“When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.”
So goes the quote which marks the start (or finishing) point of the John Muir Way – a 134-mile route across the Scottish Lowlands which takes you from Dunbar, the eponymous Muir’s birthplace on the east coast, to Helensburgh, where he left for America aged 11, on the west.
Muir is one of the most influential figures in conservation history. Known as the “Father of the National Parks”, the Scotsman’s achievements are better known in the US than they are in his homeland. The John Muir Way aims to take a step – or 134-miles worth – towards changing that.
Certainly, the opening quote, scribbled by Muir back in 1869, quickly proves true when you follow the Way. One little purple arrow soon leads to another and another (or to a picture of Muir’s beardy face), which when followed properly, will lead you the full width of Scotland.
I’d decided to take on the Way for a few reasons. One was that I had started noticing the signposting locally around Edinburgh; walking in the Meadows, cycling to Cramond and even surfing at Belhaven Bay. A Google soon revealed it was one of “Scotland’s Great Trails”.
Another reason was that, while working as a travel journalist, I’ve also been trying to cut my carbon footprint – taking the train abroad and looking closer to home in order to appease the spirit of Greta haunting my dreams (no doubt Muir would’ve agreed with her arguments).
I’ve been trying to discover Scotland more thoroughly, while using “staycations” to alleviate pandemic fatigue. Camping in Kingussie and trekking in Skye (a rainy video of which ignited a brief period of viral fame) being a couple of my recent adventures. When I discovered the John Muir Way, I realised that I didn’t actually know much of what was between Edinburgh and Glasgow, and that I have been romanticising the Highlands at the Lowlands’ expense.
Cycling the John Muir Way over a leisurely four days was an attempt to rectify this, starting in Helensburgh and riding to Dunbar in order to claim the backwind. A chatty Helensburgh local greeted us off the train to warn us about the hill we’d be starting on (and regale us with some cycling stories of yore), and after some effort we ascended the first mile to Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s famous – appropriately named – Hill House. We were handsomely rewarded for the climb with miles of leafy downhill and green views all the way to Loch Lomond.
While the day mostly began on roads, we later joined singletrail, crossing the scenic River Endrick and joining the West Highland Way route heading to Milngavie. After lunch at punny eco-cafe ‘Turnip the Beet’ near Killearn and 21 miles of cycling, we reached the Glengoyne Distillery.
With a waterfall on site and the volcanic Dumgoyne Hill rising behind, Glengoyne is simply gorgeous. The distillery is also a pioneer in sustainable practitioning. As well as establishing their own wetlands, Glengoyne uses 100% renewable power and works with Plan Bee – a company who rent beehives to businesses across Scotland to boost the honeybee population.
The whisky isn’t bad either. Our socially-distanced tasting is led by a guide in a kilt and visor who talks us through the 12 and 18 year olds, as well as the 55.9% “teapot blend”. Thankfully we save most of our spirits for later. The trails out of Glengoyne are the most challenging (and scenic) of the day. We pass the distinctive lump of Dumgoyach , and weave up stony 5-10% gradients to an eventual viewpoint over the Campsie Fells. The plummet back down is delightfully boneshaking, and we call our first day in Lennoxtown shortly after.
Day two is one of engineering feats. We find ourselves on the Forth and Clyde Canal, then ride singletrack to the Roman Antonine Wall. Being mostly turf, the wall isn’t quite the visitor attraction Hadrian’s might be, but any wall built in 142AD deserves a doff of the helmet. We watch the Falkirk Wheel hoist a boat onto the Union Canal and end the day with a devilish climb from Linlithgow to Bo’ness, the coastal town where James Watt worked on his steam engine.
Our third day is our shortest, riding into sunrise along the Firth of Forth and arriving at the bridges in South Queensferry by late morning. We pass herds of deer in the grounds of Hopetoun House, get our only puncture on Corstorphine Hill then cement the “staycation” status by heading home to our own beds for the night. The final stage totals 41 miles, passing Arthur’s Seat, joining the coast at Musselburgh and rarely leaving it until Dunbar. We finish at the birthplace of John Muir on Dunbar High Street, before grabbing a fish supper and eating it by the “stormy North Sea” where a young John Muir grew “fond of everything that was wild.”
Muir the man should not be romanticised blindly. Though his views evolved in later life, he also made derogatory comments about Black people and Indigenous people which drew on harmful racist stereotypes, and which were addressed and examined by The Sierra Club themselves (the environmental organisation which he founded in 1892) just a matter of months ago.
The John Muir Way, however, is a delightful reminder that the Lowlands should not be ignored by those looking for an escape. The leafy forests, rolling hills, waterways and ocean views offer an enormous diversity of terrain, and the lack of mountains makes the route particularly accessible to new tourers. It’s a reminder that both the Lowlands and Highlands are part of the “everything” which combines to make Scotland such a rich and exciting country to explore.
Stuart Kenny stayed at at Glazert Country House Hotel in Lennoxtown (www.glazert.co.uk) and Richmond Park Hotel in Bo'ness (www.richmondparkhotel.com) en route.