Walking Scotland’s John Muir Way

By Frank Cunningham
This article appears on page 6 of the March 2016 issue.
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A panoramic view from the John Muir Way in the Scottish Borderlands. Photos by Stephanie Cunningham

Four rather elderly women were sitting on a shale ledge eating lunch as my traveling companions and I approached a fork in the trail we were walking. An intense downpour had just stopped, and the women looked a bit comical — hoods pushed back revealing disheveled hair, hands poking out from under ponchos, fumbling with sandwiches and fruit. They must have read our ‘What are these old gals doing here?’ look, as they volunteered, “We escaped from the nursing home.”

Actually, they were halfway through a 10-mile walk in the hilly, wet countryside between Loch Lomond and the Firth of Clyde. Such outings were regular for them, they said. After all, they belonged to the Glasgow Health Culture Rambling Club, founded over a hundred years ago. “We’re charter members,” they joked.

We had a brief but lively exchange, confirmed our directions (they were walking the reverse of our route that day) and continued our walk to Balloch and Loch Lomond.

The encounter confirmed for me that walking holidays spark the serendipity of travel.

Only the day before, we had stopped in the tourist office in Helensburgh, the starting point of the trail, where the clerk stood back, snapped his heels and saluted us when he realized we would be walking the full length of Scotland’s John Muir Way.

When we asked some detailed questions, he pulled out a guitar and sang his version of the old tune “Don’t Ask Me No Questions” (…and I won’t tell you no lies). You could hear the laughter across the street.

He also steered us to “the best seafood restaurant” in town, but we discovered that not all his advice was of equal value. The fish on the menu consisted of shrimp and tuna salad, not even salmon (in Scotland!).

Heavy rain and good humor: such was our introduction to Scotland’s John Muir Way, a 2-year-old, 134-mile-long, coast-to-coast walking trail that connects Helensburgh on the Firth of Clyde, a bay off the Atlantic, to Dunbar on the North Sea.

The trail

The John Muir Way is a very forgiving hiking trail that offers rich scenic and historical rewards and post-industrial charms, such as restored canals and the Falkirk Wheel. It crosses a narrow neck of Scotland through the gentle hills of the Borderlands, taking advantage of canal towpaths and old railroad rights of way.

It’s a march through history dating to the Antonine Wall, a Roman attempt to keep the Caledonian tribes at bay nearly 2,000 years ago. Extensive remnants of the ramparts remain, as do castles built by feudal lords and rambling estates resulting from the area’s early industrial success.

Even James Watt’s shop, where he developed his steam engine, nestles in a corner of the expansive Kinneil House grounds.

Urban excitement is provided by Edinburgh while coastal charms are ample on the 45-mile route along the Firth of Forth that traverses Scotland’s Golf Coast.

The Way terminates in the North Sea town of Dunbar, also called Sunny Dunny, reputedly the sunniest spot in the country.

The trail can be walked in either direction. Wanting the wind at our backs, we chose to walk west to east.

The Way is named after the American writer, conservationist and founder of the Sierra Club, John Muir, who was born in Dunbar. At age 11, he and his family moved to Wisconsin, where he lived until early adulthood.

Muir would spend most of his adult life in California exploring and advocating for the preservation of America’s wilderness.

Making plans

I’ve done several long-distance hikes in the 10 years since I retired. I had nothing planned for 2015, just a few random possibilities, so when my daughter Stephanie, a graphic design professor on sabbatical, expressed interest in trail hiking with me, I jumped at the chance.

We talked about several options and settled on the Muir Way. Her husband, Ryon, thought it sounded like fun, and Kevin, a friend and hiking companion from York in the UK, made it a foursome.

One of many trail intersections showing distances and various trail waymarkers.

We started out in a soft rain on a late-August morning, walking up to and through Helensburgh Upper, with its stunning old homes and lovely views of the Firth of Clyde. The light rain soon became a drenching downpour, running over, under and through our ponchos and rain suits. We quickly felt the squish of wet socks.

The clouds were high enough to allow wonderful vistas from the flanks of 900-foot-high Gouk Hill. The firth, Loch Lomond and the mountain backdrop, to the north, offered a dramatic introduction to the gentle beauty we would encounter along the Way.

Enjoyable encounter

People were a constant delight, the Scots being among the most welcoming of people I’ve ever encountered. One day we took a late-morning rest break in the village of Croftamie. We left the trail to walk the short distance to The Wayfarers Restaurant & Bar only to find it closed for the day. Disappointed, we rested at picnic tables in the empty patio, airing out our shoes and socks.

Within a few minutes, one of the owners came out and kindly offered us tea or coffee. We readily accepted.

The restaurant was closed, he explained, to allow the new owners to ready it for a grand reopening.

Realizing it was, in effect, a new business, Ryon quickly went inside to give him a US dollar, explaining our tradition of hanging the first dollar earned in a prominent place in a new business. The owner was delighted and showed us where he intended to hang it.

On another day we walked past the newest and oldest features of the trail. The oldest was the Roman Rough Castle Fort, a well-preserved section of ramparts and trenches of the Antonine Wall.

The newest was the Falkirk Wheel (www.scottishcanals.co.uk/falkirk-wheel), an amazing engineering feat that replaced 11 canal locks. The wheel rotates two huge gondolas that lift or lower boats between the Union and Forth & Clyde canals.

From Falkirk

One of the loveliest days of the walk was spent on the trail between the city of Falkirk and the town of Linlithgow.

We started with an early-morning breakfast and a taxi to “The Kelpies,” two sculpted stainless-steel horse heads standing 100 feet high. They memorialize the famed draught horses that once pulled the canal boats between Glasgow and Edinburgh or ploughed the fields and pulled the wagons of the Borderlands. For sculptor son-in-law Ryon, these were a must-see side trip.

The foursome, left to right: Kevin Millar, Frank Cunningham, Ryon Rich and Stephanie Cunningham.

We began our hike that morning in Falkirk’s Callendar Park, walking along the front of Callendar House and up through its gardens and woods to the Union Canal. It was Sunday, so the canal was busy with recreational traffic, and we exchanged greetings with the boaters as we walked along the towpath.

We met a group of teens paddling four red canoes chockablock with gear. Several hundred yards farther east, we encountered an adult in another red canoe, his paddles set in the gunwales as he looked at a map.

Jokingly, I said, “They went that­away,” pointing west, where the teens were well out of sight.

“Oh, thank God,” he replied and started paddling.

We walked the canal path for several miles, stopping for lunch at a waterside café before crossing the Avon Aqueduct that carries the canal over the Avon River. That’s right. Over the river.

A few miles farther along, we left the towpath to descend through the woods to the banks of the Avon, lined with trees, pockets of foxglove, low plants with leaves the size of elephant ears and the beautiful but invasive Himalayan balsam. We arrived in Linlithgow about 2 p.m.

Farm to city

The John Muir Way passes in and out of several distinct landscapes — hedgerows, moorlands, forests, rivers, lakes and the coast — always with panoramic views. Each offers distinct opportunities to see birds, flowers, shrubs and trees.

We continued on for an hour’s uphill walk to our accommodation at a farmstay. The farm was situated on a high ridge with spectacular views of the Firth of Forth to the north and Linlithgow Loch and the Avon valley to the south.

We sat at picnic tables outside our rooms, enjoying the afternoon sun and the views as well as snacks and cold beer we had bought in the village.

Into the midst of our relaxed celebration walked Charlie Braun, one of the owners of the farm, who regaled us with a 15-minute standup comedy routine. All that was missing were the rim shots.

We took advantage of our time in Edinburgh by renting a 3-bedroom condo in the city center for three nights where Kevin’s wife, Cath, joined us. We visited the usual tourist attractions and walked through the streets of Cath’s old neighborhood. Ryon took advantage of a day to golf.

Ending in Dunbar

The 3-day walk from Edinburgh to Dunbar was delightful. From Prestonpans, the route hugged the coast to North Berwick as the Firth of Forth bent to the North Sea. We hiked beaches and dunes, passing fishing and recreational boat anchorages, and walked through slumbering villages and across extensive estates, visiting the ruins of 13th-century Dirleton Castle.

Canoeists on the Union Canal.

From North Berwick, the Way turned inland and cross-country before heading back to the coast and the tidal flats, taking us into Dunbar. Most of the time the landscape was dominated by the Berwick Law, a volcanic plug that rose out of the otherwise rolling countryside.

After arriving in Dunbar, our first stop was John Muir’s Birthplace, the family home where the writer was born. It’s a fine museum, graphically, showing his early life in Scotland and his years in America.

When the docents learned we had just finished walking the length of the Way, they provided us with colorful Certificates of Completion.

Our final stop was the sunny patio at our hotel. Fruit, cheese and salami from the local Tesco Express, cold beer from the hotel bar, animated conversation and a cheerful “slàinte” (with Scotch, of course) capped a memorable coast-to-coast traverse.

Essentials

The trail was relatively well marked, with round, purple-and-white way-markers and rectangular signposts on the eastern end. Maps and guides were not essential, but the Rucksack Readers guide “John Muir Way” provided generally good directions and excellent background information for both walkers and cyclists.

We encountered several signage problems. For example, the signs and the guidebook directions were at odds around the Falkirk Wheel, and a sign on the Kinneil House grounds had no arrow on it. Kevin discovered that it had been fastened over the sign with the arrow. Also, the directions leading off the grounds sent us opposite the correct direction.

Plan ten days to walk and five to cycle plus extra time in Edinburgh. Lacking enthusiasm for urban walking, we chose not to walk the Way through Edinburgh.

Walking the John Muir Way requires careful planning not required on other European walking routes, such as the network of ancient paths leading to Santiago de Compostela or the extensive Grande Randonnée (aka Grote Routepaden) footpaths spiderwebbed throughout Western Europe. These routes wander from village to village, where walkers usually can depend on finding beds at the end of the day in an abundance of hostel-like facilities and inexpensive hotels.

The John Muir Way offers no such infrastructure. Rather, a hiker is challenged by a scarcity of bed-and-breakfasts and inns convenient to the trail.

Accommodations

The John Muir Way website (john muirway.org) is excellent. It provides a thorough list of accommodations at each of the suggested overnight stops, but it does not indicate which facilities are near the trail. Unfortunately, most of them are not.

Determining lodging locations is critical. Few walkers want to face two or three extra miles to their accommodations at the end of the day and back to the trail again the next morning.

Strathblane, the suggested second-day destination, is an example of this problem. It has only two accommodations: The Kirkhouse Inn and the Strathblane Country House.

The trail passes conveniently close to the Kirkhouse, but the Country House is located about three miles away. After a 17-mile day, we were happy we had reservations at the Kirkhouse, which also had the only restaurant in the village.

Having realized this dilemma, I started emailing accommodations four months before leaving, asking if they were within a reasonable walking distance of the trail. Response was occasionally slow, but once I knew the location, I would book rooms. Kevin also helped with the bookings and followed up on the slow responders with phone calls.

One innkeeper understood the problem and offered to pick us up at the trail and take us back in the morning.

A couple of weeks before starting, we had reservations for all the nights of our walk. The downside to reservations is that they lock you into a fixed walking schedule. You can’t decide to spend an extra day in a given town without messing up subsequent nights and taking the chance there won’t be rooms at one or more of the following stops.

To a lesser degree, this was also a concern in finding places to eat. Two of the accommodations we booked were beyond walking distance from restaurants. One innkeeper dropped us off and picked us up after dinner. Another gave us the number of a local taxi, so we added another $20 to our dinner bill that night.

Several firms provide baggage-transfer service starting at about $20 per bag, less for multiple bags. Try “baggage transfer service on the John Muir Way” in your search engine.

Please login or subscribe to ITN to read the entire post.
A panoramic view from the John Muir Way in the Scottish Borderlands. Photos by Stephanie Cunningham

Four rather elderly women were sitting on a shale ledge eating lunch as my traveling companions and I approached a fork in the trail we were walking. An intense downpour had just stopped, and the women looked a bit comical — hoods pushed back revealing disheveled hair, hands poking out from under ponchos, fumbling with sandwiches and fruit. They must have read our ‘What are these old gals doing here?’ look, as they volunteered, “We escaped from the nursing home.”

Actually, they were halfway through a 10-mile walk in the hilly, wet countryside between Loch Lomond and the Firth of Clyde. Such outings were regular for them, they said. After all, they belonged to the Glasgow Health Culture Rambling Club, founded over a hundred years ago. “We’re charter members,” they joked.

We had a brief but lively exchange, confirmed our directions (they were walking the reverse of our route that day) and continued our walk to Balloch and Loch Lomond.

The encounter confirmed for me that walking holidays spark the serendipity of travel.

Only the day before, we had stopped in the tourist office in Helensburgh, the starting point of the trail, where the clerk stood back, snapped his heels and saluted us when he realized we would be walking the full length of Scotland’s John Muir Way.

When we asked some detailed questions, he pulled out a guitar and sang his version of the old tune “Don’t Ask Me No Questions” (…and I won’t tell you no lies). You could hear the laughter across the street.

He also steered us to “the best seafood restaurant” in town, but we discovered that not all his advice was of equal value. The fish on the menu consisted of shrimp and tuna salad, not even salmon (in Scotland!).

Heavy rain and good humor: such was our introduction to Scotland’s John Muir Way, a 2-year-old, 134-mile-long, coast-to-coast walking trail that connects Helensburgh on the Firth of Clyde, a bay off the Atlantic, to Dunbar on the North Sea.

The trail

The John Muir Way is a very forgiving hiking trail that offers rich scenic and historical rewards and post-industrial charms, such as restored canals and the Falkirk Wheel. It crosses a narrow neck of Scotland through the gentle hills of the Borderlands, taking advantage of canal towpaths and old railroad rights of way.

It’s a march through history dating to the Antonine Wall, a Roman attempt to keep the Caledonian tribes at bay nearly 2,000 years ago. Extensive remnants of the ramparts remain, as do castles built by feudal lords and rambling estates resulting from the area’s early industrial success.

Even James Watt’s shop, where he developed his steam engine, nestles in a corner of the expansive Kinneil House grounds.

Urban excitement is provided by Edinburgh while coastal charms are ample on the 45-mile route along the Firth of Forth that traverses Scotland’s Golf Coast.

The Way terminates in the North Sea town of Dunbar, also called Sunny Dunny, reputedly the sunniest spot in the country.

The trail can be walked in either direction. Wanting the wind at our backs, we chose to walk west to east.

The Way is named after the American writer, conservationist and founder of the Sierra Club, John Muir, who was born in Dunbar. At age 11, he and his family moved to Wisconsin, where he lived until early adulthood.

Muir would spend most of his adult life in California exploring and advocating for the preservation of America’s wilderness.

Making plans

I’ve done several long-distance hikes in the 10 years since I retired. I had nothing planned for 2015, just a few random possibilities, so when my daughter Stephanie, a graphic design professor on sabbatical, expressed interest in trail hiking with me, I jumped at the chance.

We talked about several options and settled on the Muir Way. Her husband, Ryon, thought it sounded like fun, and Kevin, a friend and hiking companion from York in the UK, made it a foursome.

One of many trail intersections showing distances and various trail waymarkers.

We started out in a soft rain on a late-August morning, walking up to and through Helensburgh Upper, with its stunning old homes and lovely views of the Firth of Clyde. The light rain soon became a drenching downpour, running over, under and through our ponchos and rain suits. We quickly felt the squish of wet socks.

The clouds were high enough to allow wonderful vistas from the flanks of 900-foot-high Gouk Hill. The firth, Loch Lomond and the mountain backdrop, to the north, offered a dramatic introduction to the gentle beauty we would encounter along the Way.

Enjoyable encounter

People were a constant delight, the Scots being among the most welcoming of people I’ve ever encountered. One day we took a late-morning rest break in the village of Croftamie. We left the trail to walk the short distance to The Wayfarers Restaurant & Bar only to find it closed for the day. Disappointed, we rested at picnic tables in the empty patio, airing out our shoes and socks.

Within a few minutes, one of the owners came out and kindly offered us tea or coffee. We readily accepted.

The restaurant was closed, he explained, to allow the new owners to ready it for a grand reopening.

Realizing it was, in effect, a new business, Ryon quickly went inside to give him a US dollar, explaining our tradition of hanging the first dollar earned in a prominent place in a new business. The owner was delighted and showed us where he intended to hang it.

On another day we walked past the newest and oldest features of the trail. The oldest was the Roman Rough Castle Fort, a well-preserved section of ramparts and trenches of the Antonine Wall.

The newest was the Falkirk Wheel (www.scottishcanals.co.uk/falkirk-wheel), an amazing engineering feat that replaced 11 canal locks. The wheel rotates two huge gondolas that lift or lower boats between the Union and Forth & Clyde canals.

From Falkirk

One of the loveliest days of the walk was spent on the trail between the city of Falkirk and the town of Linlithgow.

We started with an early-morning breakfast and a taxi to “The Kelpies,” two sculpted stainless-steel horse heads standing 100 feet high. They memorialize the famed draught horses that once pulled the canal boats between Glasgow and Edinburgh or ploughed the fields and pulled the wagons of the Borderlands. For sculptor son-in-law Ryon, these were a must-see side trip.

The foursome, left to right: Kevin Millar, Frank Cunningham, Ryon Rich and Stephanie Cunningham.

We began our hike that morning in Falkirk’s Callendar Park, walking along the front of Callendar House and up through its gardens and woods to the Union Canal. It was Sunday, so the canal was busy with recreational traffic, and we exchanged greetings with the boaters as we walked along the towpath.

We met a group of teens paddling four red canoes chockablock with gear. Several hundred yards farther east, we encountered an adult in another red canoe, his paddles set in the gunwales as he looked at a map.

Jokingly, I said, “They went that­away,” pointing west, where the teens were well out of sight.

“Oh, thank God,” he replied and started paddling.

We walked the canal path for several miles, stopping for lunch at a waterside café before crossing the Avon Aqueduct that carries the canal over the Avon River. That’s right. Over the river.

A few miles farther along, we left the towpath to descend through the woods to the banks of the Avon, lined with trees, pockets of foxglove, low plants with leaves the size of elephant ears and the beautiful but invasive Himalayan balsam. We arrived in Linlithgow about 2 p.m.

Farm to city

The John Muir Way passes in and out of several distinct landscapes — hedgerows, moorlands, forests, rivers, lakes and the coast — always with panoramic views. Each offers distinct opportunities to see birds, flowers, shrubs and trees.

We continued on for an hour’s uphill walk to our accommodation at a farmstay. The farm was situated on a high ridge with spectacular views of the Firth of Forth to the north and Linlithgow Loch and the Avon valley to the south.

We sat at picnic tables outside our rooms, enjoying the afternoon sun and the views as well as snacks and cold beer we had bought in the village.

Into the midst of our relaxed celebration walked Charlie Braun, one of the owners of the farm, who regaled us with a 15-minute standup comedy routine. All that was missing were the rim shots.

We took advantage of our time in Edinburgh by renting a 3-bedroom condo in the city center for three nights where Kevin’s wife, Cath, joined us. We visited the usual tourist attractions and walked through the streets of Cath’s old neighborhood. Ryon took advantage of a day to golf.

Ending in Dunbar

The 3-day walk from Edinburgh to Dunbar was delightful. From Prestonpans, the route hugged the coast to North Berwick as the Firth of Forth bent to the North Sea. We hiked beaches and dunes, passing fishing and recreational boat anchorages, and walked through slumbering villages and across extensive estates, visiting the ruins of 13th-century Dirleton Castle.

Canoeists on the Union Canal.

From North Berwick, the Way turned inland and cross-country before heading back to the coast and the tidal flats, taking us into Dunbar. Most of the time the landscape was dominated by the Berwick Law, a volcanic plug that rose out of the otherwise rolling countryside.

After arriving in Dunbar, our first stop was John Muir’s Birthplace, the family home where the writer was born. It’s a fine museum, graphically, showing his early life in Scotland and his years in America.

When the docents learned we had just finished walking the length of the Way, they provided us with colorful Certificates of Completion.

Our final stop was the sunny patio at our hotel. Fruit, cheese and salami from the local Tesco Express, cold beer from the hotel bar, animated conversation and a cheerful “slàinte” (with Scotch, of course) capped a memorable coast-to-coast traverse.

Essentials

The trail was relatively well marked, with round, purple-and-white way-markers and rectangular signposts on the eastern end. Maps and guides were not essential, but the Rucksack Readers guide “John Muir Way” provided generally good directions and excellent background information for both walkers and cyclists.

We encountered several signage problems. For example, the signs and the guidebook directions were at odds around the Falkirk Wheel, and a sign on the Kinneil House grounds had no arrow on it. Kevin discovered that it had been fastened over the sign with the arrow. Also, the directions leading off the grounds sent us opposite the correct direction.

Plan ten days to walk and five to cycle plus extra time in Edinburgh. Lacking enthusiasm for urban walking, we chose not to walk the Way through Edinburgh.

Walking the John Muir Way requires careful planning not required on other European walking routes, such as the network of ancient paths leading to Santiago de Compostela or the extensive Grande Randonnée (aka Grote Routepaden) footpaths spiderwebbed throughout Western Europe. These routes wander from village to village, where walkers usually can depend on finding beds at the end of the day in an abundance of hostel-like facilities and inexpensive hotels.

The John Muir Way offers no such infrastructure. Rather, a hiker is challenged by a scarcity of bed-and-breakfasts and inns convenient to the trail.

Accommodations

The John Muir Way website (john muirway.org) is excellent. It provides a thorough list of accommodations at each of the suggested overnight stops, but it does not indicate which facilities are near the trail. Unfortunately, most of them are not.

Determining lodging locations is critical. Few walkers want to face two or three extra miles to their accommodations at the end of the day and back to the trail again the next morning.

Strathblane, the suggested second-day destination, is an example of this problem. It has only two accommodations: The Kirkhouse Inn and the Strathblane Country House.

The trail passes conveniently close to the Kirkhouse, but the Country House is located about three miles away. After a 17-mile day, we were happy we had reservations at the Kirkhouse, which also had the only restaurant in the village.

Having realized this dilemma, I started emailing accommodations four months before leaving, asking if they were within a reasonable walking distance of the trail. Response was occasionally slow, but once I knew the location, I would book rooms. Kevin also helped with the bookings and followed up on the slow responders with phone calls.

One innkeeper understood the problem and offered to pick us up at the trail and take us back in the morning.

A couple of weeks before starting, we had reservations for all the nights of our walk. The downside to reservations is that they lock you into a fixed walking schedule. You can’t decide to spend an extra day in a given town without messing up subsequent nights and taking the chance there won’t be rooms at one or more of the following stops.

To a lesser degree, this was also a concern in finding places to eat. Two of the accommodations we booked were beyond walking distance from restaurants. One innkeeper dropped us off and picked us up after dinner. Another gave us the number of a local taxi, so we added another $20 to our dinner bill that night.

Several firms provide baggage-transfer service starting at about $20 per bag, less for multiple bags. Try “baggage transfer service on the John Muir Way” in your search engine.