‘No lack of wildness’ – a car-free break on the John Muir Way, Scotland

Pioneering conservationist John Muir was born in Dunbar on the east coast of Scotland in 1838, and his birthplace is now a museum. He moved to the United States when he was 11 and later started the Sierra Club organization, which still protects Yosemite and other national parks. “When I was a boy in Scotland I loved all things wild…” he wrote. “Surrounding my hometown of Dunbar, on the shores of the stormy North Sea, there was no shortage of wilderness, although most of the land was gently farmed.”

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In John Muir National Park near Dunbar, 30 miles east of Edinburgh, there is a smell of washed up seaweed and crushed pine needles, the insistent chirping of oystercatchers and the increasing whistles of probing curlews mud. A fern-lined path, with streaks of harebells and honeysuckle, skirts the wide Tyne estuary (Scotland also has a River Tyne), through salt marshes dotted with glasswort and sea asters, and passes in front of smooth sandy beaches where wagtails jump on the rocks. It leads along the red cliffs to what Muir called the “craggy ruins of ancient Dunbar Castle”.

This is the eastern end of the coast-to-coast John Muir Way, a long-distance trail launched in 2014, 100 years after Muir’s death. Its 134-mile course stretches from Helensburgh in the west to Dunbar, and walking all or part of it makes for a great vacation. It’s affordable and sustainable, with excellent public transport links making it easy to return to a cheap base each night. In the summer of 2021 the John Muir Way also launched a series of day walks and cycle tours.

The need to protect the natural world in the face of climate crisis and ecological catastrophe becomes more urgent with each passing year. Although many of us have never heard of him, Muir influenced today’s green movement and his ideas have never been more vital.

I was walking along the Firth of Forth when I first saw a sign for the John Muir Way; a few years later I am back in the pretty town of Linlithgow, about halfway along the route, for the start of a week of gentle pilgrimage eastward rich in wildlife and history.

Although many of us have never heard of him, Muir influenced today’s green movement.

Stained glass windows cast rainbow-hued patterns across the stone floor and pillars of St Michael’s Church, Linlithgow. Across the road in the Town Museum (free) you’ll find a typewriter that once belonged to former local MP Tam Dalyell and musket balls found near the lochside Linlithgow Palace, birthplace of Mary, Queen of Scots. The John Muir Way leads north from the end of the city to the shore of the Firth of Forth, past the remains of the Roman Antonine Wall, a slightly younger, turf-built version of the most famous border in ‘Hadrian.

With the water glistening to my left, I eventually shrug off the industrial fringes of Bo’ness and walk a total of 10 miles, past silver birch trees and tangled tide marks, to the imposing Castle of Blackness. Bus 49 runs four times a day on weekdays to Linlithgow, where I spend the night. Edinburgh is less than 20 minutes by train. The next morning, through the woods by the water, I reach the Hopetoun estate (reopens April 7, 2023), where sheep and deer graze under the oak trees. It’s almost a shock to climb the lane and see a flashing tower on the 2017 Queensferry Crossing, the newest of the Forth bridges. I detour down the long driveway of Hopetoun House to eat zucchini and ginger cake in a former stable, and stroll past tapestries, portraits and a magnificent domed central staircase.

The John Muir Way cuts through Queensferry, past bridges and finds green routes through Edinburgh: along the wooded Water of Leith, the Union Canal and spire-lined meadows to emerge at Southside, where a line of wait forms outside Bits Bake Boutique. I spent two nights in Edinburgh, doing about 10 miles a day, which leaves plenty of time to explore. I buy coffee and a cardamom-pistachio roll to eat at the foot of the Salisbury Crags, which are already looming at the end of the road. Climbing is optional on the JMWyou can easily take a detour to the rocks and Arthur’s Seat. The official route, however, follows the old horse-drawn Innocent Railway, a cycle route that runs along the volcanic hills of Edinburgh through Scotland’s first railway tunnel.

Duddingston Loch, which I have only ever seen from the top of Arthur’s Seat, remains stubbornly hidden behind a high wall. A sign says “Craigmillar Castle ½ mile”, but I continue along a streamside path to reach Newhailes, another Palladian mansion, where I am booked for an afternoon visit. The short detour to Newhailes passes a ruined summerhouse, waterfalls and grotto, once part of the elegant 18th century water gardens, built to impress guests. The old curling pool (which froze in the winter) has dried up and the crumbling main house is a Havishamesque pile, full of gilded seashell designs, ornate Baroque stucco wreaths, distant sea views and a rich melancholy.

I watch the boobies dive beak first into the sun-browned waves and the herons guarding the harbor

I am staying the last three nights at Dunbar’s Dolphin Inn (doubles from £55). Dunbar is easily reached by train from Musselburgh near Newhailes and North Berwick, where I end the next day, past the woodlands of Gosford House and the long sandy beaches of Aberlady Bay. (Regular buses allow you to skip a mile or two roadside and leave more time for strolling the beach.) The Dolphin is a fresh and friendly hostel, spotlessly clean, with vintage touches, cheerful murals and a do-it-yourself continental breakfast. At Hector’s Artisan Pizzeria, just down the road, toppings include Sgaia smoked vegan charcuterie from Glasgow and strong, creamy cheeses from Doddington Dairy across the border in Northumberland.

On my last morning I take the 120 bus past Tantallon Castle to North Berwick and start at the Scottish Seabird Centre. Scotland has over 10,000 miles of coastline, over 60% of the UK’s total, and 45% of all Europe’s breeding seabirds live or visit here, including puffins, guillemots, kittiwakes and cormorants. Despite being hit by bird flu this year, Bass Rock is still home to the largest colony of gannets in the world, and the Latin and French words for gannet both derive from the name of this rocky island off from the East Lothian coast.

Related: Waterfalls, stargazing and buzzards: Moffat’s walking festival in Scotland’s southern highlands

Several hours later, after following the John Muir Way past a red-roofed watermill near the village of East Linton and the eerie Bridge to Nowhere in Belhaven Bay, I am finally walking the cliff path towards Dunbar. I watch huge white gannets dipping beak first into the sun-brown waves and herons standing guard above the harbour. Edinburgh is half an hour by train and I return home to Essex via the overnight train to London. So there’s plenty of time to head to the Volunteer Arms for a final pint of Belhaven best, a malty beer from Scotland’s oldest working brewery down the street.

On the new Caledonian Sleeper trains launched in 2019, you can leave London late at night and be in Edinburgh for breakfast. Traveling at night means you can avoid flying, but you don’t have to give up daylight hours to travel.

I fall asleep as the rocking train rushes south. John Muir left Dunbar by train in 1849, heading for the United States, when the railways were new. By the time he revisited Scotland, nearly half a century later, the east coast line had opened the region up to visitors. But he wrote in a letter that the evening waves, breaking on the rocky shore where Muir had played as a child, still sang “the same old songs they sang to me in my childhood”.

Some accommodation for this trip has been provided by VisitScotland. Some transportation was provided by ScotRail and Caledonian Sleeper

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