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Issue 87 - Roddy Martine's View - Great Scots

Scotland Magazine Issue 87
June 2016


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Roddy Martine's View - Great Scots

Roddy Martine meets John Muir, all of 179 years old

As Patron of Cockenzie House & Garden in East Lothian, I was recently invited to introduce the American actor Lee Stetson who, in his alter ego of John Muir, was scheduled to give a talk on the life and times of the father of America's National Parks. As it chanced, I arrived early on a sunny May evening and was sitting on a bench under the apple trees when a slight man with a long white beard emerged from one of the holiday cottages. “Mr Muir, I presume?” I said. “Not bad for a 179 year old!” Some readers might just remember the American CBS television series Hawaii Five-O. Back in the 1960s a young Lee Stetson, originally from Massachusetts, made occasional appearances, invariably meeting a bad end. There followed other television dramas, then in 1983 he began touring the USA as the personification of Muir, the Dunbar-born Scot taken to America by his father in 1849.

Lee first encountered Muir in 1982 on a visit to Yosemite Park in California's Sierra Nevada mountains. He was hooked. A one-man stage performance followed:
Stickeen and Other Fellow Mortals, and then The Spirit of John Muir. Thereafter, Lee compiled a book: The Wild Muir: Twenty- Two of John Muir's Greatest Adventures.

With no disrespect to the great man, I should admit that I have up until now tended to be a tad suspicious of Muir's elevation as an East Lothian icon. He was only 11 years old when his strict Manchester-born father Daniel, a former army sergeant and successful meal dealer, uprooted his wife Ann and six children (another child, Joanna, was born in the USA) and took them to set up home in Wisconsin.

However, there can be no doubt that the small boy's early beginnings, coupled with his father's strict Presbyterian ethics, exercised a profound impact on his later life. Sheep herder, naturalist, explorer, writer and conservationist, he not only made his home among the glaciers of the Sierra Nevada but his wanderlust also took him to Australia, Africa, China and Japan, writing 300 articles and ten significant books along the way. The Sierra Club, which he founded in 1892, remains one of the most powerful influences on global conservation.

Over in the USA, the 221 mile long John Muir Trail, named in his honour, passes through some of the finest mountain scenery known to mankind. In Scotland, the John Muir Way, which opened in 2014, travels coast-to-coast. it begins at Helensburgh, where the family boarded ship. It kicks off across the hills to Loch Lomond, follows old minor roads in the shadow of the Campsie Fells and eventually picks up the Firth and Clyde Canal. Striding past the Antonine Wall to Linlithgow, it leads under the Forth Bridge to Edinburgh and onward into East Lothian, ending in Dunbar. With the Edinburgh to Glasgow railway line having only opened up seven years earlier, the Muir family must have travelled at least some of that distance on foot.

Whether or not Muir actually visited 17th Century Cockenzie House is unknown, but he would certainly have known of its existence on the shoreline north of Dunbar that he so loved to explore.

Muir's wisdom and his Bear Grylls/President Obama type excursion with President ‘Teddy’ Roosevelt were to elevate him to world fame. And who could disagree with so much of what he wrote? “Hiking is a vile word. One should saunter through the wilderness,” he said, to paraphrase some of his and Lee's quotes. “We all travel the Milky Way together, trees and men. No American wilderness I know is as dangerous as a city street.”

Further Information

Lee Stetson performs year round at Yosemite National Park.