John Muir (1838–1914)

John Muir was born in Dunbar on 21 April 1838. He had a conventional upbringing for most of his first 11 years but one night, as he and his siblings did their homework at their grandparents’ fireside, their father arrived and announced:

 Bairns, you needna learn your lessons the nicht, for we’re gan to America the morn!

And so began the first journey in what was to be a life of epic saunters and adventures.

Muir’s significance is most appreciated in his adopted state of California. For much of his adult life he was the acknowledged expert on the geology, glaciology and natural history of Yosemite Valley in particular and the uplands of the Sierra Nevada Mountains in general. It was by means of this position that he became the first significant advocate of wilderness protection – to many, the world’s first conservationist and pioneering ecologist. His advocacy was based on his conviction that:

When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.

Through the power of his words he and his supporters instigated a revolution in the approach to the preservation of wild places and, along the way, founded the Sierra Club, which is now the world’s foremost conservation organisation and has spun of many other advocacy groups.

In his native land Muir’s significance was slow to be appreciated. He died in 1914 as the First World War started and rebuilding, the Great Depression and other wars pushed the conservation agenda into the background for many years. However, environmental issues have been of increasing concern since the 1960s and awareness of Muir’s legacy and the continuing power of his words has been growing.

Scottish discovery began in the early 1960s when American supporters of Muir’s memory began to return to look for his roots. Small scale exhibitions in Dunbar and Edinburgh began to raise his profile. A small band of his Scottish supporters began to push for the publication of his books in British imprints and by 1980 an apartment in his birthplace on Dunbar High Street had been converted into a small museum. The founding of the John Muir Trust in 1983 followed John’s principles in its commitment to safeguard the future of wild lands against development and to promote awareness and recognition of the value of such places. The Trust launched a John Muir Award in 1993 and by 2010 100,000 people had successfully participated in discovering, promoting, conserving and sharing their own experiences with wild places.

In Dunbar an advocacy group, Dunbar’s John Muir Association, was formed in 1994 to promote awareness of John in his native place. By 1998 they had joined with the John Muir Trust, Dunbar Community Council and East Lothian Council to purchase and revitalize John Muir’s Birthplace. The Birthplace was able to welcome its 100,000th visitor by February 2012. Current plans envisage that the John Muir Way, a path round the coastline of East Lothian, will be extended across the Central Belt of Scotland to the West Coast to mark the centenary of Muir’s death and that Muir’s legacy will be actively promoted in the Curriculum for Excellence adopted by Scotland’s schools.

Good places to find out more about John Muir and his legacy include our colleagues at John Muir’s Birthplace, The Sierra Club’s John Muir Exhibit, the John Muir Trust, and the historic Muir archive at the University of the Pacific in California.

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