Environmentalist John Muir set for festival honour

Environmentalist John Muir. Picture: Contributed
Environmentalist John Muir. Picture: Contributed
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HE IS widely regarded as the founding father of the global conservation movement – yet many Scots are still unaware of his remarkable life and legacy.

Now, exactly 100 years after his death, Scottish environmentalist John Muir is to be honoured in his home country with the staging of the first festival in his name.

It is expected to be one of the biggest ever celebrations of the “great outdoors” to be staged in Scotland, with tens of thousands of people predicted to take part in ten days of high-profile events.

First details have emerged of the festival which organisers hope will raise the profile of the naturalist, geologist and botanist who is widely credited with the creation of national parks.

Muir, who was born in Dunbar, was influenced by the East Lothian countryside he grew up in before emigrating to the United States with his family in 1849 at the age of 11.

Despite being a household name in the US – where parks, rivers, schools, mountains and beaches have been named after him – Muir has never gained the same level of recognition in his homeland.

However that is set to change with a £370,000 celebration which will include a street party in his home town, a 130-mile “odyssey” in his honour, a showcase of outdoor art and a fireworks finale above Scotland’s first national park.

Muir is arguably best known for securing protected status for the Yosemite Valley in the US. He was the founder and first president of the Sierra Club, the conservation group which was to be the forerunner of bodies such as Friends of the Earth. By the time of his death, the US government had designated 230 million acres of land as protected national parks.

A four-day curtain raiser for the festival, which runs from 17-26 April, will be staged at the new canal quarter that has become home to the Kelpies sculptures next to the M9 motorway. Thousands of people are expected to converge on the new Helix “eco-park” in Falkirk where the giant horses heads will be lit up by international pyrotechnics experts and leading artists will create new works for an outdoor exhibition.

Large crowds are expected to flock to Dunbar on Muir’s birthday, 21 April, when First Minister Alex Salmond will officially launch a new long-distance trail linking an existing walkway, the John Muir Way in East Lothian, to the Clyde coastal town of Helensburgh, which will also host a major focal point of the celebrations.

The festival will reach a climax with a free outdoor street ceilidh and fireworks finale, on the banks of Loch Lomond. Director Neil Butler said: “Although many people have heard of John Muir, he is not as well known as he should be, and he is certainly not as well known in his home country as he is in America.

“This will be the first time he has been properly celebrated with anything like this in Scotland and it will also be a celebration of Scotland’s great outdoors.

“We are expecting thousands of people to get involved in the festival at some point and we hope many of them will walk or run the whole 130 miles of the new John Muir Way.”

Mike Cantlay, chairman of VisitScotland, said: “The John Muir Festival is a fitting legacy to a great Scot – the father of the national parks.”

Profile: Pioneer who created a national park

JOHN Muir, who has long been regarded as the founding father of the modern conservation movement, is widely credited with being the first person to call for effective actions to safeguard the world’s wilderness.

He was born on 21 April, 1838, in Dunbar and his family emigrated to Wisconsin when he was 11.

Between 1870 and 1890, Muir explored the High Sierra and Alaska and it was here that he became aware of the threats posed to natural environments.

He began work on campaigns for the protection of natural areas such as Yosemite and the Sierra Nevada – seeing them as beautiful lands that needed to be maintained.

Muir established the Sierra Club in 1892, in order to “do something for wildness and make the mountains glad”.

The environmental organisation now boasts a membership of more than 750,000.