A day out in Dunbar

On the high street in a sleepy Sunday seaside town, there's a back and white wooden fronted three storey townhouse.  For the first 11 years of his life, it was the home of the writer, naturalist and conservationist John Muir.  It's now a museum and learning centre run by the John Muir Birthplace Trust.





It's a small but lovingly put together affair, with each floor telling a different aspect of the Muir's life.  The ground floor concentrates on his childhood, the son of a well off and piously religious father and more doting mother, the middle floor a story of his awakening to nature and nature writing in America as inventor, factory worker and shepherd, and the top floor examining the legacy of a man famously known in the US as 'the father of national parks'.


There is clearly a focus on accessibility and education here, which I found hugely positive.  Through touch screens, video and simple games using blocks of wood, the thoughts and words of an inspired and inspiring mind are slowly unveiled.  Often using Muir's own writing, the ground floor tells touching stories of his childhood, the upper floors recounting the incident which temporarily cost him his sight before setting him on a new road to adventure and discovery across America.  I wondered if more sensual input would help set the scene - sounds of the wind in the trees, insects, storms, or using touch to experience wood, stone, sea, sand and so on.  We both wanted to see more of his sketches, which are incredible.

But Muir would have sympathised with the tension latent in bringing the wild outdoors alive in an indoor exhibit.  Overall, we left understanding more about the character of the writer, a character forged in the dying embers of both Victorian imperialism and Christianity, and feeling genuinely inspired.  It is the text that is rightly given pride of place here, and that text does have the ability to transport you right into the heart of nature - you just need to give it a little time to work its magic.

I have heard criticism of Muir's writing as overly verbose, flowery - and if I'm honest I've still not read enough to judge for myself - but from the evidence here alone, I'd disagree.  Yes, Muir's prose is a product of its time, but reaches beyond it to speak truth to power right now.  I honestly found the townhouse a reflective and even a moving place to be.  I'm a harsh critic of museums and art galleries if exhibits are static or over interpreted by careerist curators, so please take that as high praise.



"Presently you lose consciousness of your own separate existence, you blend with the landscape, and become part and parcel of nature'' writes Muir.  A dreamer and stravaiger turned scientist and writer eventually to become a reluctant activist, who made a vast number of first ascents, exploratory climbs and long distance walks with almost no equipment, who openly admitted to wrestling with conscience and struggling for hours with his writing pad.  A humble man of huge intellect, who fearlessly wore his heart on his sleeve.  If only we could all say the same.



The museum's modest proportions suit its protagonist, but it is telling in other ways too - the UK has been slow to realise the significance of Muir's work (apparently many of his books were out of print here until the last decade or so) long after we imported an idea sparked from his passionate texts - a system of protection for land of intrinsic value.  But he may be made more welcome yet - 2014 is the year of a referendum for Scottish Independence, a 'homecoming' year, but also the centenary of Muir's death.



But enough of school!  After the museum, it's an easy thing to go and find some of that nature you've been reading about, by wandering along the coast to the John Muir Country Park



We walked along a wide empty beach passing bleached white driftwood and nesting terns, with chocolate coloured surf swelling in on the tide, then picked up on the breeze out towards Bass rock.  After an hour or more we moved inland, crossing dunes full of meadow flowers and moths, to a quiet woodland trail before turning back towards town and home.



It is quietly lovely, accessible, a great outing for kids of all ages, and I'd recommend it the next time you are in this part of the world.  Really, the beaches here are something else.  Bring a picnic, a waterproof too, and make a day of it.

NB:  This was not written for my work with the John Muir Trust, who are also not connected to this museum, although they did provide some initial support at the time the Birthplace Trust was established.