Open 7 days!

We are delighted to announce that for July and August we are finally returning to 7 day a week opening!  We will be open Monday to Saturday 10am – 5pm and Sunday 1pm – 5pm. Do pop in for your fix of inspiring John Muir quotes and a step into the tranquillity that only comes from immersing yourself in the natural world.

Our current exhibition, curated by Friends of John Muir’s Birthplace is John Muir, Earth, Planet, Universe which asks questions about our role as individuals in the climate crisis.

Over the summer we are setting a series of challenges for children  to complete at home. Our first one can be found here, or pop in for leaflet on what will be happening to keep the little darlings occupied over the summer.

We also have a wide selection of Muir-themed books for sale as well as a curated collection of locally-made gifts, cards and postcards.

We look forward to welcoming you this summer!

East Lothian Council Museums Survey 2021

Do you have a few minutes to tell us what you think?

East Lothian Council operates 4 museums directly, supports the operation of 3 community museums, provides loan collections to schools, care homes and community groups, supports community exhibitions, runs an exhibition, events and activities programme and manages the ELC Museum Collection & museum store.

This survey concerns those museums directly operated by ELC Museums Service. The museum opening hours have remained the same since the opening of the John Gray Centre Museum in 2012. Our museums are:

  • John Muir’s Birthplace, Dunbar (open all year with reduced hours in the winter)
  • John Gray Centre Museum (open all year with reduced hours in the winter)
  • Dunbar Town House Museum and Gallery (open afternoons April to September with additional winter opening hours courtesy of volunteers from Dunbar and District History Society)
  • Prestongrange Museum (Visitor Centre & café open afternoons April to September, site accessible all year)

Why we are consulting

Like many aspects of everyday life East Lothian Council Museum Service has been operating in a very different way for the past year. By undertaking this survey we want to make sure that as we emerge from lockdown we are providing a Museum Service that is relevant and which visitors and local people will value.

During the lockdowns in 2020 and 2021 all of our museums were closed completely, opening up when permitted with reduced hours and reduced facilities. Whilst open under coronavirus restrictions we had 20-30% of our usual number of visitors, which is a pattern replicated across the country.

‘Museums play a vital role in the lives of individuals, families and communities across Scotland. Their learning and outreach work bridges inequalities in education and mental and physical health provision. Museums help to connect people with their community, while enhancing the experience of visitors to Scotland and bringing a positive economic impact.’ (Museums Galleries Scotland)

However, not everyone can or feels able to visit museums. Leisure and free time is precious and there is enormous competition for visitors’ time. Some people feel that museums are not for them or they may face physical or economic barriers to visiting. We’d like to better understand these barriers & work to remove them and to better understand the impact of our museums and how we can improve what we do.

During lockdowns and under the tier system we have made more and more of our content available online and we have seen an increase in ‘virtual’ visits and engagement both on our websites and on social media. Now that we are able to open to the public again (with restrictions in place) we would like to review our opening hours to ensure they are the best fit for our visitors and potential visitors.

You can complete the survey by clicking here.


We were delighted to welcome travel writer Simon Parker and Markus Stitz (founder of Bikepacking Scotland) yeaterday, 16 June. Simon is cycling right around the coast of Britain, writing a regular column #BritainByBike for The Telegraph. He’d come to us from Northumberland, and is now heading back up north to Shetland, where his adventure began. He’s averaging about 70 miles a day. You can follow Simon on Twitter here @SimonWIParker 


Markus (@reizkultur) is a familiar face at John Muir’s Birthplace. If you haven’t seen his lovely film about cycling the John Muir Way, you can watch it here:

Unhurried: Scotland Coast to Coast on the John Muir Way (Film)


New in!

We are delighted to have some lovely new stock in for this summer.  Fiddy + Mabel is produced locally in East Lothian, and is the brainchild of Harriet Forster.  Harriet says of her new brand:

Fiddy+Mabel was born during the pandemic in 2020, at the time I owned a consultancy with mostly retail and hospitality clients, so when they were forced to close, my work was suspended too. I had always wanted to do something creative, creating and making has always been my hobby, and was struck with the idea that I wanted to print tea towels, something I had never done before, so I sold my consultancy and launched Fiddy+Mabel!

I taught myself how to screen print, and in August 2020 I launched! I create mostly Scottish designs, capturing landmarks and views in a simple, modern and unique way, and I started with the beautiful East Lothian as that is where I live. The tea towels have now developed into printing tote bags, cards and mounted prints, and I hope to continue to expand my product range. I also create bespoke commission pieces, which is a huge privilege and honour to take on for my clients, and have created designs all sorts of occasions which is great fun.

Fiddy+Mabel is named after our two black Labradors (Fiddy’s full name is Fidra!), who live with my husband and I and our 4 year old twins in a cottage in East Lothian. We love spending time exploring and enjoying the coast and countryside around us – and it is the perfect inspiration for me!

In stock in John Muir’s Birthplace, we have:

  • tote bags, screen printed by hand on 100% ethically sourced cotton;
  • teatowels, screen printed onto 100% cotton, they are completely colourfast and machine washable, and come with a hanging loop;
  • cards – printed on 260gsm hammer texture white card and come with a 100% recycled kraft envelope.

Designs are all inspired by the East Lothian landscape and include Bass Rock, Bridge to Nowhere, Dunbar Harbour and Castle, Dunbar Town House and Barns Ness.  You can see the full range of Fiddy + Mabel on Harriet’s website,

We Are Open!

We are delighted to have reopened out doors on Wednesday 5th May. We are currently open 10am – 5pm Wednesday – Saturday, with the last entry at 4.15pm to allow us time to clean the building after the last visitor leaves.

To find out what we are doing to keep all our staff and visitors Covid 19 safe, please check out our dedicated Covid19 Page.  For further reassurance, please feel free to give us a call on 01368 865899 and we will talk you through the procedures.

We are very excited to be able to welcome you back into our building, but we are dedicated to keeping everyone safe as we enter the ‘new normal’.  If you don’t feel ready to visit us in person yet, feel free to explore this website, and watch out on our social media channels for a closer look at our collections.



Twins for 40 Years! Dunbar & Martinez.

Dunbar-Martinez Sister City 30th Anniversary, April 2011

(updated April 2021 by Will Collin for 40th Anniversary)


Visitors coming in to Dunbar by road learn that Dunbar is twinned with Martinez, California, and Lignières in France. The Californian connection predates that with Lignières by 13 years for Dunbar and Martinez have been ‘sister cities’ since 1981.  It is one of only a few partnerships linking the United States and Scotland.  However the connection between the two, over 5,000 miles apart, goes back another hundred years.  Needless to say the association is due to links with John Muir.

John was born on 21 April 1838 at 126/8 High Street, Dunbar, where his father Daniel ran a dry goods store, a ‘Dunbar trader’. John moved to California at the age of 30 and married Louie Strentzel, the daughter of a Martinez fruit farmer, in 1880. From then until his death that town was his home base. By the time of his only return visit to Dunbar, in 1893, two sisters, a brother and their families had joined him from the Muir’s original settling place near Portage in Wisconsin.

When he went back to Martinez, John corresponded with a number of Dunbar folk and annually sent a sum of money to a cousin to be used for the poor in the town.  However his death in 1914 brought an end to these links and through time he was virtually forgotten in the town and county of his birth.

In the 1960s, a visit by a Californian couple, Muir bibliographers Bill and Maymie Kimes, led to a plaque being placed on the wall of his birthplace at 126 High Street. Then in the 1970s East Lothian’s county planning officer Frank Tindall visited California and discovered Muir for himself.  On his return, he persuaded the county to create a small museum in the house at 126/8 High Street.

It was while a dialogue regarding the setting up of that museum was being conducted between East Lothian’s council and Martinez that a twinning link between the two towns was suggested. Dunbar’s John Muir Museum was opened in 1981 and on 18 April of the same year Martinez mayor Eric Schaefer publicly proclaimed Martinez and Dunbar ‘sister cities’.

Martinez, California

Martinez, with a population of just over 35,800 (2010 census), is the county seat of Contra Costa county which lies on the north of the San Francisco Bay Area:

  • The area was colonized by the Spanish in the 18th century, hence the Spanish place names – Contra Costa means ‘opposite shore’, Martinez is ‘son of Martin’;
  • The county has an area of 802 sq mls, nearly four times that of East Lothian (206 sq mls);
  • It has a population of just over 1 million; East Lothian’s is around 106,000;
  • The county employs almost 10,000 Martinez residents.

Martinez is about

  • 30 miles from San Francisco, which has a population of around 875,000;
  • 20 miles from Oakland (425,000);
  • 65 miles from the California state capital Sacramento (501,000);
  • 200 miles from Yosemite Valley in the Sierra Nevada, the ‘snowy range’.

Martinez is a retail centre and transportation hub.  Rail lines from San Francisco pass through Martinez before heading north to Sacramento and beyond, or south to Los Angeles – over 40 Amtrak trains use Martinez station daily.  A 4-lane freeway, California 4/John Muir Parkway, links the Bay Area to the Central Valley and beyond.

Other than ‘the county’, Martinez’s major employers are a Shell oil refinery with around 750 employees and Kaiser Permanente, the USA’s largest managed care organization, with around 720.  Many Martinez residents commute to work, particularly in Oakland and San Francisco.

Among the leisure pursuits are:

  • sailing (there is a marina and harbour),
  • golf (two 18-hole courses nearby and a 9-hole course within the ‘city’),
  • walking (a network of walks including those in Martinez Regional Shoreline park)
  • and bocce, a game with the same roots as bowls, but more like petanque.

 Another famous resident was Joe DiMaggio, baseball star and husband of Marilyn Monroe.  He was born on 25 Nov 1914.  His father, an Italian immigrant, was a fisherman.

 Twinning links

In the years since 1981, connections between the towns have been fairly tenuous, although initially there were individual senior student exchanges between Dunbar Grammar School and Alhambra High School, Martinez, and a group from the Martinez Senior Citizen Center visited Dunbar in 2001.

With the re-opening of John Muir’s Birthplace in 2003, the Muir-inspired links increased.  Visitors to Martinez have included ELC’s Chief Executive Alan Blackie, Director of Education Don Ledingham, Cultural Services Manager Margaret O’Connor and Liz McLean, Head of Property Management. Among incoming visitors have been the Superintendent of the JM Historic Site, Martha Lee; Garrett Burke, designer of the California quarter; and at least two former presidents of the US’s Sierra Club which boasts a membership of 1.3 million.

Recently there has been a considerable increase.

  • In 2004, Dunbar Grammar School began its biennial visits to California, through which over 100 senior students and 20 adults have spent time in Martinez with local families.  The last visit, to be in June 2020, was cancelled because of the corona virus pandemic.
  • In 2007 Birthplace staff member Pauline Smeed spent a month working at the JM House in Martinez.
  • In 2008 Birthplace manager Jo Moulin travelled to Martinez to receive a John Muir Conservation Award on behalf of the Birthplace.
  • In 2009 ELC leader Paul McLennan and family visited Martinez while on a holiday in California.

Benefits for Dunbar

However, the twinning is a civic link, not simply a John Muir one.  There are benefits for many areas of our two towns and surrounding districts, primarily in education, cultural exchanges and tourism. Looking at Tourism:

  • The number of US visitors to Scotland increased from 340,000 in 2008 to 566,000 in 2017;
  • They contributed £556m (18% of visitor spend that year) to the Scottish economy;
  • At the Birthplace, the 9,000 visitors of 2008 increased to 12,500 in 2009 and held up in 2010, although Scotland experienced a fall in numbers;
  • Apart from the UK, the US is the prime source of visitors to the Birthplace (around 20% of all adults);
  • California provides around 20% of these and a significant number come from Martinez, most because of the John Muir link.

Comparisons between Dunbar and Martinez

As well as the similarities mentioned earlier, the two towns have

  1. councils,
  2. schools (each has 1 high school and 5 primary schools),
  3. churches (Martinez churches include Episcopalian, Baptist, Catholic and Methodist),
  4. Dunbar Trades Association and Martinez Chamber of Commerce,
  5. history societies,
  6. senior citizen organisations,
  7. golf clubs,
  8. masonic lodges,
  9. harbours, harbour master and sailing clubs,

and others.

Grandpa Gilrye and the Kirk Session

It’s not often that new information about figures significant in the life (and shaping) of John Muir becomes freely available. We’ve always known that John’s grandfather became an elder in Dunbar Parish Church but the records of the Church have until now been relatively difficult to access as they’re stored with the National Records of Scotland in Edinburgh.


Things changed a couple of weeks ago when these wonderful folks at Scotlandspeople made more than a million pages of Scotland’s Kirk Session records available in digital format on their website. The Kirk Sessions were the local courts of each parish under the established Presbyterian Church in Scotland. The members, the minister, his assistants (if any), and the elders decided the business of the parish, debated the role and doctrine of the Church in Synod and Assembly, and saw to the morals and care of their own congregation.


David Gilrye became an elder at the start of 1822, when Dunbar had both a new minister (John Jaffray, who had been assistant to the previous minister) and a new church building. Gilrye was one of several men ordained on the same day, as the new minister brought his Session up to strength. The power of the Session was a shadow of what it had been in previous centuries, but it was still considerable and quite intrusive to modern sensibilities.


Many cases involved irregular marriage (marriages contracted by members of the community at other places without banns being read in the parish church) and illegitimacy, both of which impinged on its major remaining function, the distribution of ‘relief’ or ‘ailment’ and the question of entitlement to such aid. In these days, before social security and universal pensions, the Kirk Session was the last port of call for those in need. Only a fortunate few could retire with an annuity, have support through membership of a friendly society, or had the capital to support themselves through illness.  But the parish’s funds were limited, so hard decisions had to be made about eligibility: only those born within the parish or resident there for a proven period were eligible. David Gilrye was now one of those that had to make these descisions.


Each claimant was acutely questioned; many were refused, being told to turn to other family members or another parish for help. Two of the ways the Session raised money was by charging fees (to record births and marriages, hence the emphasis on irregular marriages) and by ‘renting’ seats within the church. Before the end of his first year as elder, David and his colleagues were enmeshed in a legal battle with the Town Council when the latter unilaterally boarded up access to a number of pews. An exchange of letters escalated via the Sherriff Court in Haddington to the Court of Session in Edinburgh. There, in July 1824, the Magistrates and Council ‘dropt all further proceedings’ and the Court ‘allowed the Kirk Session their expenses’. No further information is available in the minutes, but that looks as if David and his colleagues made their case!


Turning now to the Muir family, we quickly found a notice of the irregular marriage of Hamilton Blakley and Mary Muir in the Session Minutes of Crawfordjohn. Mary Muir was John Muir’s aunt, the sister of his father Daniel. Further back, on 20 September 1761, a Nathaniel Muire and his family were allowed a ‘testimonial’ – a certificate showing that they were in good standing with the church and issued if a person or family moved parish. Between these dates there may be unknown Muir genealogy to be found – but reading the record will take a while!

(Photo – Ordination of David Gilrye as elder in Dunbar Parish Church. Extracted from Dunbar Kirk Session Records (CH2/647/6) by courtesy of the National Records of Scotland and the Church of Scotland.)

What next for Friends of John Muir’s Birthplace

What Next for the Friends of John Muir’s Birthplace?

Today at 7pm!  Register here on eventbrite.

Duncan Smeed, Convener of Friends of John Muir’s Birthplace said, ‘This is a public event and not just for the members of the Friends of John Muir’s Birthplace. Indeed, it is hoped that as many people as possible can join in the Zoom call and contribute their ideas and thoughts about What Next?’

A ‘What If?’ event organised by the Friends of John Muir’s Birthplace in conjunction with Sustaining Dunbar.

Join us to discuss:

• What role does John Muir’s Birthplace play in the life of the town and the High Street?

• What can we learn from John Muir’s life and legacy to support and inspire us?

• What role for the Birthplace in supporting the transition to a better future for all of us?

Friends of John Muir’s Birthplace is a local charity that supports the ongoing work of the John Muir Birthplace Charitable Trust and the staff of John Muir’s Birthplace.

Learn about the work and achievements of the Friends of John Muir’s Birthplace (founded in 1994 as Dunbar’s John Muir Association) in advancing its aims of:

• educating the public concerning John Muir and his belief in the unique and irreplaceable value of wild places and wild creatures

• implementing John Muir’s philosophy practically by conserving, restoring and enhancing landscape and wildlife in East Lothian and Scotland

and discuss ‘What Next?’.

Following the discussion and conclusion to the main event there will be a very short Friends of John Muir’s Birthplace AGM to conduct the formal business of the charity in order to comply with the requirements of OSCR.

Happy Mothers’ Day – Ann Gilrye Muir

For those reading this in the UK, Happy Mothers’ Day. Today seemed like an appropriate time to find out more about John’s mother, Ann Gilrye Muir.

Ann was born on 17 March 1813, the 9th of 10 children to David Gilrye and Margaret Hay. Her older sister, Ann died a few days after she was born, therefore Ann was christened with her sister’s name. We think the sampler on display in John Muir’s Birthplace was actually completed by the older Ann.

Sampler completed by Ann Gilrye's older sister

Licensor University of the Pacific Muir Hanna Trust

Ann lost eight brothers and sisters in her youth, mainly to tuberculosis, only Ann and her sister Margaret remained by the time John was born.

David Gilrye was a town councillor and a well respected member of the Church Community. The Gilrye’s owned a butchers’ shop at 113 High Street, where Lothian Printers is now located, and proximity to Daniel Muir’s grain business at 128 High Street is probably why Ann caught Daniel’s eye.

Ann and Daniel were married in 1833, and their first child, Margaret, was born in 1834, followed by Sarah in 1836, John was their first son, born in 1838, followed by David in 1840.  Ann went on to have 4 more children, and unlike in her own family, they all lived to be adults.

When the family emigrated in 1849, Daniel went ahead with John, Sarah and David, while Ann stayed in Dunbar with Margaret, Daniel and Annie and Mary until a home had been established, they followed some 6 months later.  Her eighth and last child, Joanna was born the following year in Wisconsin. Today we can only imagine what it must have taken for her to leave her family and all she know in Dunbar to follow her husband to the new world, knowing she would never return.

It may have been due to losing her own brothers and sisters at an early age, or it may have been her natural disposition, but Ann was the antithesis of her husband’s strictness with the children. She was always loving with them, although she was not beyond giving them a telling off when needed. Even when John had left home and was teaching during a break from University, she wrote to him in January 1862 sending him news from home, but also admonishing him for not writing home enough:

John It seems a long time since we had a letter from you, I would like to know how you like to be a teacher I hope you have a comfortable boarding place.

There are many letters from Ann to her children and their spouses in the collections of the University of the Pacific. In all of them she is, as most mothers, concerned with their health, and more often than not to John, giving him into trouble for not writing more often!  On his 52nd birthday in 1890 she wrote:

Time is ever on the wing, and has again brought us to see another of your birthdays. May heavens best blessings be showered upon you more and more abundantly each year of your life. I expect you are now enjoying warm pleasant weather after the wet muddy time you had in winter. We have had a very mild pleasant winter with very few real cold days.

As she got older, Ann got used to spending time alone while her husband travelled and preached, enjoying the times her children visited, often more than one at a time, and she particularly enjoyed spending time with her grandchildren. After the death of her husband in 1885, Ann lived with her daughter, Annie, who remained unmarried throughout her life.

As with his father eleven years earlier, John had a premonition about his mother’s death and travelled to be with her when she died on 23 June 1896. Ann is buried at Silver Lake Cemetery, Portage, Wisconsin.