Sampling Scotland’s John Muir Way
Story and photos by Julie Snyder
We blew into Dunbar, Scotland with the wind—50+mph gusts—at our backs. Locals speculated that the gale was a hangover of Hurricane Florence, which had battered the East Coast of the U.S. during the previous two weeks. Struggling to remain upright on the clifftop path, we lurched past the Winterfield Golf Club where undeterred golfers launched balls into the tempest. Hardy lot, those Scots.
Over the previous four days, we’d hiked 40 miles of the John Muir Way, a 134-mile coast-to-coast walking and cycling route that bisects southern Scotland. It links Dunbar, Muir’s birthplace on the Eastern shore, to Helensburgh on the West coast, where his family departed for the United States in 1849 when he was 10 years old. Daniel and Ann Gilrye Muir and their seven children, of which John was the third oldest, settled in central Wisconsin where he helped his father carve a farm out of the wilderness.
An iconic conservationist, Muir’s love of nature awakened during his childhood in Scotland where he read voraciously about natural history and endlessly wandered the coastline and countryside. He continued his practice of self-learning in his new country, and then went on to study geology and botany at the University of Wisconsin. A skilled whittler and inventor, he worked as a manufacturing engineer until an accident temporarily blinded him.
After he recuperated, Muir set off on a 1,000-mile-walk through the Southeast from Kentucky to the Gulf Coast of Florida and never looked back. He trekked many thousand more miles around the globe, chronicled his adventures in a dozen books and over 300 articles, and left an environmental legacy that may never be matched.
Though he’s a native Scot, Muir’s renown was far more celebrated in his adopted country than his birthplace. It wasn’t until April 21, 2013 that Scotland celebrated its first Scottish John Muir Day in acknowledgment of the 175th anniversary of his birth. The John Muir Way was unveiled a year later during the 100th anniversary of Muir’s death.
And that’s where we found ourselves on a brisk, breezy fall morning. Picking up the well-marked footpath in the seaside town of Musselburgh just east of Edinburgh, we began our wander along the network of wooded trails, dune paths, rural tracks, quiet lanes, canal towpaths and urban streets, knit together as the John Muir Way.
With Arthur’s Seat—an ancient volcano and highpoint in Edinburgh’s Holyrood Park—at our backs, we followed the shoreline of that tongue-twister of an estuary, the Firth of Forth. Dotted with islands and spanned by architecturally awesome bridges, the Firth is consumed by the North Sea a few miles further east near Dunbar, our ultimate destination.
On this quiet Sunday morning, our Firth-side companions included a bevy of swimming swans and a herd of dog walkers. My husband, Joe, used to my animal attraction, just kept moving as I stopped to pet and coo over some truly handsome pooches. But even he stopped when we encountered a coed boot camp in session on a waterside green. The participants’ jumping, twisting, bending and stretching at a breathless pace made our 10-mile walk feel a little puny.
On a grassy knoll called the Humlocks, we encountered a reenactment of the 1745 Battle of Prestopans when Bonney Prince Charlie led his Jacobite Highlanders to a swift, unexpected victory over the Redcoats. A stout wind proved challenging for the standard bearers and kilt wearers (nearly everyone) but quite entertaining for observers.
We carried on to our home for the evening, the Dean Bed and Breakfast outside the village of Longniddry. As we waited to cross the main road, a trio of Maseratis streaked by, one after another as our heads swiveled. Before we could say “wow,” a frowning curmudgeon on a motorized scooter putt-putted past in what, by contrast, seemed like slow motion. We laughed out loud.
The Dean was a dream—exactly what a Scottish country home should be—brimming with attractive antiques, plump couches, romantic rooms and a welcoming spirit. The lodging actually is innkeeper Caroline Scott’s family home (sans family who have grown up and moved on). By the time we departed the next day, after an exceptional night’s sleep and pampering by Caroline, we were ready to be adopted into her family.
Since we were walking just a portion of the John Muir Way, we booked accommodations that synched with our desired daily mileage and arranged for our luggage to be moved from inn to inn by a local baggage service. The John Muir Way’s website offers copious planning assistance including downloadable maps for each segment, lodging options, camp sites and useful tips for both walkers and cyclists. And companies like Mac’s Adventure offer self-guided adventures which include arrangements for accommodations and luggage transfer, plus a guidebook and trip emergency contact.
From Longniddry, it was on to Dirleton along rocky Seton Sands and past Gosford House, designed by the famous Scottish architect, Robert Adam. Our visit didn’t coincide with one the public “open days” so we admired the imposing neo-classical monument and a slice of the sprawling 5,000-acre estate through the impregnable front gate. At day’s end, we settled into the charming Open Arms Hotel, where our spacious, bay-windowed room overlooked the 13th-century Dirleton Castle.
The next day’s ramble—along fields erupting with mole mounds and through mini-forests—buzzed with camaraderie as we chatted with locals out for a stroll in the morning mist. Political gab focused on the fate of Brexit and chaotic American scene. Much more uplifting were canine encounters, especially with three generations of honey-colored cocker spaniels, the youngest just three months old.
After overnighting in East Linton in a room so small that there was no floor space for our suitcases, we headed for Dunbar and the end of our walk. Birds dominated the day. We accidentally spooked grouse out of the brush, observed ducks and swans carousing beneath overhanging branches in a lazy stream, and spotted an unfamiliar creature with yellow-patch wings dart about a yellow-flowering bush. Nearly at the North Sea, we discovered Hedderwick Sands where a jigsaw puzzle of pools was occupied by a jumble of birds whose identification— without benefit of binoculars, bird book or knowledgeable traveling companions—remained a mystery.
We blew into Dunbar, not only with the aforementioned tailwinds but with a rainbow. A significant Scottish fortress in the Middle Ages, the town is home to twin harbors guarded by an ancient castle ruin. But surely among the most popular destinations for modern travelers is John Muir’s Birthplace, a narrow three-story building on High Street that housed his family until they departed for America in 1849. We took a deep dive into Muir’s life and adventures via interpretive and interactive exhibits in this compact but impressively curated museum.
Before taking a train to Edinburgh, we lingered on the High Street before Valentin Znoba’s spirited sculpture of John Muir as a young boy, one hand on his walking stick, the other feeding the birds, feeliing gratified that he continues to inspire love and respect for the natural world on both sides of the pond and around the world.
“The world is big and I want to have a good look at it before it gets dark.” –John Muir
A few years ago Joe and I hiked the nearly 80-mile length of another Scottish footpath, the Great Glen Way. Traveling from Fort William to Inverness along a blend of canal paths and forest trails dotted with the occasional village and highlighted by paralleling the length of Loch Ness, we encountered few humans and basked in glorious greenery and silence.
The stretch of the John Muir Way that we walked did not boast the same tranquility (though I expect there are sections that do) and we never felt far from the bustle of civilization. What it does boast is golfing—East Lothian (which markets itself as the “Scottish Golf Coast”) is chockablock with links and parkland courses. The region may not be wilderness but there’s no shortage of green (and greens).
Julie Snyder lives in Portland, Oregon. As a writer, editor and publisher, she’s contributed to a variety of lifestyle, in-flight and travel publications, and produced award-winning catalogs for Backroads travel company. Among her passions are animal welfare, walking, travel and the Green Bay Packer