (homestead) at nearby Belhaven. Fishing was an important livelihood in Dunbar for many centuries. Fish caught here were salted and exported to Ireland, Europe and even the West Indies.
As its name suggests, Victoria Harbour was built in the nineteenth century. By then the old harbour – just to the right of Victoria Harbour – was no longer big enough to support the town’s fishing industry. So plans were drawn up to build the new harbour that we can see today. It opened when John Muir was four years old.
As leading members of the local community, Muir’s parents and grandparents would have known all about the ambitious new plans. When Victoria Harbour opened a Masonic procession led the way to lay the foundation stone, which included a time capsule. Afterwards there was a dinner and ball at the Assembly Rooms.
Proceed towards the stone ruins above the far end of the harbour. Stop at the side of the harbour when you have a good view of them.c
9 Exciting ruins
While at Victoria Harbour you can’t help noticing the stone ruins above the entrance. These are the remains of Dunbar Castle. Notice that the construction work for Victoria Harbour involved driving a channel through the Castle Rock.
Dunbar Castle has a longer history than anywhere else in the town – and a somewhat chequered history at that. It is thought to have been a defensive site since the Iron Age. Around 1075 King Malcolm III of Scotland granted lands to a family that became the Earls of Dunbar.
On occasions the Castle was captured by the English and retaken again by the Scots. In 1513 it was held by a French garrison and much of the surviving structure dates from this period, when additional defences were added. Mary Queen of Scots’ husband, James the Earl of Bothwell, was ‘protector’ of the Castle. After she was deposed, the Scottish Parliament required the Castle to be dismantled.
Some of the stone was salvaged and weathering has taken its toll on the rest. The ruins are dangerous – in fact, portions regularly fall into the sea – so you cannot visit it.
It was not off limits though when John Muir was a boy. Muir often played around here and of his many memories of Dunbar “best of all were the hoary ruins of Dunbar Castle”. He practised his climbing skills on the Castle, which must have been very dangerous even then, and told stories of the Castle for the rest of his life.
With the castle behind you bear right and join the path towards the leisure centre. Turn left at the information board, then turn right following the ‘John Muir Link’ signpost. Pass the front of Dunbar Leisure Pool on your right and continue past a low stone building on the left. Go down the sets of steps all the way to the foreshore and stop in the bay.
10 A chance to explore
The foreshore was, and still is, a popular playground for children, with rocks to climb, caves to explore, shells to collect and waves to jump. Only a few steps from his home, it seems certain that John Muir would have played here.
Muir later recorded that he loved to wander “along the seashore to gaze and wonder at the shells and seaweeds, eels and crabs in the pools among the rocks when the tide was low; and best of all to watch the waves in awful storms thundering on the black headlands and craggy ruins of old Dunbar Castle”.
There were other excitements too. On one occasion Muir recalled going close to a new shipwreck and picking up the spoils, in this case a cargo of apples. As with young boys, there is no talk of the sadder side of the wrecks – men’s lives lost and families ruined. We now know that on that night several ships were lost and many men killed.
If you visit at low tide, do take the opportunity to look into the rock pools.
You are likely to see crabs, worms, fish, molluscs and many types of seaweed.
Leave the foreshore using the steps then turn right at the path lined with railings. Follow this path, keeping the sea on your right, to start along the John Muir Way. Ignore the set of steps and path to the left and carefully continue onto the headland. The harbour will be visible to the right. Look out to sea.
11 Scotland’s loss
One evening in 1849, when John and his brother were doing their school work, their father told them some momentous news: the very next day they were emigrating to America! The news was probably a shock but well received. John later reflected “we were utterly, blindly glorious”.
Muir had learned a lot about America from his school lessons and, perhaps, from other people in the town who had emigrated. It was a land of opportunity and excitement.
He wrote: “No more grammar, but boundless woods full of mysterious good things; trees full of sugar, growing in ground full of gold; hawks, eagles, pigeons, filling the sky; millions of birds’ nests, and no gamekeepers to stop us in all the wild happy land.”
At first only four members of the family went to America – Daniel Muir with three of his children, Sarah aged 13, John aged 11, and his brother David, aged 9.
Other members of the family were to stay in Dunbar until Daniel had established a farm. John recalled his grandfather gave the two boys a gold coin each as a keepsake. His grandfather could not hide his sorrow as he knew that he would never see the boys again.
This was the period when the United States was expanding rapidly westwards and there were enormous migrations of people. In 1849 over 200,000 people arrived in America from Europe. Scottish families were encouraged to emigrate to ease unemployment at home.
The America that the Muirs moved to was largely an undeveloped wilderness. The family had a comparatively comfortable life in Dunbar so the reasons for swapping it for a very hard life in America are worth considering.
One reason was that Daniel Muir had very strong religious views and wanted to escape to the religious freedom of the New World. The Muir family’s destination, the state of Wisconsin, was also one of the areas where migrants were granted plots of land to develop.
The four emigrants left Dunbar by train to Glasgow where they boarded a sailing ship. The journey across the Atlantic took six weeks and three days. Many of the passengers suffered from seasickness but John and his brother had a wonderful time.
He recalled: “As we neared the shore of the great new land, with what eager wonder we watched the whales and dolphins and porpoises and seabirds, and made the good-natured sailors teach us their names and tell us stories about them!”
Retrace your steps and take the first footpath up the steps to the right. Go through the stone arch and stop on the path at the centre of the next bay.
12 A very hard life
When the Muirs eventually arrived in Wisconsin, a very tough life awaited them. Their farm plot was on virgin land, consisting of a patchwork of trees and clearings on poor boggy soil. The first job was to clear an area of it and build a simple log cabin, the next to begin creating a viable farm.
When this was complete, Daniel Muir’s wife Ann and the other children joined them later in the year. But this was only the beginning of a very harsh existence. There were no proper roads, no schools and the nearest town was 12 miles away.
John worked on the farm but continued to study nature. He came to know the abundance of wildlife on the family’s holding. He studied every animal and plant in the little spare time that he had. By the age of 15 or 16, however, he hungered for some more formalised education.
His father believed that the Bible was the only book that should ever be read but eventually allowed John to read some textbooks and works of literature. Even then John’s self-education was in the form of snatched moments.
He was clearly a man of enormous physical stamina. His father insisted on the family going to bed at eight o’clock after family worship. John soon discovered he could awake refreshed at one o’clock and realised that he had gained five hours of freedom, which he continued to grasp for some time afterwards.
Using the knowledge gained from his reading, he started to make machines from the wood on the holding. These included wooden clocks, a thermometer, and a machine to get you out of bed in the morning! This was to be the start of the next phase of his life.
Map of Wisconsin (1837) Wikimedia Commons (CCL)
Continue along the path around the bay. Go up the steps – take your time as they are quite steep - and pass the war memorial on your left. Continue along the path onto the headland. Stop when you reach a bench facing out to sea. Look to the left for a view of the Bass Rock.
13 Leaving home
In 1860 John Muir, then aged 22, left the family farm to exhibit his inventions at the State Agriculture Fair in Madison, Wisconsin. People were impressed by them and there were favourable reports in the local newspaper. Muir used these to help get a place at the University of Wisconsin.
Despite having so little formal education, John spent two and a half years at the university. He never formally took a degree, instead he chose subjects that interested him relating to the natural world.
When the American Civil War started in 1861 many of his student friends enlisted in the Union Army. Muir wrote that he took a different path – he left “for the University of the Wilderness”. Although he initially returned home to his family, John grew restless. He was soon on his first botanical journey, on foot along the Wisconsin River to the Mississippi.
In 1864 he travelled to Canada where he remained for two years. He worked for a sawmill in Meaford, Ontario, where he used his mechanical skills to improve the production processes.
Meanwhile Muir’s love of plants continued. Wading through a swamp in Ontario one evening he discovered a new orchid, Calypso borealis. It became the subject of his first published writing.
In 1866 the Meaford factory burned down and Muir returned to the United States. He was employed as foreman and engineer at a carriage factory in Indianapolis, where he automated the machinery.
This was to be the next great turning point of John Muir’s life.
In an accident at the carriage factory Muir was blinded. After weeks of agony, during which he thought his blindness would be permanent, his sight returned. His recovery led Muir to decide to leave factory work and devote his life to the study of nature.
Later that year Muir set out on a thousand-mile walk to Florida and Cuba, with South America as his ultimate goal. Though he was far away from Dunbar he never forgot its landscape. As he reached the sea in Florida he wrote that the smell of the salt air “suddenly conjured up Dunbar, its rocky coast, winds and waves... I could see only dulse and tangle, long winged gulls, the Bass Rock in the Firth of Forth, and the old castle, schools, churches, and long country rambles in search of bird’s nests.”
Continue along the coast path. Pass the next bench and the entrance to a playing field on the left. Keep the field on your left and follow the coast path as it bends to the left. Stop at the next bench overlooking a narrow bay.
14 Wandering in the Sierra
John Muir never made it as far as South America because he suffered from a serious illness, probably malaria. When he recovered, Muir decided to travel to California to visit Yosemite Valley.
Seeing Yosemite for the first time, Muir notes that he “was overwhelmed by the landscape, scrambling down steep cliff faces to get a closer look at the waterfalls, whooping and howling at the vistas, jumping tirelessly from flower to flower”.
He was so impressed with Yosemite that it became the focus of much of his work. Muir gained employment as a shepherd which meant that he could spend long periods high up in the mountains. There he could study nature and climb the peaks.
President Abraham Lincoln had placed Yosemite under Californian state control in 1864. The area was just beginning to become a tourist destination.
Muir started to lead some guided tours. He also wrote about the landscape and how it had been formed. He was convinced that glacial action had formed the Yosemite Valley.
But this brought him into conflict with the California state geologist who believed that earthquakes were responsible for the valley’s remarkable shape. He dismissed Muir as a “mere sheepherder”.
Leading scientists visited Yosemite to see the evidence for themselves. Muir was later proved right, which established his credibility as a scientist.
John Muir wrote more newspaper articles and the income from these gave him the chance to wander through the Sierra Nevada. In 1875 he set out on a three-month mule trip collecting botanical specimens.
While there he was horrified to see the destruction wreaked by men felling trees, especially the giant redwoods (Sequoia gigantean). These trees were being felled to provide access to others with more commercial value. Muir was determined to stop this devastation.
His one-man campaign attracted the attention of leading botanists who accompanied him on his trips, including the Director of Kew Gardens in London. Muir’s career as a nature campaigner had begun.
Yosemite Valley by Charles Leander Weed (1864)
Wikimedia Commons (CCL)
Continue along the coast path as it zigzags around the shore. Stop when you reach a bench set in the wall with a stone plaque above. It is opposite a small green space with a stone navigation marker in the middle.
15 An unsuitable travel companion
Through his work and campaigns John Muir built up a wide circle of influential academic friends in California. Through them he met his future wife - Louie Wanda Strentzel, the daughter of a successful Polish migrant and fruit farmer.
In 1879 they became engaged. Almost straightaway, however, John went on a major expedition to Alaska, a wilderness area purchased by the USA from Russia 12 years previously. In 1880 John and Louie were married but a few weeks later he was off to Alaska again, followed by a further visit the next year.
Muir was not a man to settle down. At the same time, Louie was not one for travel. John and Louie did go to Yosemite together but as travel companions they were ill-matched. John, as usual, travelled very light but Louie took several trunks of clothes and objected to all the walking!
With such an unlikely partner family life could have been the end of John Muir’s explorations. But Louie was very far-sighted. She could see that John’s wanderlust should not be tamed and encouraged him to travel and write.
The Muir family at home (c.1888)
Wikimedia Commons (CCL)
Continue along the coast path. Take care as the next section can be very blustery. Shortly after the path bends to the left, stop at a bench facing a distinctive hill on the horizon (North Berwick Law). The Bass Rock should still be visible to the right.
16 Different views of National Parks
John Muir’s continuing travels revealed more destruction of the natural environment. California was expanding rapidly and wilderness land was being developed. Muir could see the need to protect its remarkable and pristine landscape.
He wrote a series of campaigning articles and these were published in influential journals across America. Muir advocated that Yosemite and Sequoia should be specially protected so that wildlife could develop and people could enjoy these unique natural landscapes. In 1890 Muir’s efforts were rewarded - Yosemite and Sequoia were designated as National Parks.
It is worth reflecting here how we protect outstanding landscapes in Britain. The importance of landscape had been recognized for many years. For example, the English poet William Wordsworth described the Lake District in 1810 as a “national property, in which every man has a right and interest who has an eye to perceive and a heart to enjoy”.
The first British National Parks were not established until the late 1940s and, although the original report suggested suitable locations in Scotland, the country had none until as recently as 2002.
British National Parks are significantly different from American ones in two respects: in Britain they are not true wilderness areas and the land is privately owned rather than government owned. There are reasons for this. All the land in Britain was already in private ownership so the government could not make the parks ‘national property’.
Furthermore, in Britain there are few, if any, landscapes untouched by human activity. People have been farming the land for around ten thousand years. This was not the case in America, where the Native Americans had relatively little impact on their environment. American National Parks could be preserved close to their natural state.
Continue along the coast path until it stops at a set of railings. Turn left and carefully descend the set of stone steps. Again take care as the steps are exposed and can be breezy. At the bottom turn right. Keep the sea on your right and stop after a short distance before the edge of a golf course.
17 A Scotchman at home again
During the Yosemite campaign John Muir had seen the value of cooperation with like-minded people. The battle to protect the Sierra Nevada was not yet over though. So with a number of other influential local people Muir founded the Sierra Club in 1892. He was its first president and this conservation society is still active today.
By now other members of Muir’s family were managing the fruit farm, so he was free to undertake more travels. After a trip to the American East Coast, in 1893 he decided next on a visit to Europe with Scotland as the main destination.
Muir spent nearly two weeks in Dunbar. He visited family, met old school friends and took nostalgic trips to the countryside. During a walk along the shore he said he “seemed a boy again and all the long eventful years in America were forgotten.”
While here, Muir didn’t neglect the rest of Scotland and took trips to all the famous tourist areas. He also travelled to Norway, Switzerland and Ireland. But his visit to Dunbar seemed to make the greatest impression on him. He wrote to Louie; “Now I am a Scotchman and at home again”.
Not everything he saw in Dunbar was good - Muir was shocked by the poverty he found with the decline of the fishing industry and afterwards he sent an annual donation for the town’s poor.
With the beach on your right continue along the edge of the golf course. The path is lined with wooden stakes – take care as one section passes close to the foreshore. Stop when you reach a bench facing out to sea, it is located close to Hole 15 of the golf course.
18 Thank you, Mr President!
Back in America John Muir returned to the campaign trail. Thanks to the campaigns of Muir and others, in 1899 Mount Rainier was made America’s fifth National Park.
In the same year, John Muir was included as part of a scientific expedition to Alaska which brought him into contact with more influential people. He remained friendly with some of them for the rest of his life.
Muir’s most influential contact was the President of the United States, Theodore Roosevelt. Roosevelt accompanied Muir on a camping trip in Yosemite in 1903. Muir realised that this was a wonderful opportunity. He could talk to the President about the importance of protecting America’s forests, wildlife and wilderness areas.
The two men got on well and became lasting friends. Roosevelt seemed to agree with much of John Muir’s philosophy and during his presidency approved five National Parks, 18 national monuments, 55 national bird sanctuaries and wildlife refuges, and 150 national forests.
Although many of these protected places were set up in John Muir’s lifetime, there was no single controlling body until 1916. This was when the US National Park Service was established, with a Sierra Club member as is first director.
Not all of John Muir’s campaigns, however, were as successful.
One example is the O’Shaughnessy Dam. It was built to a form a reservoir to supply the city of San Francisco with water. The dam’s boundary is in the Hetch Hetchy valley in Yosemite National Park. Muir was horrified by the proposals but despite his efforts these eventually went ahead. There are people campaigning to this day to have the dam removed.
President Theodore Roosevelt and Muir at Yosemite (1906)
Wikimedia Commons (CCL)
Keep the sea on your right and continue following the path around the golf course. The path has some ascents and descents so watch your footing. Follow the path as it bears right around a metal bridge set off the coast – at low tide it stands in the middle of a sandy beach, at high tide it is cut off by the sea. Stop when you reach a row of benches facing the bridge.
19 At last, time to write!
By the 1900s John Muir was well-known and respected, and his articles were much in demand. Then in 1905 the death of Muir’s wife, Louie, was a devastating shock and caused a setback to his writings. Muir was now aged 67, time for many a man to retire.
But not John Muir. He spent the rest of his life travelling, writing and campaigning. He travelled the world and continued as the President of the Sierra Club. On his travels Muir accumulated vast amounts of information, which he kept unpublished in notebooks.
Eventually Muir realised that he was too old to climb mountains, so he concentrated on bringing together his notes on the American wilderness. He also, though reluctantly, wrote his autobiography. This came about when a friend asked his personal secretary to help Muir with the job. The arrangement was a great success; an intended visit of a few days extended to two months! The result was the book referred to throughout this walk - The Story of My Boyhood and Youth.
On Christmas Eve 1914, John Muir died of pneumonia in hospital in Los Angeles. The unfinished manuscript of ‘Travels in Alaska’ was by his bedside.
There are many quotations that one can take from Muir’s writings that remain applicable today. One of the best comes from My First Summer in the Sierra, published in 1911. It is as follows:
“When we try to pick out anything by itself,
we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe”.
With Belhaven Bay on your right, pass the benches and join the footpath beside the road. Follow it past a row of houses. Soon a car park will appear on the right. Carefully go into the car park and stop after a short distance at the information board for John Muir Country Park.
20 John Muir’s legacy
John Muir’s legacy spans the world but Americans in particular have so much to thank him for. His work is highly recognised in the United States which has issued stamps and coins in Muir’s memory and many Americans have edited and published his works.
In 1938 the centenary of Muir’s birth was marked by the completion of the John Muir Trail, a 211 mile footpath in California. John Muir’s family home, at Martinez in California, is a National Historic Site.
Muir’s legacy also remains in the Sierra Club, one the largest and most influential environmental organisations in the United States. The Sierra Club successfully opposed the damming of the Grand Canyon. It campaigns for the protection of landscapes, reduction in pollution and leading the move away from the use of fossil fuels. One of its foremost directors went on to found Friends of the Earth in 1969, an organisation of which, one feels, John Muir would have approved.
In Scotland, recognition was much slower. American visitors to Dunbar in the 1960s were disappointed to find little mention of their hero but all this has now changed. In 1976 the John Muir Country Park was designated. It extends westwards from where we are now at this car park to the village of Tyninghame.
Then in 1981 a small museum opened at Muir’s birthplace and in 1983 the John Muir Trust was founded to conserve Scotland’s wild places. For example, the Trust now owns Ben Nevis, part of the Cuillin mountain range on the Isle of Skye.
In 2003 the Birthplace was restored to something like its original appearance and re-opened to the public. It is a centre for understanding Muir’s message and encouraging people to take part in conservation.
Another good example of the way Scotland celebrates Muir is the coastal path from Dunbar town centre – the John Muir Link. The Link is an extension to the John Muir Way, a 134-mile route from Helensburgh in the west to the Dunbar in the east. Along its course it goes through part of Scotland’s first national park - the Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park. The extended John Muir Way opened in 2014 to mark the centenary of Muir’s death.
Perhaps Scotland’s most fitting tribute to Muir is at the Scottish Parliament Building, at Holyrood in Edinburgh. John Muir’s words, from the Sierra Club Bulletin in 1896, are carved in stone:
“The battle for conservation will go on endlessly.
It is part of the universal battle between right and wrong”.
You can return to Dunbar town centre by following the route back along the cliffs. Alternatively follow Back Road and North Road from the car park. If you follow this route you have the opportunity to make a brief excursion to Lauderdale Garden, another of John Muir’s childhood haunts. To do so follow the directions on the next page.
John Muir was an explorer, author, botanist, geologist and father figure of the modern conservation movement. In the nineteenth century he fought to protect nature.
Muir's campaigns and writings preserved the American wilderness, from Yosemite Valley to Mount Rainier, as National Parks. His interest in nature however stemmed from the other side of the Atlantic.
Muir was born and grew up in Dunbar and this walk explores the town that inspired his early life.
Visit Muir’s childhood home and the places that shaped his youth. Follow his footsteps along a spectacular coastline. Discover how Muir is celebrated in Scotland and how Dunbar inspired his work in the United States.
Follow the walk by clicking on the map pins or downloading the guides below