Muir Houses Through Time – Part 2 – Let building begin

Last week we looked at the archaeology under John Muir’s Birthplace. This week, and for the next few, we’ll work forward in time through and beyond the Muir period.

This, then, is the whole story of John Muir’s childhood houses. This tale begins far back in time, in the last decade of the 17th century, before either house existed. All that is known of that period is the archaeology discussed in the last blog. So what went after?

The BBC commissions some great history programmes and I’ve always liked ‘A House Through Time’, which I’m pleased to see is back for another series ( Here at John Muir’s Birthplace in Dunbar, we’re perfectly aware that the Muirs’ tenure of this building, and the family’s later home next door, is only one episode in a long saga. I’ve always thought that the story of these houses would fit just right in with the BBC programme’s selections. After all, our story has all the right elements –

• a family rising through the ranks by hard work and not a little chicanery;
• a young heiress with a pack of wicked uncles;
• the lucky inheritance of a set of stepchildren;
• the children of the next heir being swindled out of their share in turn by a greedy aunt,
• whose husband’s family had some dubious connections with the slave trade;
• their son the doctor whose promising career ended in fairly straightened circumstances –

and that’s all before the Muirs even come on the scene!

The First Family

In 1692, one Robert Fall, retired from service with the earls of Haddington in Fife and the Borders, was recently settled in Dunbar where his cousins had been for nearly a century. He brought his family with him – wife, daughters and, in particular, his four sons. Robert senior was very familiar with the potential of Dunbar as a base. This had come about through his business role as Steward and Bailie for the Haddingtons – the business manager of a large and wealthy estate. In fact, it looks awfully as if he kept a house in Dunbar even earlier: he features in a troubling episode that happened here during the winter of 1684.

An Argument on the Quayside

That was the time of religious dispute in Scotland, which spilled over into persecution and even conflict. Religious assemblies were brutally dispersed, families were torn apart, and men of the cloth ended up in Scotland’s state prison. This was the castle of the Bass Rock, a veritable Alcatraz (but without the amenities!) – and visible from Dunbar. One of these imprisoned ministers was the Reverend John Blackadder. Reverend John had long been a thorn in the side of the authorities who, under Stuart instructions, were attempting to install an episcopal system on the country’s churches. Reverend John was vigorous in his opposition to this betrayal of Presbyterianism. He was arrested at Edinburgh in April 1681 and conveyed to a cell on the Bass.

Meanwhile, his son Adam, who had fled to Sweden some years before, had his own troubles. Adam’s Swedish wife adopted her husband’s Calvinism – risking an automatic death sentence if found out. Time to run again. The young couple made a hazardous journey back to Scotland and landed at Dunbar late in 1684. They were met at the quay by the burgh’s Town Clerk and a Bailie (magistrate) who, on learning of the couple’s identity, decided the Tolbooth prison was the best place for them until instructions could be got from Edinburgh. Robert Fall intervened. He stood bail for the couple (which was surprisingly allowed), and hid them in his house for two weeks (Adam Blackadder recalled ‘the town was full of sodgers going about the country like madmen.’) until matters could be resolved.

Robert Fall, this forceful character, established the family base on the ‘Lowsy Law’. The site was right by the harbour of Dunbar and is today Customhouse Square. Joined by his sons, the family built a business and mercantile empire. As the sons married they each built themselves a townhouse. But, to show their rising prosperity and ambition, their houses were bigger and grander than any others in Dunbar at that date.

William Fall, the eldest, bought two older properties near the north end of the High Street on the west side, demolished the existing buildings, and built one large house. It’s there today – the Dunbar Shapla Tandoori Restaurant!

Charles, the third brother, built a fine mansion on Lowsy Law, with bay windows overlooking the Broadhaven. Many years later the family sold it to the Government – it became Dunbar Custom House and survived into the 1950s.

James, the youngest brother, went one better than his siblings and amalgamated five adjacent burgage plots at the north end of the High Street. His mansion commanded a view over the entire town and could not be missed by anyone. Today it forms the core of the later mansion built for the earl of Lauderdale around 1790; the stonework and some of the detail of James’ house can still be seen.

In the early 1720s Robert junior, the second oldest brother, purchased three adjacent houses, just to the south of his brother William’s new townhouse. He knocked down the old houses and built his own. This was the house where John Muir spent his childhood in Dunbar.

Robert Fall’s House as it was around 1900 (cropped from

Robert’s house resembled William’s but was a little bit larger. At its south end, where one of the old houses had been, an entrance led to a carriage house and stables. The townhouse was of two stories with garret rooms in the roof. Facing the street there were 6 evenly spaced windows on the upper floor and 5 at street level. The pedimented entrance was sited where the 6th ground floor window would have been, third in from the south gable; it opened directly onto the street. On the street side the garret, or attic, rooms were lit by 3 dormer windows but there were only two on the west side, presumably to accommodate a central stairwell. Later adverts suggest the house had 15 rooms.

Next Time

Now, we still have a century to cover before we get to the Muirs. The next blog will take us through the trials and tribulations of Robert Fall junior’s branch of the family. Hang onto your hats, it’s going to be a bit of a rollercoaster ride!

Muir Houses Through Time Part 1 – Archaeology of the Site

We know a lot about John Muir’s life in Dunbar, but what about the house he lived in? Today we start a series of blogs about the buildings he lived in. We start with John Muir’s Birthplace itself.

The John Muir Birthplace Trust acquired the building in 1999, and in 2002 work began on what is now John Muir’s Birthplace as it is today.

However, the Muir family was not the first occupants of the plot.  One of the first pieces of work undertaken on site was an archaeological investigation by Headland Archaeology Ltd in an area now covered by our exhibition gallery. The historically sensitive nature of Dunbar High Street means that archaeological investigation is required for any building work undertaken in the vicinity. Evidence from other sites along the High Street suggest that the ridge upon which the High Street is aligned has actually been occupied since the Iron Age (c 500BC).

Archaeological investigations essentially work backwards so the latest activity is the first investigated and as this is peeled away earlier remains are uncovered.  The earliest remains found on the site was a foundation pit.

© Headland Archaeology

Pottery found in the pit dated to 1300s or 1400s confirming medieval use of the site.  The most likely use for the pit would be supporting foundations for some kind of partition wall.  It is likely that this building was standing and in use at approximately the same time as the Battle of Dunbar I (1296) as the pottery would have gone into the pit during the building’s demolition.


© Headland Archaeology



Above the pit was a thin covering of clay indicative of a building made of earth, clay or turf. Given the location this would most likely be a small industrial structure behind a frontage building.




© Headland Archaeology


The latest remains were of a cobbled floor, which has been remodelled at least once before the end of the 1500s.  A drain cut through the cobbling was visible along the southern part of the site.  Again these remains suggest that the backlands area was a working area with small, possibly temporary structures, working surfaces and rudimentary services.






Also uncovered was a substantial wall dating to post 1600s which itself was later replaced by structures which lie under the current building, which we know dates from the latter part of the 18th century.

© Headland Archaeology



Although the most famous inhabitants of 126 – 128 High Street were the Muir family the site of this building has been occupied since at least the 1300’s.  We are all familiar with John Muir’s story, but the building in which he was born has just as interesting a story

Another Exhibition Online

As part of our endeavour to keep bringing you online exhibitions while our actual building is closed. We are delighted that Friends of John Muir’s Birthplace have now made 125 Years of the Sierra Club available on their website.  This exhibition first shown in spring 2017 gave an overview of the history of the Sierra Club with an emphasis on John Muir’s involvement in the founding, and ethos, of the organisation.

Founded by legendary conservationist John Muir in 1892, the Sierra Club is now the USA’s largest and most influential grassroots environmental organization — with more than two million members and supporters. Its successes range from protecting millions of acres of wilderness to helping pass the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, and Endangered Species Act. More recently, the Club has made history by leading the charge to move away from the dirty fossil fuels that cause climate disruption and toward a clean energy economy.

Links to the exhibition can be found on our new exhibitions page.

Happy Birthday Sierra Club!

On 28th May 1892, a group of Yosemite enthusiasts including John Muir, artist William Keith, attorney Warren Olney, University of California professors Joseph LeConte, J Henry Senger, and Cornelius Beach Bradley, and Stanford University President David Starr Jordan met in Olney’s office in San Francisco. The purpose of the meeting was to draw up articles of incorporation for an alpine Club for Yosemite.  The Club was named ‘The Sierra Club’. John Muir was inducted as the Club’s first President, a role he would keep until his death in 1914.

The men were united by a fascination by Yosemite Valley and wanted a way of promoting it as an area for recreation, and area for study and were looking for a way of conserving it for future generations. As they put it “to explore, enjoy, and render accessible the mountain regions of the Pacific Coast; to publish authentic information concerning them,” and “to enlist the support and cooperation of the people and government in preserving the forests and other natural features of the Sierra Nevada.”

John Muir had first arrived in Yosemite in 1868.  He secured work as a shepherd for a few months, originally planning to move on after that time.  How ever he became so entranced by the area, which he called ‘the range of light’, that no matter where he travelled, it always drew him back.

Initially, the Sierra Club had 182 charter members, mostly scientists many of whom threw themselves into photographing, charting and studying flora, fauna and geology of the area.  The very first Sierra Club Bulletin was produced in 1893.

John Muir c1902

John Muir c1902

Successful campaigns over the years by the club have seen plans for dams in the Grand Canyon, Dinosaur National Monument and Glacier View defeated, while they were one of the big lobbyists for the Wilderness Act, finally passed by Congress in 1964.

Today the Sierra Club is one of the most influential grass roots conservation organsations in the USA, with over 3.8 million members. Current campaigns highlights the imminent Climate Emergency, with one of their main focusses being on clean energy and decommissioning of solid fuel power stations.  John Muir and his colleagues from that meeting would be astounded at how their ‘alpine club’ had grown 128 years later.

Experience John Muir’s Birthplace from the comfort of your own home!

With no date yet for when we might be able to welcome you back into John Muir’s Birthplace, we are working hard behind the scenes to give you new ways of enjoying our experience.

Exhibitions Now Online!

We are very excited that we have new pages where we can continue to show exhibitions we have planned but are unable to show this year.  We also hope to be able to keep adding to this offer to show past exhibitions, so make sure you bookmark the pages so you can keep returning as the content grows!

To begin with we are bringing information on John Muir, Earth, Planet, Universe, our summer exhibition that should have opened on 1 April. Curated by Friends of John Muir’s Birthplace, the exhibition focuses on John Muir’s legacy and his role as an environmental activist and successful campaigner and his relevance for our situation today in addressing the climate crisis. However, we have paused to reflect on the content of the exhibition in the light of the current COVID-19 crisis.

Following on from a successful run online and in the Museum before we closed, we are also delighted to bring you Sheila Sim’s Gardens of East Lothian.  The beautiful photos are an oasis of calm, reminding us of nature continuing to thrive even although we are unable to spend time enjoying it at the current time. East Lothian has a long and proud heritage of gardening, and has produced several horticultural pioneers. With its good climate and fertile soil, the county has often been called ‘the garden of Scotland’. Featuring private and public gardens, parks and designed landscapes from across the county, this exhibition showcases East Lothian in all its horticultural glory.

Click here, or enter through the Learn section of the website and have fun exploring!

To be a Pilgrim

2020 is the ‘Year of Pilgrimage’. This got us thinking about John Muir as a pilgrim and about those who make a pilgrimage to come to John Muir’s Birthplace.

“Now these mountains are our Holy Land, and we ought to saunter through them reverently“ (John Muir)

John Muir was an out-and-out pilgrim all his life. Not in the traditional sense but, as Collins Dictionary defines, in the sense that throughout his life he made journeys to places that were important to him. Muir had no use for Man’s constructions or the relics of Saints but instead he tweaked the idea of pilgrimage until it suited him. He early hit on the notion of ‘sauntering’, which he took to be a term derived from Medieval pilgrimage, and made it his own. Sauntering slowly through wilderness, mountains and forests he took the time to observe and record, saturated in the spirit of nature he felt all about.

An early Sierra Club member, Albert Palmer expressed Muir’s view in a memoir


“Do you know the origin of that word ‘saunter?’ It’s a beautiful word. Away back in the Middle Ages people used to go on pilgrimages to the Holy Land, and when people in the villages through which they passed asked where they were going, they would reply, “A la sainte terre,’ ‘To the Holy Land.’ And so they became known as sainte-terre-ers or saunterers. Now these mountains are our Holy Land, and we ought to saunter through them reverently, not ‘hike’ through them.”

Even his last major journey in 1913 can be regarded as pilgrimage. In a sense he began that journey in 1868 when he determined to follow in the footsteps of his hero Humboldt. On this last trip he finally reached the Amazon, ascended into the Chilean Andes to saturate himself with the experience of the Monkey Puzzle tree forests, and ventured to Africa to view the remarkable Baobab tree in its natural environment.

Several years earlier he undertook an even more explicit act of pilgrimage in venturing to Concord, Massachusetts and nearby Walden Pond, the haunts of one of his never-met heroes, Henry David Thoreau the Transcendentalist philosopher, whose works had great influence on Muir.

Now John Muir’s Birthplace is a similar place of pilgrimage to some. In part it is because of the renown in which Muir is held, not only in the United States but also across the globe. But also because the Birthplace is now the terminus of a 130 mile walking route from west coast to east through the central valley of Scotland ( ).


It’s only at a period such as this, that we ourselves can begin to look more deeply at what we do and how we and the Birthplace appear to our visitors. Thanks to the indefatigable work of one of our trustees our visitor books have been transcribed and converted into word-clouds. Within the mass, several words point directly to the concept of pilgrimage – awesome, thought-provoking, inspiring and inspiration and inspirational, wonderful experience, humbling, healing, enthralling, and more. It is probably fair to say that these are possibly not often concepts written in the visitor books of small town museums! Sometimes it is even more explicit, as these two (anonymous) comments from within the past year reveal:

This is a pilgrimage for us!

Feels like a pilgrimage to come here.

We are closed just now, as the whole world adjusts to unprecedented times, but we will be back. And when we reopen, we’d be delighted to see you. You don’t have to hurry – take time – saunter – through John’s home town, explore the coast, the castle ruins, the harbours, streets and wynds that were there when John was a boy. And then drop into the Birthplace and tell us what you think! And like the pilgrims of old, perhaps take home a memento of a journey well made.






Happy Birthday John Muir! 182 today!

Usually we would spend John’s Birthday (and most other days) encouraging people to go outside and spend a bit of time appreciating the ‘infinite beauty’ of nature.  That’s not quite so easy this year! Along with our colleagues East Lothian Council Countryside Rangers, we are co-hosting a ‘Mindfulness in Nature’ event that you can practise during your daily exercise, in your garden or even standing at your front door, and more on that can be found here Mindfulness in Nature.

Also – to turn things on their head this year, we want to show you inside our building. We would like to share this short video of a tour of John Muir’s Birthplace, filmed last summer by filmmaker Michael Conti, and presented by our very own Chair of John Muir’s Birthplace Charitable Trust, Duncan Smeed.  This will give you a short insight into the Museum until we are able to open again.  East Lothian Council Museum Service and John Muir Birthplace Trust would like to thank Michael Conti for giving us permission to show this film.

John Muir, Earth, Planet, Universe

We expected to be hosting Friends of John Muir’s Birthplace – Membership exhibition just now – John Muir, Earth-Planet, Universe. Due to the ongoing Covid-19 closure, we have been unable to bring you this, however starting next week we will be posting parts of the exhibition on here.
The exhibition focuses on John Muir’s legacy and his role as an environmental activist and successful campaigner and his relevance for our situation today in addressing the climate crisis. However, we have paused to reflect on the content of the exhibition in the light of the current COVID-19 crisis. There are certain parallels between what are both global existential crises. Perhaps the pandemic may help us to understand the ties that bind us on a global scale, the fragility of our economic systems and how vulnerable they leave so many people and the inadequacy of our response to the even greater threat of climate crisis? Even though climate change presents a slower, more long-term health threat, an equally dramatic and much more sustained shift in ways of life and economic, political and social structures will be needed to prevent irreversible damage.  Information can also be found on the Friends of John Muir’s Birthplace website.