LET’S be honest, John Muir would probably have hated the John Muir Way. The long distance walking trail set up in his honour is surely too flat for a man happiest on a hill, who once declared, “the mountains are calling and I must go”. While Covid-19 may prevent us from hopping across the Atlantic to enjoy the national parks he set up, Muir’s legacy here is a nonetheless spectacular trail that handily ripples across Central Scotland, accessible to many Scots even in lockdown, that more than justifies its official recognition as one of Scotland’s Great Trails.

Curiously John Muir is not even an assured household name to some in his homeland. Americans find this baffling as across the Atlantic this seminal figure, who hails from Dunbar on the craggy East Lothian coast, is revered as the founder and inspiration behind the US National Park network.

After a childhood spent beguiled by nature, rambling around the sturdy sandstone cliffs and starched white beaches that surround Dunbar, Muir emigrated from the pier at Helensburgh to Wisconsin in 1849 at the tender age of 10. It is fitting then that the 134 mile/215km trail that opened in 2014 runs between Dunbar and Helensburgh, kicking off at the museum dedicated to him that is now housed in the house he was born in right in the heart of modern day Dunbar, then culminating on the waterfront in Helensburgh where he left Scotland, never to return.

The chances are if you live in Central Scotland at some point you have walked on a section of the John Muir Way. My neighbour is anecdotal evidence. He steadfastly denied ever having walked any of the Way, a position that quickly became untenable when I pointed out the John Muir Way marker on a lamppost outside our houses. I still suspect he thinks I may just have planted it there in advance.

The waymarked John Muir Way is that sort of trail, a route most of us have unconsciously walked stretches of in a way different to other long distance walks. You seldom for example mindlessly complete mountainous legs of the West Highland Way by accident. The John Muir Way connects the Clyde with the Forth, the Atlantic with the North Sea, skirting just to the north of Glasgow, scooping down and around the southern shores of Loch Lomond, past the Falkirk Wheel and right through Edinburgh. It is Central Scotland in a walking route.

Over the years as a travel writer I’ve walked most of it and can attest to the John Muir Way deserving to be listed alongside its more illustrious long distance cousins as one of Scotland’s official Great Trails. It is for example more varied and less of a slog than the tough Southern Upland Way and less frustrating than the Speyside Way, where land ownership issues often have you enviously eying up the river from afar.

I’ve managed to walk almost all of the John Muir Way. Not in one go – that would take around 10-12 days – but in bite sized chunks. And unusually for a long distance walk that was the idea when it was dreamt up. As much as its founders hoped people would go ‘bagging’ the whole length, they also wanted to connect communities and just get people out there enjoying the Great Outdoors, continuing the work of John Muir, who both extolled the joys of nature and the benefits of getting closer to it.

Reinforcing this sectional nature I’ve taken Covid-19 as an opportunity to tick off my penultimate section. Being a grounded travel writer I’ve realised – like many of us – in a way I may never have otherwise, the wealth of what I have around me. Setting off on just two feet from my front door I swept from the Hopetoun Estate, where West Lothian becomes Edinburgh, right into the heart of the city, on a 15 mile stretch. I was meant to be in Gran Canaria, but as travel corridors closed, my fitness and sanity retaining options narrowed as they have for us all.

This chunk of the John Muir Way proved a microcosm for the whole trail, packed with epic scenery, landmarks and history, and plenty of surprises. The John Muir Way is like a pedestrian submarine. You pop up in places you don’t expect, and connect other places you didn’t realise were so close. Yes I’m well acquainted with the Forth Bridges and the charms of the Union Canal, but I must have driven past Davidson’s Mains Park a thousand times on the A90 and never realised it was there. I had never scaled the wooded heights of Corstorphine Hill in the footsteps of David Balfour in Stevenson’s Kidnapped, nor realised how good a job they’ve done revamping Saughton Park.

It was in the green oasis of Saughton Park that I met Chris Davidson, who runs the bright and breezy Garden Bistro. It could scarcely be more symbolic of Covid-19. Opened in the chaos of last year the team have switched between helping relieved customers wine and dine post-Lockdown I, before reining things in to outdoor dining only as restrictions grew, then as during my Lockdown II visit on to takeaway-only. I tucked into a delicious steak beef burger as Davidson enthused about the John Muir Way: “It’s a great way for people to enjoy a wander through the city, to explore corners they might otherwise not find. We get loads of people who stumble upon us, people who without Covid might not even bother walking in their own city.”

This is a trend that Scott Goddard, owner of South Queensferry’s Little Parlour, echoes. “Before Covid our customers were most often people coming out to take a few photos of the Forth Bridges and enjoy an ice cream,” he says. “Now they come in all shapes and sizes, often walking east or west on the John Muir Way, which actually runs right by us on the High Street.”

When regulations eventually lift and allow us to explore all over Scotland again you can tackle sections of the John Muir Way outside your region. If you want to go the whole hog I recommend tackling it in reverse as it were against the narrative of Muir’s life, breaking east from Helensburgh as you then follow the prevailing winds and rain, which is especially important for cyclists. Unusually this long distance trail set out its stall upon opening as being equally welcoming to walkers and cyclists. The official website outlines where the routes diverge.

When you can venture further afield – or if you are lucky to live there - my favourite stretch of the Way is between Helensburgh and Strathblane. You soon head north away from the Clyde with views of Glasgow’s lifeblood river opening up behind you, before you tackle thick, life affirming forest. Gouk Hill at 277m rewards your efforts with views back towards the Firth of Clyde and onwards to Loch Lomond.

One of the joys of long distance walking in more normal times is tucking into a hearty meal and savouring a glass of wine at the end of the day. This brings me to the ultimate post-walk treat. Cameron House sits close to the Way and when it re-opens this year again becomes handy for hiking in serious style. One of the advantages of the John Muir Way travelling through less remote areas is that it overflows with hotels, hostels, B&Bs and restaurants. There is even a bag service if you want to have your luggage shipped to the next overnight.

The second part of my favourite stretch of the John Muir Way sweeps from the shores of Loch Lomond across some properly wild country to Strathblane at the foot of the Campsie Fells. Like all the sections of the Way it offers a variety of terrain, with sections of tarmac broken up by single track gravel paths and forest trails. For a section you share the route with the West Highland Way. The John Muir Way interacts with other walking routes along its length like this.

The rest of 2021 is, of course, uncertain in myriad ways for us all. One of my post-lockdown goals, after the Stay Local rule lifts on April 26 is to finally complete the John Muir Way by yomping the 15 miles from North Berwick to Dunbar. There the museum at John Muir’s birthplace awaits. The mountains called and the young Muir went. I’m a huge fan of the Munros and American national parks too, but I’ve a sneaking suspicion that if John Muir were locked down in East Lothian today he would take quiet satisfaction that the route named in his honour is fulfilling his pivotal aim in life: “I care to live only to entice people to look at Nature's loveliness.”


John Muir Way website – www.johnmuirway.org

The John Muir Way guidebook, by Sandra Bardwell and Jacquetta Megarry, published by Rucksack Readers, is an invaluable companion for all sections of the way, whether you are on two feet or two wheels.

For the latest Scottish Government restrictions see www.gov.scot/coronavirus-covid-19