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The Dunbar childhood of John Muir
John Muir in Yosemite National Park
John Muir in Yosemite National Park

Conservation pioneer John Muir is known for his environmental work in the US as the founding father of America's national parks.

Less well-known is that the mountain man's life began in the small East Lothian town of Dunbar.

John Muir spent the first 11 years of his life in the Victorian burgh.

These childhood years shaped and influenced his life and work, leaving a lasting legacy worldwide.

First home

Muir's first home is now known as the John Muir Birthplace Museum and sits in the middle of Dunbar's High Street. Next door is the much larger dwelling that the Muirs moved into as their meal business prospered.

John Muir Birthplace Museum
The John Muir Birthplace Museum stands in Dunbar's High Street

Prosperity did not lead to a carefree childhood for Muir and his siblings however. Muir's father Daniel was a strict disciplinarian who regularly beat his children, harsh beatings even by Victorian standards.

Daniel also discouraged his children from mixing with others in the town and tried to keep them within the boundaries of their garden. As Muir later recalled being involved in gang fights between 'Streeties' (Muir was part of this gang) and 'Shories' (children who lived near the shore) then he did escape the garden now and again.

Love of nature

John Muir's grandfather took Muir on nature walks from an early age instilling in him a love of nature that was to influence his work in later years. Dunbar's situation on the east coast inspired his adventures as he looked for shipwrecks off the coast with his school friends, perfected his rock-climbing on the walls of Dunbar Castle and set himself and friends scoochers or dares, such as crossing one side of the harbour to another on the boats moored there. The chilly wind-battered coast may also have led to his hardy nature as he recounts being bathed as a boy in cold rock pools he referred to as 'sookin-in goats'.

Muir's family left Dunbar in 1849 emigrating to Wisconsin. His father wanted them to have a better life but also wanted to remove Muir and his siblings from 'bad influences' in the town. John Muir was secretly given a gold sovereign by his grandfather before he left so that he could eventually move on from the harsh labour of the family farm.

John Muir plaque in Dunbar
This plaque in Dunbar commemorates the importance of John Muir to the town

John, with father Daniel, sister Sarah and brother David left Dunbar on 19 February 1849. ( John's mother and other siblings did not travel until November when Daniel had provided a home for them). Daniel booked passage on the Warren, captained by Job G Lawton. The Warren sailed from the Broomielaw on 24 February, pausing at Greenock for 7 days to take on more cargo and passengers. They arrived in New York on 10 April 1849.

Man of legend

After labouring on the Wisconsin farm, Muir attended Wisconsin University, dropping out to work in a steam-powered factory in Indianapolis. Muir became the mountain man of legend after nearly losing an eye in an industrial accident and from then on he devoted his life to nature and 'studying the inventions of God'.

Muir married Louisa Strenzel, a successful agriculturalist and gained his fortune via her family's fruit farming business in California. He became the first president of the Sierra Club, dedicated to exploring and preserving the natural landscape of America. Throughout his life he spent time in the natural world as well as pursuing his business interests. This included four days spent camping at Yosemite with President Roosevelt which helped secure protected national park status for the area.

John Muir made a return visit to Dunbar in 1893. By then he was a successful fruit-farmer and naturalist who had the ear of the US government.

At the time of Muir's death in 1914, the US government had designated 230 million acres of land as protected national parks.

In Pictures: John Muir's Dunbar
20 Apr 10 |  History


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