John Muir’s East Lothian Legacy

Conservationist John Muir may have left East Lothian as a ten year old boy back in 1848, but Dunbar’s most famous expatriate retains a strong character in East Lothian today – not least in the country park which bears his name.

Muir wrote that when he was a boy he ‘loved to wander in the fields to hear the birds sing, and along the shore to gaze and wonder at the shells and the seaweeds, eels and crabs in the pools when the tide was low; and best of all to watch the waves in awful storms thundering on the black headlands and craggy ruins of old Dunbar Castle’. These simple pleasures can all still be enjoyed by visitors to John Muir Country Park today.

Since its origin in 1976, the park has been watched over by a small team of countryside rangers who aim to assist and advise on countryside issues, provide environmental education, and protect and manage the natural history aspect of all sites within the park. The park entertains a wide variety of habitats within its 1760 acres from rocky shores and sandy beaches to grasslands and pine plantations.

By the dunes in Belhaven Bay lies a stretch of rare salt marsh, which only formed around 100 years ago when the sands shifted and a ridge of dunes cut off a strip of land from the sea, leaving the area to be clotted by mud washed down from the Tyne estuary.

The dunes are held firm by the deep, knotted roots of the jagged marram grass which gives the dunes the name ‘Spike Island’. The dunes and the salt marsh together provide a summer home for meadow pipit, lapwing, sand martin and the endangered skylark, a bird which was common when Muir was a boy but which has since declined, to the point that it now features on the RSPB’s endangered species list. Year-round residents of the dunes include eider duck, which nest in tufts of marram grass, and shelduck, who prefer to hide their eggs away in rabbit burrows.

By Belhaven Bay lies the Hedderwick Plantation which mainly consists of Scots Pine, and plays host to flocks of crossbill as well as mammals such as squirrels, foxes, weasels, badgers and hedgehogs. Deer are also sometimes seen, and the park rangers control populations of rabbits and moles. The rangers monitor the wildlife in the park, taking regular bird counts which are sent to the Wetland Bird Survey (WeBS) to add to their database. The red sandstone carcass of Dunbar Castle is famous among birdwatchers, who come from all over to see the colony of kittiwakes nesting in the ruins. They were originally recorded as settling in the Granary by Dunbar Harbour in 1934 but by the 1970s they had moved to the Castle, perhaps because its inaccessibility offered more protection for the nesting birds.

Around 400 plant species are supported within the park. Thrift, sea aster, sea rocket, bird’s foot trefoil and the wonderfully-named viper’s bugloss, once believed to be a cure for snakebite, are all found in abundance, but others such as Grass of Parnassus are reported to have decreased in numbers as the inevitable coastal erosion, fly tipping , oil spills and other pollution have taken their toll.

Horse riding, canoeing, angling, golf, surfing, sand yachting, kiting, beach rugby, stock car racing and many more activities are all enjoyed within the park. Also popular is the John Muir Way, a 45 mile long walking path which passes through the park on its way from Musselburgh to the East Lothian Border near Cockburnspath, essentially linking Edinburgh to the Southern Upland Way. Despite its length, the John Muir Way offers fairly easy walking along a varied coastline of beaches, cliffs, harbours, rivers, salt pans and woodland. The Way is signposted, and can be completed in short sections or as circular walks by using linking paths. The Clifftop Trail from Dunbar to Belhaven Bay offers an enjoyable stroll with fantastic views out to sea and the distant white-capped hulk of the gannets’ favourite nesting site, the Bass Rock.

It’s clear to see that East Lothian’s dramatic coastline offers much that would fascinate anyone interested in wildlife or the countryside, so it’s little wonder that Muir, when he inhaled the salt tang of the sea in far-away Florida, found himself harking vividly for his childhood in his native land. He wrote, ‘I caught the scent of the salt sea breeze which, although I had so many years lived far from sea breezes, suddenly conjured up Dunbar, its rocky coast, winds and waves…I could see only dulse and tangle, long winged gulls, the Bass Rock in the Firth of Forth, and the old castle, schools, churches, and long country rambles in search of birds’ nests.’

Walking on the wide flat sand beach at Belhaven Bay, it’s easy to see why he ached so vividly for the land of his childhood. Despite the presence of a surf school tackling modest waves at the curve of the bay, there’s a strong feeling that the land belongs not to the walkers, the horse riders, the water sports enthusiasts, or even the rangers, but to the skylark, the meadow pipit, the sand martin, the badgers, the foxes and the deer. It may be a gentle kind of wildness in this place, but it’s a wildness worth preserving – and the countryside ranger service are doing their best to do just that.

John Muir would be proud that he has helped to both conserve and make accessible an area he loved so much – even if only in name.

For background on the life of John Muir see this previous article.

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