Centenary of the death of Dunbar-born John Muir

Dunbar: Alex Salmond opens the John Muir Way
Dunbar: Alex Salmond opens the John Muir Way

On Christmas Eve 1914, an elderly, bearded, grey-haired gentleman lay dying in a hospital bed in Los Angeles, surrounded by manuscript pages from a book Travels in Alaska that he was preparing.

The conservationist John Muir’s death from pneumonia that evening would be recorded in newspapers across the United States, said Dunbar resident Will Collin of the John Muir Birthplace Trust and author of John Muir: Close to Nature’s Beating Heart.

Earlier in December, 1914, Muir had sent his annual Christmas letter to Maggie Lunam in Dunbar, his cousin’s daughter, enclosing his annual cheque for herself and Dunbar’s needy.

He then travelled south by train to spend Christmas with his daughter Helen and her family, particularly his new grandson John, but arrived unwell.

The local physician was called and, on his advice, Muir was taken to hospital in Los Angeles where he passed away at the age of 76.

Mr Collin explained: “He had suffered from the flu and after-effects of it right through the whole of 1914.”

The New York Times described Muir as “one of the greatest thinkers of America” and said: “Some inkling of the man’s greatness and versatility can be gleaned from a glance at the names of the lasting friends he made among the great men of the country.

“The most intimate of these included several presidents, among them Taft, Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson.”

The San Francisco Chronicle reported that hundreds attended his funeral in Martinez. He was buried beside his beloved wife Louisa in the family gravesite in the Contra Costa hills, on the family fruit farm, which is now surrounded by houses.

On Christmas Eve 2014, the lights were due to be left on overnight at his High Street birthplace in Dunbar, now a museum dedicated to his life, as a gesture to the man who became known as the “Founder of the American National Parks” and “Father of World Conservation”.

East Lothian Council Museum Service has also been holding a social media campaign, starting a week before the anniversary of Muir’s death by publishing a Muir quote on the East Lothian Museum Service Facebook page and on the Twitter account @JM_Birthplace, and encouraging people to share their own favourite quote using #JM100.

They also urged people to find their own favourite natural place on December 24 and take five minutes out of their busy pre-Christmas schedule to consider the legacy of John Muir, again sharing their thoughts using #JM100

The birthplace was due to be open between 2pm and 4pm on Christmas Eve for people to drop in and share their thoughts or read some John Muir writings.

Muir was born on April 21, 1838, and his family emigrated to America in 1849 when he was almost 11. They settled initially at Fountain Lake, then Hickory Hill Farm, near Portage in Wisconsin, where they worked the land.

Muir later spent three years studying at the University of Wisconsin before setting off on his travels, oddjobbing through the northern United States and Canada.

In 1867, while working at a carriage parts shop in Indianapolis, he suffered an injury which left him blind for a month. It was an episode which completely changed his perspective on life and when his sight returned he resolved to focus his eyes on the fields and the woods.

He walked 1,000 miles from Indianapolis to the Gulf of Mexico. He sailed to Cuba, then to Panama, from where he crossed the Central American isthmus before sailing up the west coast.

Mr Collin explained that at the age of 30, Muir arrived in California which then became his home and it is from there that his reputation – as a naturalist, geologist, glaciologist, explorer, mountaineer and conservationist – spread.

In the USA, he was involved in the setting up of Yosemite National Park and a number of others. In 1892, he became the first president of the Sierra Club, a position he held until his death.

Now, that organisation has a membership of 750,000 and has spawned similar bodies such as Friends of the Earth.

The Union flag at the Town House in Dunbar, where a statue of Muir as a boy stands, was joined by the Stars and Stripes of America.

April 21 has been declared John Muir Day in Scotland and Dunbar has been at the forefront of celebrations to mark the 175th anniversary of his birth in 2013 and commemorate the 100th anniversary of his death in 2014.

The John Muir Festival ran nationally in April – a signature event in the Year of Homecoming programme which included the official opening of the John Muir Way from Dunbar to Helensburgh by former first minister Alex Salmond, the international launch of the magnificent new cultural landmark, The Kelpies and The Helix.

A new self-guided walk was produced by the Royal Geographical Society, exploring the early life of John Muir in Dunbar as part of its Discovering Britain series – ahead of the centenary of his death.

This takes people on a journey of discovery to Muir’s home, the castle where he would play and climb as a child and his achievements and lasting legacies in America. The walk starts at the John Muir Birthplace Museum and finishes at Shore Road beside Belhaven Bay.

The birthplace, which has been visited by both Prince Charles and Prince Edward, continues to be a popular destination for schoolchildren, many of whom work towards their John Muir Award.

At Dunbar Primary School, his legacy of giving has been put into practice with youngsters taking part in an enterprise fair to raise funds for Cash for Kids.

They are also following his environmental example by organising a beach clean.

Nine-year-old Ruairidh Munro said: “I enjoyed my visit to the John Muir Birthplace, particularly the DVD on the Yosemite valley in America which John Muir loved.”

Eight-year-old Isla Falconer added: “I like how there is a lot of pictures about nature and it’s not just ignored. It is quite cool that we have a special person who used to live in Dunbar.”