When I was a child in Scotland, I was fond of everything that was wild, and all my life I’ve been growing fonder and fonder of wild places and wild creatures. Fortunately, around my native town of Dunbar, by the stormy North Sea, there was no lack of wildness…
– John Muir
I’ve developed a bit of (what is definitely to be) a lifelong kick of making pilgrimages to the birthplace and/or resting place of favorite authors of mine. I’ve done this in part for Edgar Allen Poe, John Keats, C.S. Lewis, and J.R.R. Tolkien. But my most recent pilgrimage is the first related (at least in part) to my PhD.
Of those who familiar with John Muir, many do not realize (or at least underplay) that the man made famous for writing about American landscapes was in fact a Scotsman. Although it was not the only influencing factor, when I found an Environmental History PhD program in Scotland, and knowing that John Muir was going hopefully be a component of my dissertation work, I’ll confess that the idea of researching John Muir in his home nation was almost too good to be true. Even more too good to be true is that it turns out that my University is just 2 hours away by train from John Muir’s home town, and much less distance away as the crow flies.
In a very small nutshell: John was born in Dunbar on 21 April 1838. John’s father, Daniel Muir, decided to move the family to the United States in the search of religious freedom that he did not feel he had in Dunbar. John was just eleven years old. John would return to Dunbar only once after the move, in 1893.
I made my first (I’m already planning another visit to get a good ramble in of the area) pilgrimage to Dunbar this last Friday. I had contacted a leading member of John Muir’s Birthplace to inquire about the possibility of doing some volunteer copy writing at some point during my PhD years here in Scotland, but also just to learn about and John Muir’s Birthplace itself (and…gosh, just anything and everything about John Muir I possibly can!). He invited me to visit Dunbar and then (so incredibly kindly) gave me a day’s tour of the city (as well as arranged for me to meet and talk with a few other individuals engaged in environmental-related work and/or work that engages the public with knowing more about John Muir including the East Lothian Council, Sustaining Dunbar, and the Dunbar Community Woodland Group).
Dunbar is a charming city by the sea…more “town” than city really in that it feels easily walkable and also the kind of place where you are more likely than not to see a familiar face when walking around town. The High Street (the main street of the center of town) so closely resembles itself from ages ago that as you walk from the train station to John Muir’s Birthplace you feel as if you’ve walked back in time (hopefully to 1893 so you might pass John Muir in the streets).
My contact from John Muir’s Birthplace gave me a grand walk around town before we visited the museum. He met me at the train station and then directed me on the walking route that John Muir would have been likely to have taken from the station himself during his 1893 visit – so that I could “walk in John’s footsteps” (how did he know me so well already?). As we went he pointed out which buildings would and would not have been around when John visited Dunbar in 1893, took be by the castle remains and seaside that John used to frequent as a child, and also told me many tails of John’s life in Dunbar.
Most entertaining were the tales of John’s “scootchers” or dares, with his brother David. One example being John’s daring dangle from his bedroom window several floors up with one hand and then one finger and also climbing to the top of the roof. I was told that when John visited Dunbar in 1893 and recalled the memory of this “scootcher” he commented that it remained one of the most intimidating adventures of his life – that from a man who climbed a pine tree in a wind storm and scrambled up El Capitan with no technical equipment!
Also before our visit to John Muir’s Birthplace my guide had me over to his home where his wife made a fabulous lunch and when I departed offered for me to come stay if I should “need a getaway” from the University. We then had a quick drive to the edge of the John Muir Country Park (to give me some ideas of where I could go walking when I visit Dunbar again), and then their neighbor, who does work with the Lochend Woods, gave me a tour of the woods while we bonded over our shared affection for trees (photos of woods above). I continued to be blessed and humbled by the kindness of the Scottish people.
John Muir’s Birthplace is indeed the home he was born in, converted into a multi-floor museum. It is a very cozy atmosphere, once being a home, after all, and a place you feel you could linger in. It has just the right amount of information to read and visuals (photographs and physical items) to take in without eager delight without reaching the point of information overload that many museum cause in a person. The staff is incredibly friendly and knowledgeable and at-the-ready to answer any questions you might have. Each floor covers a different theme of John’s life, from boyhood all the way through his legacy after death. I think my favorite item of all was a quill John wrote with!
I could have happily read and re-read each placard (and may just do that on pilgrimage #2) but I had a train to catch so had to depart…but with a full and happy heart. A visit to Dunbar is perhaps one of the closest ways one can get to spending a day with dear John…and oh so dear he is to this heart and mind of mine.