Most Americans might be surprised to learn that conservationist John Muir — namesake of Muir Woods (the American national park boasting towering redwood trees north of San Francisco), Sierra Club co-founder and first president from 1892 until his death in 1914, and father of the National Park System — was born and raised in Dunbar, Scotland.
Nicknamed “Sunny Dunny,” the charming village claims to be the sunniest spot in Scotland (admittedly, a low bar!). But — in addition to its stunning cliff views — I was most excited by the town’s connection to John Muir.
Pro Tip: Don’t let Dunbar’s sunshiny reputation lull you into underdressing. The North Sea wind is strong and bracing. Scotland is the windiest country in Europe, so wear your jumper and favorite tartan scarf.
1. John Muir’s Birthplace Home
“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.” — JM, The Story of My Boyhood and Youth
Muir’s family lived above his father’s meal (oat) shop. Oats were an important staple for many Scots, for both animal feed as well as ubiquitous Scottish porridge, so the family was quite prosperous.
The three-story home is on Dunbar’s High Street — another indication of the Muir family’s wealth — and is now a museum cataloging John’s many achievements. My favorite exhibit was two first editions of Muir’s books, published in 1894 and 1913.
A small but thorough gift shop features locally made jewelry, tartan scarves (in case you forgot yours!), stationery, calendars, and a fabulous library of books about the famous naturalist.
Pro Tip: Although the stairs between floors are uneven (originally built during the 1730s), there is an elevator and handicapped bathroom.
2. John Muir Alpaca Treks
“Any glimpse into the life of an animal quickens our own and makes it so much the larger and better in every way.” — JM journal
A 20-minute walk or a short bus ride from Belhaven Bay beach is the John Muir Alpaca ranch where you’ll be greeted by Storm, a friendly alpaca with an enviable bush of lush hair and three-inch eyelashes.
The ranch offers twice-daily opportunities to lead alpacas the short distance to the beach and give them some grass-munching and leg-stretching time.
During my visit, I led handsome, chestnut-colored Berty, who, although in a foul mood, appreciated the many snack breaks I gave him, and Boris, a dirty blond with an unruly mop of hair who bore a striking similarity to (ahem) the Prime Minister (although I was told he was named after the owner’s grandfather).
John Muir Alpacas offers trek and picnic “alpackages,” tours around the alpaca enclosure for those with mobility constraints, and spacious, tastefully decorated teepees for family reunions and weddings.
An online gift store sells alpaca yarn labeled with each specific alpaca’s name, as well as custom-made T-shirts, sweatshirts, mugs, and face masks.
Pro Tip: You’ll be walking through unpaved fields and woods, so wear sturdy shoes.
3. John Muir Way
“I could have become a millionaire, but chose instead to become a tramp.” — JM letters
Starting at John Muir’s Birthplace is a 134-mile hike, bike, or horse-riding trail that stretches from the east coast in Dunbar to Helensburgh northwest of Glasgow. The hike takes 9 to 11 days, while a cycling trek takes 4 to 5 days. According to the Green Action Trust, the walking route is “rougher and more challenging,” while the cycle route, although flatter, is “steep and rough in parts and some pushing may be required.”
Since the iconic trail begins in Dunbar, it’s fun to wander along its first mile or two, which stretches seductively along the craggy coast until it reaches John Muir Country Park.
Pro Tip: It’s recommended to walk the route in short bursts in order to cherish the charming towns and villages you’ll go through — and to savor the many castles you’ll encounter.
4. John Muir Country Park
“I care to live only to entice people to look at Nature’s loveliness.” — JM, The Life and Letters of John Muir
This 1,700-acre park stretches eight miles along the North Sea coast through sand dunes, salt marshes, beaches, and woodlands, providing habitats for plenty of birds and plants. Many trails cross the park, including part of the John Muir Way. There are wooden boardwalks to make the beach more accessible and a barbecue and picnic area near the parking lot.
5. Belhaven Bay
Not all the fun is found on terra firma, however, as Belhaven Bay is one of the best spots in Scotland for surfing. The broad beach and shallow waters boast the biggest swells during the chilly autumn and winter.
If you are looking to spend a few days at Belhaven Bay, check out the compact, modern bothies — simple one-story box homes modeled after the remote unfurnished shelters that probably once housed shepherds and now offer free absolutely no-frills (no water, toilet, or firewood) overnight shelter to ramblers. Belhaven Bay’s bothies, however, are comfy vacation rentals with spectacular views.
Besides the wild, dramatic beach, a favorite draw is the Bridge to Nowhere which, during high tide, is partially submerged, creating its lonely image. During low tide, however, the bridge spans the Biel Water stream allowing visitors to access the broad beach.
Pro Tip: Keep an eye on the tide tables to be sure you don’t get stranded on the ocean side of the stream!
6. Dunbar Art Trail
For beauty of a more human-made sort, follow the free Dunbar Art Trail around town to find 26 outdoor artworks, including the whimsical sculpture of a young John Muir reaching for overhead birds by Ukrainian artist Valentin Ivanovich Znoba.
7. Dunbar Town House And Museum Gallery
Since the 16th century, the Town Hall has been the focus of village life. Today, the local historical society operates on the ground floor and hosts free rotating events, art and historical exhibitions, and informal chats about Dunbar’s history.
The top floor, however, remains a council chambers, making Dunbar’s Town House Scotland’s oldest functioning council chamber. It’s here where women were tried during the infamous East Lothian witch trials.
In earlier days, the council had its chambers on the top floor while the police operated from the ground floor. Until 1860, there were two cells on the middle floor — one for debtors and the other for criminals, thieves, and witches, which is rumored to be haunted. The fireplace in the debtors’ cell still bears prisoners’ graffiti.
Pro Tip: Look up at the tower; you’ll notice three clocks — a sundial, a polar sundial, and a conventional clock. These clocks signaled the ringing of the tower bell to regulate market times, public houses’ (pubs) closing time (10 p.m.), and the night curfew when the village’s gates would close.
8. Dunbar’s Harbor, Castle, And Artillery Battery
One of the strongest fortresses in Scotland, Dunbar Castle was built during the 1070s by the Earl of Dunbar along the village’s old defensive wall on a forbidding cliff overlooking the sea. For the next five centuries, the castle endured repeated attacks by the English.
But its real claim to fame was in 1567, when Mary, Queen of Scots fled from Edinburgh after her husband Lord Darnley was murdered (probably) by her lover James Hepburn, the fourth Earl of Bothwell. They sheltered at Dunbar Castle and, after her surrender and abdication three months later, the Scottish Parliament ordered the castle’s destruction. Today, it is too dangerous to clamber around, but there are stunning views of it from all along the coast.
An artillery battery was built in 1781 to protect the harbor and village from raiding American “privateers.” Today, it is an open-air amphitheater for various cultural performances and public art. The views are spectacular.
9. Belhaven Brewery
Although records from the 1550s show Belhaven Ale being served to soldiers at Dunbar Castle, it is believed that brewing beer dates back to the 1150s, when monks took advantage of the East Lothian barley fields.
10. Red Cliff Top Trail And Herring Trail
The Red Cliff Top Trail starts with dramatic views of the crumbling castle, goes through a tunnel, winds around dramatic sandstone rock formations, skirts the golf club (give way to golfers and beware of errant balls!), and provides beautiful views of Belhaven Bay before heading down to the Bridge to Nowhere. Carry on for the second part of the walk through Dunbar’s village center for a 3.5-mile walk.
The more ambitious Herring Trail follows the road used in the 18th and 19th centuries by fishwives shuttling huge creels of herring from Dunbar to surrounding markets. The full hike or bike trail is about 28 miles.
Pro Tip: Pop into the post office to purchase resident historian Roy Pugh’s booklets for various walking tours around Dunbar.
Muir gets the final word about venturing from his hometown: “The world is big, and I’d like to have a good look at it before it gets dark.”