Early years on the stormy shores of Scotland

On April 21, 1838, a great adventurer, inventor and nature-lover was born in a three-story stone house in Dunbar, East Lothian, on the east coast of Scotland. He was the third of the eight children, born to Daniel Muir and his second wife Ann Gilrye. His parents named him John.

Museum Sign - John Muir Dunbar, Scotland

John Muir's birth place on 126 High Street in Dunbar is now a museum and a center for 'study and interpretation of the work of the Scottish-American conservationist John Muir.'

Photo above credits: ​International Appalachian Trail

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 Dunbar, by the stormy North Sea, there was no lack of wildness, though most of the land lay in smooth cultivation.​

With red-blooded playmates, wild as myself, I loved to wander in the fields to hear the birds sing, and 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 when the sea and the sky, the waves and the clouds, were mingled together as one.

John Muir
The Story of My Boyhood and Youth                 

Dunbar Castle was one of the mightiest fortresses in Scotland (see photo below), first built out of stone around 1070 AD and was in use until 1567.

Muir's family house was located in 'the best business district of the town' from where John's father, Daniel, ran a successful grain and food store, inherited from his first wife.

In 1842 John's father was able to buy the bigger building to the right of their first home and turned it into a new family home.

Photo below credits: International Appalachian Trail

John Muir's birth place in Dunbar, Scotland

​Young John was first sent to school when he was less than three years old. But his grandfather taught him letters from shop signs across the street even before that.

Dunbar Castle ruins, Scotland

Photo of 'craggy ruins of the old Dunbar Castle' was taken by: Luc Koscielniak

​With my school lessons father made me learn hymns and Bible verses. For learning "rock of Ages" he gave me a penny, and I thus became suddenly rich.

Scotch boys are seldom spoiled with money. We thought more of a penny those economical days than the poorest American schoolboy thinks of a dollar.

To decide what t​o do with that first penny was an extravagantly serious affair. I ran with great excitement up and down the street, examining the tempting goodies in the shop windows before venturing on so important an investment.

My playmates also became excited when the wonderful news got abroad that Johnnie Muir had a penny, hoping to obtain a taste of the orange, apple, or candy it was likely to bring forth.​

John Muir
The Story of My Boyhood and Youth                 

Father was proud of his garden and seemed always to be trying to make it as much like Eden as possible, and in a corner of it he gave each of us a little bit of ground for our very own in which we planted what we best liked, wondering how the hard dry seeds could change into soft leaves and flowers and find their way out to the light; and, to see how they were coming on, we used to dig up the larger ones, such as peas and beans, every day.

John Muir
The Story of My Boyhood and Youth                 

In comparison with today's standards, some practices of raising and treating children in 19th century civilized world seem downright cruel - like this one (read below) - for cleanliness.

It appears natural for children to be fond of water, although the Scotch method of making every duty dismal contrived to make necessary bathing for health terrible to us.

I well remember among the awful experiences of childhood being taken by the servant to the seashore when I was between two and three years old, stripped at the side of a deep pool in the rocks, plunged into it among crawling crawfish and slippery wriggling snake-like eels, and drawn up gasping and shrieking only to be plunged down again and again.

John Muir
The Story of My Boyhood and Youth                 

Dunbar Scotland seashore

Image above Seashore of Dunbar credits: Paweł Stankieiwcz

But after we were a few years older, we enjoyed bathing with other boys as we wandered along the shore, careful, however, not to get into a pool that had an invisible boy-devouring monster at the bottom of it. Such pools, miniature maelstroms, were called "sookin-in-goats" and were well known to most of us. 

Nevertheless we never ventured into any pool on strange parts of the coast before we had thrust a stick into it. If the stick were not pulled out of our hands, we boldly entered and enjoyed plashing and ducking long ere we had learned to swim.​

John Muir
The Story of My Boyhood and Youth                 

One of our best playgrounds was the famous old Dunbar Castle, to which King Edward fled after his defeat at Bannockburn. It was built more than a thousand years ago, and though we knew little of its history, we had heard many mysterious stories of the battles fought about its walls, and firmly believed that every bone we found in the ruins belonged to an ancient warrior.

We tried to see who could climb highest on the crumbling peaks and crags, 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.

John Muir
The Story of My Boyhood and Youth                 

Dunbar Castle Sunset

​Image of Dunbar Castle above was taken by Maclean Photographic

I've never 'met' a bigger example of when there's a will there's a way saying - than John Muir. For the first eighteen years or so John lived with his father who was not only strict, but downright tyrannical, controlling, supervising and ruling everything and everyone in the family, especially John.

Daniel Muir, was a hard task-master to his family, but also believed that 'anything that distracted from Bible studies was frivolous and punishable.' In his opinion the Church of Scotland was not strict enough in faith in practice. Therefore he decided to emigrate to America where he joined the Disciples of Christ congregation and devoted a lot of his time to religious work and study.

In 1885 John wrote an obituary for his father and here's one of the paragraphs from it:

He seemed to care not at all what people would think of him. That never was taken into consideration when work was being planned. The Bible was his guide and companion and almost the only book he ever cared to read.

John Muir
Daniel Muir Obituary - Published in Portage Record, Oct. 12, 1885.                

At the age of seven or eight, John was already entered into a grammar school where he studied Latin, French, English grammar and spelling, as well as history, arithmetic and geography.

Word lessons in particular, the wouldst-couldst-shouldst-have-loved kind, were kept up with much warlike thrashing, until I had committed the whole of the French, Latin and English grammars to memory, and in connection with reading-lessons we were called on to recite parts of them with the rules over and over again, as if all the regular and irregular incomprehensible verb stuff was poetry.

John Muir
The Story of My Boyhood and Youth                 

Dunbar Scotland

Photo above credits: Luc Koscielniak

In addition to all this, father made me learn so many Bible verses every day that by the time I was eleven years of age I had about three fourths of the Old Testament and all of the New by heart and by sore flesh.

John Muir 
The Story of My Boyhood and Youth

I could recite the New Testament from the beginning of Matthew to the end of Revelation without a single stop. The dangers of cramming and of making scholars study at home instead of letting their little brains rest were never heard of in those days. We carried our school books home in a strap every night and committed to memory our next day's lessons before we went to bed, and to do that we had to bend our attention as closely on our tasks as lawyers on great million-dollar cases.

John Muir 
The Story of My Boyhood and Youth

I can't conceive of anything that would now enable me to concentrate my attention more fully than when I was a mere stripling boy, and it was all done by whipping, - thrashing in general. Old fashioned Scotch teachers spent no time in seeking short roads to knowledge, or in trying any of the new-fangled psychological methods so much in vogue nowadays. There was nothing said about making the seats easy or the lessons easy.

John Muir 
The Story of My Boyhood and Youth

Manor House Dunbar Scotland

Photo of the manor house in Dunbar, Scotland, was taken by George Doleman

We were simply driven pointblank against our books like soldiers against the enemy, and sternly ordered, "Up and at 'em. Commit your lessons to memory!" If we failed in any part, however slight, we were whipped; for the grand, simple, all-sufficing Scotch discovery had been made that there was a close connection between the skin and the memory, and that irritating the skin excited the memory to any required degree.

John Muir 
The Story of My Boyhood and Youth

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Old, black and white photos of Dunbar, Scotland | I Daydream of… says

[…] much searching I found some old photos of the Scottish town where John Muir was born. There is no information about the year these photos were taken but I’m guessing that’s […]

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Annie Marie Peters says

It’s truly amazing to see photos of Dunbar today contrasted with John Muir’s own mid-19th century recount. I can’t help but imagine him as a young boy being tossed into that same seashore to bathe among the snakes. Oh my, how the world has changed since then!

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