Adventure Cycling & Cycle Touring

John Muir Way | Cycling Coast To Coast Across Scotland

Last summer, Edinburgh's Stuart Kenny set out on his bike to connect with the sights and sounds of Scotland's Lowlands on the 134 mile-long John Muir Way

Ask a stranger in Edinburgh and they probably won’t know an awful lot about Dunbar – a quaint little town on the east coast of Scotland, half an hour on a (likely delayed) train from the capital. Ask the good people of Dunbar and they might tell you that’s because people from Edinburgh often don’t know much about anywhere in Scotland except Edinburgh – and they can be right.

I once heard someone from Limerick joke that “most people from Dublin have never actually been to Ireland” – suggesting that the people who live there rarely, if ever, stray beyond the city limits. It’s a stereotype – unfair in a lot of cases – but often based in some truth. I’ve lived in Edinburgh for over 20 years, and spent plenty of time in the cities, and even up in the Highlands, of Scotland – but I recently realised that to my shame, I didn’t really know what was in the 47.5 miles between Edinburgh and Glasgow, other than the name of the train stops.

“Muir famously once took a three-day camping trip with Theodore Roosevelt in what would become… Yosemite National Park”

Last summer I set out to rectify that by riding the John Muir Way, a long-distance trail that runs 134 miles from the very east coast of Scotland, Dunbar, to the very west, finishing in Helensburgh. The route is one of Scotland’s Great Trails, and it was opened in 2014 to mark the 100 year anniversary of the death of renowned conservationist John Muir.

John Muir is best known as the “Father of the National Parks”. He’s incredibly well known in the US, but less so in his native Scotland. Muir famously once took a three-day camping trip with Theodore Roosevelt in what would become, thanks to him, Yosemite National Park – and he went on to become the best known early advocate for the preservation of wilderness in the US.

Credit: Stuart Kenny
Pictured: Riding out of Glengoyne. Credit: Stuart Kenny
Pictured: Stuart at the Falkirk Wheel. Credit: Stuart Kenny

Muir was actually born in Dunbar, and emigrated to the US from Helensburgh when he was 11 years old. The John Muir Way recreates his journey from Dunbar to that boat to America – or at least, it takes the same start and end point and creates an incredibly scenic route between.

Muir would have approved of the liberties taken on the route. He was a true lover of nature. He spoke of how “between every two pines is a doorway to a new world”, pleaded with outdoor enthusiasts to “saunter” rather than “hike” and wrote that “everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul.”

“Between every two pines is a doorway to a new world”

That quote stuck with me as I set out on the 134-mile route. My journey came as COVID restrictions were being eased in the UK in the summer of 2020; and life was a lot more ‘bread’ than ‘beauty’. I had gone the extra mile to connect with my local nature – taking up birdwatching in my local park and hiking on the trails of my beloved, local Pentland Hills. The John Muir Way for me felt like the next, exciting step – local exploration, but on a more adventurous scale.

The John Muir Way is typically walked over 10 days. We decided to cycle it over four, and ride from west to east, from Helensburgh to Dunbar, so as to have the wind at our backs throughout.

Credit: Stuart Kenny
Pictured: Haggis roll. Credit: Stuart Kenny

We arrived in Helensburgh on day one, and were immediately engaged in conversation by a local keen to impress upon us that our opening hill was a “bastard”. A quick cycle to the coastal boardwalk and we found an art installation marking the start (or end) of the trail, engraved with another quote from Muir: “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.” I certainly found this to be true over the next four days, as my mental map of the Scotland Lowlands filled itself in with colour.

Our opening climb was indeed steep, but our reward was arriving at Hill House at the top, built by the iconic Scottish architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh in 1902.

From there we rode leafy cycleways all the way to Loch Lomond, where the almighty munro of Ben Lomond towered in the distance. We grabbed a sandwich and coffee in Balloch and headed on, pleasantly surprised by how well signposted the route was. Little purple arrows and ‘John Muir Way’ graphics can be spotted frequently on lamp posts and fences across the entirety of the route.

“When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe”

We were soon diverted off cycleways and onto singletrail, joining the West Highland Way in the direction of Milngavie (pronounced Mil-guy, not… whatever you were thinking). Then it was on to a special afternoon stop; at the Glengoyne distillery, sitting pretty in front of Dumgoyne Hill.

Founded way back in 1833, the well thought-of Glengoyne is unique in producing Highland single malt whisky matured in the Lowlands.

Our whisky tasting is led by a kilted employee in a face mask, and the drams get up to a healthy 55% ABV. Luckily, we only have 10 miles to ride after the tasting to our first night’s accommodation in Lennoxtown. Along the way were some of the most beautiful hills of the route; the lump of Dumgoyach sitting in front of the Campsie Fells.

Credit: Stuart Kenny
Credit: Stuart Kenny

Our second day began with a vibrant blue kingfisher fluttering before us on the Forth and Clyde Canal, which we rode to the Antonine Wall – a Roman frontier constructed in 142AD.

If I’m being honest, it’s less impressive than Hadrian’s Wall in almost every way other than it’s further north, but I’m a sucker for any and all Roman history. We arrive at the Falkirk Wheel (via the flowy trails of the Callendar Estate) just as it hoists a boat up onto the Union canal, then struggle up a daunting gravel track above Linlithgow.

“Our final descent of the day is a cruise down to Bo’ness, a frankly stunning, steeply-stacked town on the south bank of the Firth of Forth”

Our final descent of the day is a cruise down to Bo’ness, a frankly stunning, steeply-stacked town on the south bank of the Firth of Forth where – we learned over local ale at the Corbie Inn – James Watt worked on the first steam engine in 1769.

Day three was our shortest ride, and took us back to Edinburgh. A haggis roll for sustenance and we were riding into a sunrise over Blackness Castle, a popular spot with Americans thanks to Outlander, a TV show which seemingly many people who are not from Scotland watch. We pass herds of deer in Hopetoun House, the famous Forth Road Bridge and the secret little beaches of Dalmeny Estate before ascending Corstorphine Hill, and cycling the short distance from there to my flat. I spend the end of day three in my own bed; staycation status secured.

Pictured: Stuart at the bridges. Credit: Stuart Kenny

The final day was a sunny 41 miles to Dunbar – mostly riding into far-reaching ocean views, on road and fun singletrail, and finally arriving at a mural to Muir on Dunbar High Street to finish. We grab a hard-earned fish and chips from Cafe Central, eat it on the 17th-century Dunbar harbour, and watch the huge waves that left John Muir in awe as a child. It’s a beautiful town, and there’s great surf nearby, at Belhaven Bay, if you’re happy to brave the North Sea cold.

“The humble beauty of the Lowlands should not be overlooked”

It should be noted that Muir was a flawed figure. Though his views evolved, the conservationist made derogatory comments about Black people and Indigenous people which drew on racist stereotypes. The Sierra Club itself, which Muir founded in 1892, addressed this in July of 2020.

The John Muir Way, however, is a terrific long-distance trail. The Cairngorms, Highlands and islands may be the pinnacle of the Scottish wild but the depths of history, culture, and the humble beauty of the Lowlands should not be overlooked.

Pictured: Sam and Stuart with Arthur’s Seat in the background. Credit: Stuart Kenny
Pictured: Stuart, minus Sam, with Arthur’s Seat in the background. Credit: Stuart Kenny
Pictured: The end point in Dunbar. Credit: Stuart Kenny



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