John Muir Way. Part 1.

sign post john muir

John Muir

John Muir is well known as the Father of America’s National Parks. His activism helped to preserve the Yosemite Valley and Sequoia National Park. His example has served as an inspiration for the preservation of many other Wilderness areas. He was born in Dunbar on the east coast of Scotland on April 21, 1838 and died December 24, 1914. As a young boy, Muir became fascinated with the East Lothian landscape and spent a lot of time wandering the local coastline and countryside. In 1849, Muir’s family immigrated to the United States, starting a farm near Portage, Wisconsin called Fountain Lake Farm now designated a National Historic Landmark.  The John Muir Way is a coast to coast walking and cycling route, running 134 miles across central Scotland from Helensburgh to Dunbar, birthplace of John MuirThere is also a John Muir Trail in California.

Over the years I have written about various sections of the Way but this is the first time I have completed the first stage. It was with Glasgow HF Outdoor Club 


The route starts at Helensburgh, a coastal town on the north side of the Firth of Clyde in Scotland, situated at the mouth of the Gareloch. Modelled on Edinburgh’s New Town, Helensburgh owes its creation to Sir James Colquhoun of Luss and is named after his wife Helen. The route starts or finishes by the engraved circular stone plinth and seat at the entrance to Helensburgh Pier at the start of the West esplanade. From there we headed up to the top of a hilly street to the Hill House at the top.

Hill House

Helensburgh is also famous for having one of the houses designed by Charles Rennie Mackintosh called the Hill House. Charles Rennie Mackintosh was a Scottish architect, designer, water colourist and artist. His artistic approach had much in common with European Symbolism. He was born in 1868, in Glasgow  The Hill House is a beautiful building but has had water ingress over the years as it was built with experimental materials and construction in 1902/03. To protect the Hill House, a pioneering conservation programme has been embarked upon.. The first stage has seen the construction of the Hill House Box, a protective steel frame structure covered in a chainmail mesh designed to protect the house from the rain. This will allow the walls to dry and prevent further damage.  There is a walkway around the scaffolding where we could see the roof from above.


From the Hill House we walked through the woods to reach a fairly busy road and then joined a quiet road on a steady incline before the views opened up to Ben Lomond on the other side of Loch Lomond. It was winter and Ben Lomond was wearing a snow white cap. Ben Lomond was my first Munro being located near Glasgow and I have fond memories it. Munros are mountains over 3,000 feet in Scotland and I have blogged many time on them when I was Munro bagging.

The route was on paths and tracks but we noticed there had been a lot of tree felling at the forest. It was possibly due to pests or disease or perhaps for planting more native trees? Another possibility is that the trees were nearing maturity and had been planted for commercial reasons.

Coffin Stone

The Way then took us over Gowk Hill.  The name means “Cuckoo’s Hill”, from the Scots word for cuckoo. The hill is 744 feet high and forms part of the Highland Boundary Fault Line. The Highland Boundary Fault is a major fault zone that traverses Scotland from Arran and Helensburgh on the west coast to Stonehaven in the east. It separates two different geological terranes which give rise to two distinct physiographic terrains, the Highlands and the Lowlands. The route to the top follows the Stoneymollan Road, a former coffin road that runs from Balloch to the burial ground at St Mahew’s Chapel in the clachan of Kirkton, not far from Cardross. In Medieval times only certain churches had burial rights and such churches were often few and far between. Over time, numerous eerie superstitions became attached to these old tracks: the coffin must not touch the ground or the deceased’s spirit would return to haunt the living; the corpse’s feet must face away from their house or they could return to haunt their former home; the coffin bearers must not step off the path onto neighbouring farmland or the crops would be blighted; spirits liked to travel in straight lines, so the paths often meandered; spirits could not cross running water, so the paths crossed burns; you could lose a following spirit at a crossroad, so the route would have a crossroad! At the top of the hill, there is a crossroad with a large stone where the coffin would be laid down to give the bearers a rest. It was a convenient seat for a refreshment stop with good views!


It was on to Balloch by good paths. We had great views over Loch Lomond. As the largest freshwater lake in Britain by surface area, Loch Lomond draws visitors from around the world, attracted by the sweeping landscapes, myriad activities and its rich history.

On the road in to town there is an interesting art deco building. Balloch is the gateway to the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park. It is fitting that the first part of the John Muir Way should end in a National Park. Scotland has only two national parks and the other one is the Cairngorms National Park. These parks were only founded in 2002/2003. Communities and organisations are being invited to submit their proposals to become Scotland’s next National Park. A key commitment in the Bute House Agreement is to designate at least one new National Park in Scotland by 2026, to bring positive benefits for the environment and economy. Presently the two national parks in Scotland cover 7.3% of the land mass.  National Parks are large areas of land that are protected by law for the benefit of the nation.

Many thanks to Jean for planning and leading the walk and to Anne for the photo of Loch Lomond.

The next section of the John Muir Way is from Balloch to Blanefield and is over 18 miles long!

Coming attraction; Glen Nevis.

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