John Muir's East Lothian roots

Published: 3rd July 2017

First published in the Scotsman to mark John Muir Day 2017, Trustee Jo Moulin from Dunbar takes us back to John Muir's early days

John Muir CaneToday, libraries, parks and schools from Selkirk to San Francisco are holding special events to mark John Muir Day, in honour of the man who has been described as ‘the patron saint of environmentalism’. 

He is a national hero in the USA, where his most tangible legacy consists of 650 million acres of public lands – mountains, rivers, forests, deserts, and coastline – protected for nature conservation and recreation.

But it was on the east coast of Scotland that John Muir’s passion for nature and the outdoors took root. He honed his legendary climbing skills scaling the crumbling crags of Dunbar Castle, a five-minute walk from his home, with “red blooded playmates, wild as myself”.  He went for long walks with his grandfather through the green fields of East Lothian, identifying birds and other wildlife. He explored the rock pools near his home “to gaze and wonder at the shells and seaweeds, eels and crabs”.

For many decades after his death, John Muir remained a forgotten figure in his native land, while thousands of miles away in California, schools, libraries, streets, health centres, colleges, parks and even a mountain have been named in his honour.

Although still not a household name, he has been rescued from obscurity in recent years.  That’s partly thanks to the work of John Muir Trust and the John Muir Award which it runs, completed by 15,000 people in Scotland last year.

It’s also been helped over the past couple of years by the creation of the coast-to-coast long distance trail, the John Muir Way, between Dunbar and Helensburgh. And  starting on 21 April 2013 – the 175th anniversary of his birth –John Muir Day became an annual  celebration in Scotland.

His memory could easily have faded into the mists of history on both sides of the Atlantic. Many important historical figures lose their resonance over time, as the world moves on and renders their ideas less relevant to new generations.

But with John Muir, the opposite process has taken place. With economic growth becoming ever more frenzied, nature has come under siege as never before. Species are disappearing, climate change accelerating and our natural resources diminishing.

As a result, Muir’s ideas and philosophy look even more relevant in the 21st century, and the writings of the pioneering conservationist, still fresh and vibrant, are becoming ever more popular.

"When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe,” he wrote, in an early insight into the global ecosystem.

So where can you find out more about the man, his life and his work?

One good place to start is in the town in which he spent the first ten years of his life, in a house just a few minutes’ walk from the historic harbour. In 2003, the building was transformed into John Muir’s Birthplace, a three-story interpretation centre that takes visitors on a journey through his  life, from boyhood in Dunbar to his rise to fame in the USA as a writer, explorer, naturalist and campaigner.

Over these years, the museum has been at the heart of a series of exhibitions and other events commemorating Muir’s life and work. It has showcased, for example, prints based on his botanical collection – plant specimens, drawings and journal notes – and, focusing on a lesser known area of his interests,  his weird and wonderful inventions.  

Last year, the museum put on a special exhibition marking the centenary of the US National Park Service, which Muir helped to establish. And starting today, it will host a special exhibition devoted to the Sierra Club, the organisation founded by Muir in 1892, which has since grown into the biggest and most influential grassroots environmental organisation in the US, with millions of members and supporters.

Further north, in the town of Pitlochry, the John Muir Trust has a separate visitor centre focusing on the relevance of Muir’s ideas to 21st century Scotland. Through film, audio, photographs and paintings, Wild Space tells the story of Scotland’s wildest places and the work that’s being done to protect, conserve and enhance them today.

Over the centuries, Scotland has produced many famous figures – writers, inventors, philosophers and scientists –  and John Muir is up there with the best of them.

 Jo Moulin is a member of the board of trustees at the John Muir Trust, and Museums Officer East with East Lothian Council based at John Muir’s Birthplace

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