John Muir Birthplace




John Muir Birthplace

Site Information

Country: Scotland
State: Dunbar
Location: 56° 0' 15" N - 2° 30' 52" W
Field Documentation Date(s): September 15th, 2013
Project Release Date(s): To be determined
Time Range: 0 BCE - 0 BCE
world map with location

Historic Photograph of the Lorne Temperance Hotel, Dunbar High Street, early 20th Century.

Site Description

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John Muir's Birthplace attracts around 15,000 visitors of all ages each year from all over Scotland and the rest of the world. Some come as pilgrims to visit the birthplace of their inspiration while others come with little knowledge of Muir. They all learn more about John Muir's life and legacy, are encouraged to participate in conservation and to follow in Muir's footsteps.

John Muir's Birthplace tells the story of Muir's life and legacy over three floors of exhibitions and activities. It describes how as a child he developed a deep love of the natural world playing on the Dunbar shore and in the countryside, his emigration to America just before his eleventh birthday and how his love of nature grew stronger at the new family farms in Wisconsin. It explains how and why Muir's life became a journey, both physical and spiritual, of exploration, revelation, hardship and wonder including his experiences in the US in the Yosemite Valley in California. It describes his campaign to preserve wilderness for wilderness’ sake, how he gained the support of scientists, publishers and presidents, in particular Theodore Roosevelt, leading to the establishment of the world’s first national park system.

Visitors are also encouraged to think about Muir's legacy, the state of the environment today and how they might change their behaviour or act to conserve our environment.
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Historic Photograph of the Lorne Temperance Hotel, Dunbar High Street, early 20th Century.

History

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"When I was a boy in Scotland I was fond of everything that was wild, and all my life I've been growing fonder and fonder of wild places and wild creatures. Fortunately around my native town of Dunbar, by the stormy North Sea, there was no lack of wildness" (John Muir, The Story of My Boyhood and Youth, 1913).

John Muir was greatly influenced by his formative years in 1830s-1840s Dunbar, by the close family and friends around him, the houses he grew up in, his early education and the adventures he had in the town and surrounding countryside. These experiences provided the foundation for his lifelong campaign to protect wilderness for wilderness sake. Muir lived in the house that is now the John Muir's Birthplace from birth to around the age of 2. The latest research shows that the family then moved next door in 1840 and lived there until they emigrated in 1849.

Family was very important to Muir; he was particularly close to his brother David, with whom he shared many adventures. John's father, Daniel Muir, originally came to Dunbar as a recruiting sergeant in 1829. He became a shopkeeper and later a successful meal (oats) dealer who regularly gave to his church and eventually became a town councillor. John inherited a good business sense and hard-working personality from his father. Daniel was also a strict disciplinarian and had very strongly held religious beliefs which influenced how he and his family lived their lives. His beliefs became more extreme as John grew up and eventually lead to the emigration of the family to the United States in search of religious freedom. Perhaps John Muir owes his adventurous spirit to his father as well?

John's Mother, Ann Gilrye, may have passed her artistic abilities on to her son who recorded, sketched and drew extensively during his travels in later life. Ann also provided a loving home for John and his seven siblings. John was close to his Grandfather David Gilrye, who encouraged an early love of nature in young John by taking him on walks around Dunbar. "My earliest recollections of the country were gained on short walks with my grandfather" (Muir, Boyhood, 1913). David taught John to read from shop signs along Dunbar High Street and to count from the public clock in the Town House steeple. John and his siblings spent many happy evenings with their Grandparents hearing tales of Scottish history and folklore whilst doing their homework.

John's adventurous spirit was fed in his early years by his "scootchers" (dares) with his brothers and friends." We tried to see who could climb highest on the crumbling peaks and crags [of Dunbar Castle], and took chances that no cautious mountaineer would try. That I did not fall and finish my rock-scrambling in those adventurous boyhood days seems now a reasonable wonder" (Muir, Boyhood, 1913).

During the 19th Century, Dunbar was a bustling market town with a busy harbour. The coast and countryside as well as the local landmarks, such as the Castle, offered many opportunities for the young John Muir to indulge his love of exploration and to experience the world around him. He loved to wander "... along the seashore to gaze and wonder at the shells and seaweeds, eels and crabs in the pools among the rocks 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 the old Dunbar Castle" (Muir, Boyhood, 1913).

Much of John's very early education was done in the home by his family, with the Bible as the main source of information. At the age of three John went to a local school run by Mungo Suddon and later at age 7 or 8 to the town Grammar School. Formal education was a strict and painful affair but John had a curious mind and thirst for knowledge, ensuring he did well.

John describes the Grammar School day as being divided into many periods - three each of Latin, French and English with regular spelling, history, arithmetic, and geography lessons. The class used set textbooks, tales from which John still remembered many years later. ‘Maccoulough’s Course of Reading’ was a school reader that John particularly enjoyed. In ‘The Story of My Boyhood and Youth’ (1913) he refers to it and a description of the struggle between the 'sea hawk and the sea eagle by the Scotch ornithologist Alexander Wilson. I read his description over and over again, till I got the vivid picture he drew by heart...’ (Muir, Boyhood, 1913). Audubon’s wonderful description of the now extinct passenger pigeon was another favourite.

John's early education inspired a lifelong love of reading and learning. After he emigrated with part of his family at the age of 11 he had many new adventures in the Wisconsin countryside and learnt lots of new skills on the family farm. Initially there were no schools but ‘…when I was fifteen or sixteen years of age, I began to grow hungry for real knowledge…’(Muir, Boyhood, 1913). He found books, including many of the classics of science and literature, in the collections of his neighbours. He eventually secured a place at Wisconsin University in 1860.
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Perspective image showing aerial view of Dunbar high street and Lauderdale House

Project Narrative

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In September, 2013, Historic Scotland digitally documented Muir's home in Dunbar, Scotland. Muir's home in Martinez was digitally documented in July and August of 2013 in a joint effort between CyArk, Scottish Natural Heritage, Historic Scotland, and the US National Park Service. Together, these two projects strive to deepen the existing links between the historic sites in Scotland and in the United States. Visitors to either site (in Scotland or in California) will be able to undertake a virtual tour of the other site to learn more about John Muir's life and cause.

All photographs documenting fieldwork in Dunbar are copyright of Scottish Natural Heritage.
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Perspective image showing aerial view of Dunbar high street and Lauderdale House

Preservation

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126 High Street Dunbar is a typical Scottish tenement building. It was originally built between 1775 and 1789 as a rental property with three flats (apartments) and a stairwell set to the rear where a small courtyard held a coalhouse and midden (waste heap). A close (alley) on the north side allowed access to the rear of the property.

The exterior walls are of sandstone rubble (although substantial parts have been repaired with brick) covered with pebbledash (formerly lime harling or render). It is likely that for much of its life layers of lime-wash would have been used to protect the outside rather than paint. The pitched roof is clad with orange terra-cotta pantiles, a popular local roofing material.

The building has been occupied by numerous people including the Muir family. John lived in this building between 1838 and around 1840 when the family moved next door. Each of the people, families and businesses that occupied the building changed or improved it with water, gas and eventually electricity being supplied directly to it and significant alterations were made to accommodate business use. It was home to a Drapers, a dry cleaners and now it is a museum and visitor centre dedicated to Muir.
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