From Musselburgh to Aberlady along the John Muir Way

The John Muir Way is a 73 kilometre coastal path which begins its journey in the historic fishing town of Musselburgh and winds its way along the beautiful, if windy, east coast of Scotland through Cockenzie, Aberlady, North Berwick, Dunbar and finally on to Dunglass. My walk covers just over 18km of the Way, from Musselburgh to Aberlady.

The Way is named after the Scottish conservationist John Muir who was born in Dunbar in the 19th Century and who later went on to become the founder of the American National Park system.

My walk began in Musselburgh at the old harbour at Fisherow. Thought to be the oldest town in Scotland and in existence since Roman times, Musselburgh is famous for having what is regarded as the oldest golf course in the world (once played by Mary Queen of Scots!) From the harbour mouth you get marvellous views along the coast back towards Edinburgh and over to Fife.

From there I headed east along the promenade along the Fisherow sands.  This is a fairly uneventful, but pleasant start, along the beach and passing through the links playing fields before reaching the mouth of the river Esk.  Here it joins with the bigger salt water River Forth with oyster catchers, curlews and numerous swans and the odd fisherman attempting to catch the plaice that gather in the mouth of the rivers.

Taking a turn upriver I passed a number of bridges before crossing via the old roman bridge near to Musselburgh town centre that was used by English troops after the battle of Bannockburn. From there I came back down the other side of the river following signposts to the sea wall.  This part of the walk was established using reclaimed ash from the Cockenzie power station.  You get the most magnificent views of Edinburgh’s skyline with the extinct volcano that is Arthur’s Seat dominating the view. The ash lagoon and bird sanctuary has become a Site of Special Scientific Interest and nature conservation due to the sea birds such as waders and gulls that roost there.

Edinburgh from Levenhall LinksAt the end of the sea walk you come to the Levenhall links where you can rest and enjoy a break on the banks of the boating pond or wander through the woodland trails that line the edge of the links and the nearby Musselburgh racecourse. I continued to follow the signposts east along the roadside path before I came across the ruin at Morrison’s Haven.   The harbour was established in the 16th century and was functioning until 1930. Although in ruins now it’s still easy to see the shape and outline of the harbour.

John Muir Way going through PrestonpansFollowing the path along the shore through the gorse bushes brings you to the main road into Preston Pans.  “The Pans” as it is called locally has been in existence since around 1184 and was settled by monks from Newbattle and Holyrood.  They named the area Priestown or Prieston and the Pans came about as a result of the monks manufacturing salt using pans on the shore.  Salt panning and coal mining (thought to be the first of its kind in Britain) played an important part in the history of Preston Pans but nowadays both industries have long gone.

Preston Pans is also famous for the battle between the armies of Bonnie Prince Charlie and the English led by Sir John Cope in 1745.  Known as the Battle of Preston Pans it was the one of the first battles of the second Jacobite rising and was a victory for the army of the bonnie prince.  There is a memorial near to the site of the battle.

If you fancy a detour to see a bit of local history, visit the Industrial Heritage Museum at Preston Grange which guides you through the industrial history of the area.  As you leave the centre of ‘The Pans’ and walk along the coastal path you come to the massive power station at Cockenzie.   It is impossible not to mention this hulking great eyesore as it imposes itself along a large part of this beautiful coastline and the walk. The power station is due to close by December 2015 and the walk will take you directly past its massive chimneys and into Cockenzie, a burgh created in 1591 by James VI of Scotland.  Fishing at Cockenzie is popular and it’s common to see keen anglers at the mouth of the ancient harbour trying to catch the vast amounts of fish attracted to the warmer water churned back into the Forth by the afore mentioned power station!

I followed the sign posts directing me from the harbour and along the edge of the rocky shoreline into Port Seton, a small fishing town with a harbour built by George Seton in 1655.   Despite a decline in the fishing industry along the east coast, the harbour at Port Seton still has a small number of boats operating mainly for prawns.  For the tourist, the caravan park of Seton Sands sits just across the main road from the beach.  The evening I was there, the wide promenade was crowded with walkers and visitors all enjoying the unusually calm and serene summer evening.

Once through Port Seton, you come to Long Niddry bents.  The views back towards Edinburgh are magnificent and when the tide is out you can walk way out into the Forth estuary.  Sometimes it seems almost as though you could make it to the Fife shoreline! It is along this stretch that you will see numerous windsurfers and canoeists enjoying the winds that have battered and shaped this flat and rugged coastline for millenia.   You can visit the nature reserve at Aberlady Bay which became Britain’s first nature reserve in 1952.  The reserve covers an area of 582 hectares and is an ideal place to break the journey along the Way. Here you will come across over 550 species of higher plant such as Marigold, Meadowsweet and Yellow Iris as well as the rushes and sedges. Bird lovers throughout the seasons will see pink footed geese, skylark and lesser Whitethroats.

From Aberlady a bus will take you back to the start of your journey – and bring you back again to continue the rest another day. Although well signposted, Ordnance Survey Explorer map 351 Dunbar and North Berwick will enhance your journey.
For more information on the wildlife along the John Muir Way see this earlier article
Here’s some background about John Muir
And here’s another East Lothian coastal walk east of North Berwick

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One thought on “From Musselburgh to Aberlady along the John Muir Way”

  1. The article and the pictures reminded me when as a boy, how much I loved walking malong that part of the coast. Did the writer ever hear of ‘Aggie Purdie’ who had a shop somewhere along the coast.

    Loved the article:


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