TODAY we start the first part of a three-part account of the life, works and influence of a truly great Scotsman, the naturalist, conservationist and writer John Muir, who is rightly acclaimed as one of the founders of modern environmentalism and the father of the national parks of the US.

Muir is a large subject to tackle, hence the three parts, but he is a very important one because his life and legacy are so hugely relevant to several of the major issues of today, not the least of which is climate change. His inspirational writings from the mid-19th century to the outbreak of the First World War are often lyrical and fresh, even though he admitted he struggled with writing. His foundation of the Sierra Club proved hugely influential in the USA, while his campaign for the preservation of wildernesses such as Yosemite mean they still save their wild beauty for the modern world.

Regular readers know that I quote from source material as evidence of the facts I recount, and it’s therefore a boon that Muir did write a lot about his own life, while there are numerous extensive biographies featuring his deeds and words.

In these two columns, I will be searching for information on what Muir did and said that we could and should take on board as a human species, a species which is currently being reminded of just how much we interact with all forms of life around us, even the most microscopic. We really are just temporary tenants of this beautiful planet. Our individual, and possibly our species’, obsolescence is always before us, so for our own sake we must listen to Muir and his messages, that all life is sacred and that human rapaciousness is self-limiting in the long run.

Though the USA claims him on account of almost all of his life’s work being done there, and the fact that he became a naturalised citizen of his adopted country, the first thing to make clear in any depiction of John Muir is that he was a Scot through-and-through. His native land’s religion, culture and influence stayed with him all his life. Indeed, he retained his strong Scottish accent throughout his decades in America.

John Muir was born on April 21, 1838, in Dunbar in East Lothian. His father Daniel and mother Ann, nee Gilrye, would have eight children in all. The youngest, Joanna, would be born in America. John was their third child and was closest in age to his brother David. Muir told many stories of their boyhood deeds of derring-do and the many fights they had against other local boys – nothing too serious, but the teachers at Dunbar School were forever preoccupied with battling youngsters and didn’t spare the rod themselves.

Daniel Muir was born in England of Scottish parents, both of whom died before he was one-year-old. His aunt took him to raise as her own son on a farm in Lanarkshire. He joined the army for a while but left to become a merchant in Dunbar, prospering in the trade, and while John Muir loved and respected his father, he was well aware of Daniel’s strictness, especially in matters of religion, which he often enforced with the belt.

John Muir was raised to be proud of being a Scot and his teachers taught him Scottish history – would all Scottish children were given the same opportunity.

In his memoirs Muir recalled those early schooldays: “We fairly revelled in the battle stories of glorious William Wallace and Robert the Bruce, with which every breath of Scotch air is saturated, and of course we were all going to be soldiers. On the Davel Brae battleground we often managed to bring on something like real war, greatly more exciting than personal combat. Choosing leaders, we divided into two armies. In winter damp snow furnished plenty of ammunition to make the thing serious, and in summer sand and grass sods. Cheering and shouting some battle-cry such as ‘Bannockburn! Bannockburn! Scotland forever! The Last War in India!’ we were led bravely on. For heavy battery work we stuffed our Scotch blue bonnets with snow and sand, sometimes mixed with gravel, and fired them at each other as cannon-balls.”

Muir was a diligent student, but detested the teaching methods, as he described them: “I can’t conceive of anything that would now enable me to concentrate my attention more fully than when I was a mere stripling boy, and it was all done by whipping – thrashing in general.

“Old-fashioned Scotch teachers spent no time in seeking short roads to knowledge, or in trying any of the new-fangled psychological methods so much in vogue nowadays. There was nothing said about making the seats easy or the lessons easy. We were simply driven point blank against our books like soldiers against the enemy, and sternly ordered: ‘Up and at ’em. Commit your lessons to memory!’ If we failed in any part, however slight, we were whipped; for the grand, simple, all-sufficing Scotch discovery had been made that there was a close connection between the skin and the memory, and that irritating the skin excited the memory to any required degree.”

There was no respite at home, either, due to Daniel Muir’s insistence on a much more strict adherence to the Bible than even the Church of Scotland preached at that time.

“Father made me learn so many Bible verses every day that by the time I was 11 years of age I had about three-fourths of the Old Testament and all of the New by heart and by sore flesh. I could recite the New Testament from the beginning of Matthew to the end of Revelation without a single stop.”

Yet there was always a way to escape home and school, and that was in the great outdoors. Muir revelled in the beautiful surroundings of Dunbar, and is reported to have been just five when he climbed the ruined walls of Dunbar Castle. Climbing everything from trees to cliffs and all sort of buildings came naturally to him – had he suffered vertigo we would probably never have heard of John Muir.

His memoirs give honest accounts of the way that John and his chums hunted everything from cats to rabbits. However, the real soul of the young Muir was shown by his distress at seeing a cavalryman of the Royal Scots Greys disturb a robin’s nest and take away the fledglings to sell in cages.

Roving far and wide in East Lothian, Muir’s main safety threat was to himself. He boasted of making “earthquakes” by burying gunpowder and setting it alight to create small explosions.

He became a keen runner, and was all set to move up the school and probably follow into his father’s business when Daniel Muir unleashed a huge surprise. Muir later recalled: “’Bairns,’ he said, ‘you needna learn your lessons the nicht, for we’re gan to America the morn!’” He had sold his business for a goodly sum and was determined to go west.

His maternal grandfather gave John, 11, and David, 9, a gold piece and embraced them, and the following morning the two boys and their sister Sarah, 13, joined their father on the train to Glasgow, leaving behind John’s eldest sister Margaret and the youngest of the family with their mother.

SAILING across the Atlantic took six weeks. Daniel Muir, who was then 45, had originally intended to go to upper Canada, his fellow passengers persuaded him that the west of the US was the better option.

His son wrote in his obituary of his father about their arrival in Wisconsin, where they were to make their home on a new farm which Daniel created: “He first settled on a half section of land near the Fox river about 12 miles north of Portage and remained there eight years or until it was brought under thorough cultivation. Then feeling the need of more work he purchased half a section of wild land about four miles to the eastward of the farm, to which he removed his family and began building, breaking, fencing and planting anew.”

One of Muir’s contemporary admirers, Professor Stephen Fox, is convinced that Daniel Muir emigrated because he did not think the Church of Scotland was sufficient in faith and practice, and it was not long before the Muirs joined the strict Restoration Movement championed by Alexander Campbell.

Settling into their new life, the two Muir boys gloried in their surroundings. John in particular was awestruck by the sheer variety of wildlife around their farm. He also grew to know and appreciate the animals bought by his father to work there, including oxen and a pony called Jack – the first he had ever ridden.

He wrote: “Before leaving Scotland, father promised us a pony to ride when we got to America, and we saw to it that this promise was not forgotten. Only a week or two after our arrival in the woods he bought us a little Indian pony for $13 from a store-keeper in Kingston who had obtained him from a Winnebago or Menominee Indian in trade for goods.

“He was a stout handsome bay with long black mane and tail, and, though he was only two years old, the Indians had already taught him to carry all sorts of burdens, to stand without being tied, to go anywhere over all sorts of ground fast or slow, and to jump and swim and fear nothing – a truly wonderful creature, strangely different from shy, skittish, nervous, superstitious civilised beasts.

“We turned him loose, and, strange to say, he never ran away from us or refused to be caught, but behaved as if he had known Scotch boys all his life; probably because we were about as wild as young Indians.”

Muir learned to ride Jack and, typically boisterous, he almost killed the pony when he asked Jack to jump over what turned out to be quicksand.

The boys had been told by their grandfather that America was indeed the land of opportunity, but was also a place where they would have to work hard, and so it proved. The making of the farm and the cultivation of crops was devilishly tough work for John and David. They did have some hours of recreation, mostly spent boating on their own private lake, which the neighbours called Muir’s Lake. John almost drowned in it one day, and that seems to have taught him a valuable lesson about swimming and keeping calm in moments of danger.

He wrote in his memoirs: “Never again from that day to this have I lost control of myself in water. If suddenly thrown overboard at sea in the dark, or even while asleep, I think I would immediately right myself in a way some would call ‘instinct’, rise among the waves, catch my breath, and try to plan what would better be done. Never was victory over self more complete. I have been a good swimmer ever since.”

All the time on the farm, Muir studied the flora and fauna. His writing shows he had an almost scientific approach to doing so. He was also aching to learn more about subjects such as botany, and almost as an afterthought he began to try and invent things – the great ambition of the age was to be an inventor, and Muir was no different to other teenagers.

At the age of 15 he taught himself geometry and trigonometry and, with a few simple tools, he created machines that he built from wood and scrap steel, including clocks, a self-setting sawmill, and thermometers. Yet he knew he needed further education. Next week we’ll see how he got it.