Muir Houses Through Time – Online Exhibition

You may remember that earlier in the summer we published David Anderson’s research into the buildings on Dunbar High Street occupied by the Muirs.  There were tales of commerce, double-crossing and greed, as we discovered that the buildings had nearly as interesting a story to tell as John Muir himself!

We are delighted that the series of blogs has now been gathered into an online exhibition and can be enjoyed once again at your leisure!  You will find Muir Houses Through Time on our Exhibitions page in bitesize chunks for you to browse.

John Muir’s Birthplace receives Traveller’s Choice Award!

John Muir’s Birthplace has announced it has been recognized as a 2020 Travellers’ Choice award-winner for attractions. Based on a full year of Tripadvisor reviews, prior to any changes caused by the pandemic.  Winners are known for consistently receiving great traveller feedback, placing them in the top 10% of hospitality businesses around the globe.

Duncan Smeed, Chair of the John Muir Birthplace Charitable Trust said: “On behalf of the partner Trustees of John Muir Birthplace Charitable Trust – Dunbar Community Council, East Lothian Council, Friends of John Muir’s Birthplace and the John Muir Trust – I am delighted that the hard work and planning that goes into the staffing and resourcing of the Birthplace has been recognised by the this Tripadvisor’s 2020 Travellers’ Choice Award. Comments by visitors to the Birthplace are invariably very positive and highlight the very warm welcome they receive from the Birthplace staff and volunteers and the inspiring nature of the exhibits that tell the story of Muir’s life and legacy. Earlier this year saw the arrival of the 200,000th visitor and the Birthplace is undoubtedly a major contributor to the vibrancy of Dunbar High Street. This Travellers’ Choice Award will be a major boost to the efforts to promote Dunbar as a destination of choice for visitors – both local and from afar.”

“Winners of the 2020 Travellers’ Choice Awards should be proud of this distinguished recognition,” said Kanika Soni, Chief Commercial Officer at Tripadvisor. “Although it’s been a challenging year for travel and hospitality, we want to celebrate our partners’ achievements. Award winners are beloved for their exceptional service and quality. Not only are these winners well deserving, they are also a great source of inspiration for travellers as the world begins to venture out again.”

About John Muir’s Birthplace

Discover how the boy born in this house became one of the driving forces behind the modern conservation movement.  The exterior has been restored to its original condition.  Inside, you’ll find a warm welcome with friendly, well informed staff always available to answer questions.  Our absorbing interpretation centre will take you on the journey of John Muir’s life as a pioneering conservationist, explorer, writer, geologist and inventor.  The building is fully accessible with three floors of family friendly displays complemented by a lively exhibition and events programme and a shop offering books and gifts for all ages.

To see traveller reviews and popular features of John Muir’s Birthplace visit John Muir’s Birthplace on Tripadvisor.

Geology Exhibition Now Online

Although we are now open to the public, we appreciate that there are fans of John Muir who are unable to visit us due to travel and other restrictions. We are therefore continuing our drive to provide more of our past exhibitions online.

We have now added John Muir and Geology to the list.  John Muir and Geology explores the Scottish heroes who helped unravel Dunbar’s geological story. This exhibition was first shown in 2017 during the Year of History, Heritage and Archaeology.

The exhibition will also be promoted as part of the Scottish Geology Festival 2020 which will offer a range of events and activities for anyone interested in geology; there will be fantastic opportunities for all to get involved, including families, communities and tourists visiting the area. More on the festival can be found on the Scottish Geology Trust Website.


We’re Good To Go

We are delighted to have achieved our ‘We’re Good to Go’ Accreditation in time for reopening tomorrow, Tues 18 August. We have some new procedures in place to ensure our visitors and staff can be confident they are safe when in our Museum.

• Please maintain social distancing, follow directional signage, use the hand sanitiser or wash your hands regularly and wear a face covering at all times in the Museum (unless exempt).
• Please do not visit if you or anyone in your household has any symptoms of Coronavirus.
• We have removed some of the activities and interactives from our museums to protect visitors and staff & have an enhanced cleaning regime in place.
• We have sneeze screens at desks, hand sanitising stations and one way systems around the museum.
• Payment by credit or debit card in our shop is preferred
• Please book your free visit in advance by calling 01368 865899 or email This will help to maintain social distancing within our building.

Please be prepared to leave a contact name and number for your party, as we are taking part in the Scottish Government ‘Test and Protect’ Scheme. Details will be kept secure for 21 days and then destroyed, they will not be passed on to any 3rd party.

We look forward to welcoming you all tomorrow!

Preparing to welcome you back

One week to go!

We are really gearing up to start welcoming you back to John Muir’s Birthplace from Tuesday 18 August.  Our screens have now been installed to keep both visitors and staff safe, and we will be laying floor stickers to help with social distancing.  We are also working closely with our staff this week to devise new cleaning regimes, and we recommend that anyone wishing to visit  to prebook their time by emailing or calling 01368 865899 as we will be limiting the amount of people in the building at one time.


Our opening times from 18 August will be Tuesday – Saturday 10am – 5pm – we can’t wait to welcome you back!

Muir Houses Through Time Part 10 – John Muir Remembered

This is the final post looking at the story of John Muir’s Dunbar homes. This account focuses on the development of Dunbar’s rediscovery of John Muir and the creation of a fitting tribute within the shell of his birthplace.

So far in the process of uncovering the history of these buildings we’ve touched on stories of war and empire, of tensions between generations, and, in particular, the story of one wee Dunbar laddie whose tale now strides continents. But fifty years ago, you’d have been hard put to find anyone in Dunbar who had heard of John Muir!

Muir Rediscovered

We left our tale of John’s Birthplace in the 1920s. With the passing of years, and the passing of his last relatives and friends in Dunbar, local awareness of John’s career and significance was lost from common knowledge. It took a trickle of American visitors to begin the process of rediscovery!

The first arrivals came on the back of an initiative in Martinez, California. There, a group had formed to ensure a fitting memorial to California’s greatest son and to preserve his marital home as a monument for future generations. Harriet Kelly of Martinez is still remembered in Dunbar. She visited twice in the early 1960s and enlisted the help of Dunbar’s town clerk and other locals to uncover some of the forgotten story, linking John’s writing and photographs to the places that they belonged.

John Muir’s Birthplace c1997 (© Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland. Licensor

Bill and Maimie Kimes, Muir biographers, made more connections when they visited in 1967. They made a disciple in Frank Tindall, then the County Planning Officer, who helped them ensure that the Birthplace was marked with a fitting plaque. A few years later Frank was able to convince the Hawryluk family, the proprietors of the building, to abandon plans to convert much of it from a dry-cleaning facility into a fish restaurant. Frank and another local official, Ian Fullarton, were able then to lease the top floor of the building for a small ‘tribute’ to Muir – some re-imagined rooms and an audio-visual presentation. This opened in the early 1980s managed by East Lothian Tourist Board, who staffed it seasonally. And so it remained into the early 1990s. Then a new proposal surfaced.

John Muir was becoming much more widely known in his homeland. Connections between Dunbar and Martinez had been forged. The John Muir Trust had begun its work ‘to defend wild land, enhance habitats and encourage people of all ages and backgrounds to connect with wild places’. And East Lothian District Council floated an idea to build a ‘John Muir Centre’ within John Muir Country Park to pick up that theme.

This idea came to nothing but it stimulated local discussion and a new beginning.

John Muir’s Birthplace today

There had been enough knowledge, as we have seen, to establish the first ‘Muir Museum’ on the top floor of his renovated birthplace. The baton was picked up by Dunbar’s John Muir Association in the 1990s. To realize their ambitious plans a lot more groundwork was done. Not least, in exploring John Muir’s Dunbar and finding the hidden paths that John surely trod – to school, to church, on excursions with Grandfather Gilrye. This process, aided greatly by John’s own written accounts, began to uncover other facets of both buildings. The Association’s efforts culminated in success. A new multi-partner trust was formed to purchase the building and seek funds for its development and a ‘new’ Birthplace Museum opened in 2003. It incorporates all of the building’s structure that had survived the impulses of multiple owners since the Muirs left and it addresses Muir’s story for a contemporary audience. Over 200,000 visitors have passed through the doors since it opened.

Our Work Continues

Meanwhile, discovery has proceeded apace. One of the driving forces has been our visitors themselves. We are often asked about the buildings; we are sometimes told of family associations relating to other occupants; we are sometimes told of a snippet about the buildings we didn’t know. But the main thing is that we don’t like to be stumped!

The creation of East Lothian’s new Archive & Local History Centre above Haddington Library in the John Gray Centre was another stimulus to research. All at once there were untouched sources readily available! In fact, one of us used a secondment there to provide the bare bones of a house history:

These pages formed the framework to this series of blogs – although we’ve gone into much more detail here. They take you through the steps of unearthing any urban Scottish house history, although resources available differ from place to place. Of course, since the pages were written, the Internet has grown apace. It is relatively straightforward today to access digital copies of primary sources that were simply not available ten years ago. We are fortunate because many of the inhabitants of the two Dunbar house associated with the Muir family had unusual surnames – Fall, Delisle, Wightman – and, as it turns out, include some significant characters – Philip Delisle of Calcutta, Dr Charles Wightman of Newcastle.

However, it is harder to say much about the people that lived in the Birthplace and its neighbour in the Victorian period. Where did Mrs Fish the teacher come from? And who attended her school? For this kind of detail we’re much more reliant on other family historians and people that pop though the door.

So, if you have made a connection through our blogs, or have a story to tell us – please do! We’ll be opening again on 18 August and we’d love to see you, to chat, and to share stories.

Finally – Some Good News!

We are very excited to be busy cleaning and preparing to finally welcome you all back on Tuesday 18 August. Things will be a wee bit different. There will be some changes to how we do things and we will let you know about these in the next few days. Initially we will be open Tuesday to Saturday 10am to 5pm. Visits will still be free of charge, but we do ask you to email to book your visit. We look forward to seeing you all soon!

Muir Houses Through Time Part 9 – More Post Muir Years

This is the second post looking at the story of John Muir’s Dunbar homes after the Muirs left for America. The amount of detail available grows – as does the pace of change in both ownership and occupancy. This post focuses solely on John Muir’s childhood home, next door to his birthplace.

The Muirs Move On

 We left John Muir’s childhood home at the beginning of February 1849 after Daniel Muir sold the house to Dr John Lorn and the Muir family set off to a new start across the Atlantic.

Dr John Lorn bought the property for himself and his mother; they had been living with relatives in Dunbar for some time. Janet (Jessie) Simpson Lorn had first left Dunbar in 1813 when she married John Lorn senior, a merchant, mariner and shipowner of Grangemouth, a port much further up the Forth than Dunbar. But Jessie was was widowed in 1821 at the age of just 33. She was left with two young children – but a good estate held in trust by her husband’s will. She and the children (John born 1815, and Ann, born 1819) made their home in Dunbar during 1830 – Ann Gilrye Muir was their near contemporary.Young John trained in medicine at nearby Edinburgh, becoming a licentiate of the Royal College of Surgeons in September 1836. His sister Ann moved away when she married Dr John Moir a couple of years after, but John never married. Instead, he and his mother made the Dunbar house their home. John never seems to have taken his medical practice too seriously – lawn bowls and the management of the Free Kirk were more his thing. After his mother died in 1866 he spent less time in Dunbar – the house was let to a Dr David James in 1871 and was sold the following year to William Brodie, a Dunbar businessman. Dr John retired to Edinburgh’s new town where he purchased 27 Drummond Place and died there in 1888.

A New Venture – the Lorne Hotel

William Brodie’s purchase of the house was with a specific object in mind. Dunbar was a rising holiday destination and a new kind of venture was all the rage – the Temperance Hotel. Aimed specifically at families rather than the commercial market, temperance hotels were exactly that – alcohol free premises! Astute businessman that he was, Brodie also redeveloped the ground floor of the building to create two shops. This would provide a steady income if the hotel proved unpopular. The one to the south was snapped up by an extremely reliable tenant – Dunbar Post Office under Miss Jane Barclay, moving out from John’s birthplace next door. It remained so until 1904. The other went with the hotel, being variously used as offices or tea-rooms.

The busy Dunbar Post Office, 1889, in John Muir’s Childhood Home

Brodie’s venture was open for the summer of 1872 under the management of Thomas Wilson and then from 1875 by Eliza Hannan. When William Brodie died his trustees then let the upper part of the building to a Mrs Margaret Fish and her daughters who started a private school in their part of the building. Then in 1886 the hotel reopened under John Henderson and his wife for a few years followed by Thomas Thomson. Both Henderson and Thomson ran tearooms and a confectionery outlet from the ground floor of the building.

It was during Thomas Thomson’s tenure that John Muir revisited Dunbar. He wrote to Louie, his wife:

There was no carriage from the Lorne Hotel that used to be our home, so I  took the one from the St. George, which I remember well as Cossar’s Inn that I passed every day on my way to school. But I’m going to the Lorne, if for nothing else to take a look at that dormer window I climbed in my    nightgown, to see what kind of an adventure it really was.


John Muir’s Childhood Home around 1893. Courtesy University of the Pacific. Copyright Muir-Hanna Trust






John found the dormers still there: he was keen to see the site of one of his childhood ‘scootchers’ or dares. After being put to bed one night, he and brother Davie had ventured out the window, onto the roof, each challenging the other to go further!

Shortly after Muir’s only return home, the building was in 1896 purchased from Brodie’s estate by Henry Huntly, formerly of Dunbar’s Jersey Arms Hotel. Huntly ran the hotel himself, although perhaps not successfully: one of his first moves was to apply for a liquor license, which was refused.

John Smith, a Dunbar baker, bought the building in 1902. At first, the Smiths leased out the hotel (interspersed with periods of self-management). Similarly the former post office was taken by Henry Davidson, a shoemaker. In the early days of their tenure only the shop on the northern side was continuously in their own hands, an outlet for their bakery produce and tearooms. As time passed more and more of the Smiths’ business was transferred to their new premises. As before, sometimes they operated the Lorne Hotel ‘in-house’; sometimes it was leased, or under management. By the late 1920s, the next generation built a bakehouse behind the building, in a part of the Muirs’ old garden. When Davidson’s lease expired the southernmost shop became Smith’s bakery, which became a Dunbar institution through into the 21st century!

 Next Time

 We’ll bring the story to a close in the present day – and explain a bit more about how we dug up the history of John Muir’s houses in Dunbar.

Muir Houses Through Time Part 8 – The Post Muir Years

Our next couple of posts will look at the story of John Muir’s Dunbar homes after the Muirs left for America. The amount of detail available grows – as does the pace of change in both ownership and occupancy. This post focuses solely on John Muir’s Birthplace.

Daniel Muir Moves On

When Daniel Muir moved his family out of the original room behind his shop he kept the tenancy of the building – or at least, he was the named tenant for the residual Wightman estate. In 1841 the building was occupied by:

on the ground floor, John Finlay a retired sea captain, his wife Catherine, their daughter Margaret and granddaughter Marion Runciman. John Finlay was trading as a spirit dealer from the shop. It may be that Finlay was one of the ‘old sailors’ who the boys of Dunbar enlisted to sort the sails and rigging of their toy boats, as recounted by John Muir. He was certainly handily placed for John and Davie. Odd to think that this old sea-dog in his little grog-shop was the grandfather of a Baron and great grandfather of a Viscount!

on the middle floor, James Low, a blacksmith, and his family – 12 people in all!

on the top floor, George Jeffrey and his family – 5 people.

That’s a total of 21 people resident in what is now the John Muir’s Birthplace Museum, in three distinct households but with no real amenities – neither running water, gas lighting or even an indoor toilet!

The next event in the building’s tale came in 1846. Still desperate for money Dr Wightman sold the house to Matthew Watt of Belhaven (Wightman’s financial difficulties would be common knowledge). Watt had been a hand loom weaver but, as that profession was driven out of the market by mechanisation, had opened a successful grocery. He bought the house as an investment and continued to live and trade from Belhaven.

Matthew owned the house until he died in 1874 at the age of 80. In 1877 his estate sold the house to a sitting tenant, the postman Peter Aitchison, marking the start of a period of rapid turnover. Betsey Anderson owned it in 1878, William Fraser in 1879, William Rennie in 1883, and Daniel Smith in 1885. Smith’s purchase marks a return to stability: it remained in his hands, then his heirs, until 1924.

Who Lived in the Birthplace

It’s impossible to list all the inhabitants of the Birthplace, so we’ll highlight just a few. A stanza from an old Dunbar song or rhyme helps us to begin:

And a’ our great worthies are sure to be there

            ‘In summer, or winter, be it foul, be’t fair

            ‘Matthew Watt, Willie Howell, Willie Liddle would drop,

            ‘In tae hear a’ the news in John Cockburn’s shop.’

Matthew Watt we know: he owned the building from 1846; Willie Howell, a bookbinder to trade, lived with his family on the top floor from around the time of Matthew’s purchase to his death in 1879; John Cockburn, whose saddlery is celebrated in the song as a great place for chat and gossip, occupied the middle flat between 1861-69. It’s pretty clear that Matthew preferred to let to his friends.

After the Howells, the top flat was rented by Alexander Thompson (a tailor) and family; Staff Sergeant Flowett Marshall (serving with the staff of the local volunteers) and family; John Robertson (a (horse-drawn) vanman) and family; and then into the 20th century with Walter Brydon (a gardener) and family.

Down below them, after John Cockburn moved to Edinburgh, the middle flat was rented by John McCliskie (ropemaker) and family, John Frame (a groom who subsequently worked as a grocer) and family, the carter Alexander Dickson and his family; and then the labourer Martin Jewels and his family.

John Muir’s Birthplace around 1890; note Black’s shop (cropped from


Below them the shop saw some transformations. There’s a gap in the records after John Finlay until the financial year beginning April 1857. It then became Dunbar Post Office when Miss Barclay took up the lease. The PO had been nearer the West Port under Miss Barclay’s father, the previous Postmaster. This change saw the shop quickly revalued from £7 to £10 annually, so there must have been significant work carried out; perhaps gas lighting was then installed. In 1872 Miss Barclay sub-let the premises to a Mrs Hannan when the Post Office relocated again, then Peter Aitchison occupied the shop for some years (the first owner occupier in the house’s history). His successor was William Fraser, another owner-occupier and Dunbar harbourmaster, who seems to have set the shop up as a grocery but mostly sub-let its operation. Andrew William Anderson, a clock and watchmaker newly arrived from Dundee, lived with his family in the Muirs’ old quarters for three years as he was establishing his business in Dunbar. He was followed in 1889 by William Black (and his sister) who had a drapery through until 1916.


Next Time

What happened in John Muir’s childhood home after the family emigrated?