The people’s way

A hundred years after his death, the great Scottish conservationist John Muir – who helped create the world’s first national parks – is being commemorated with a long-distance route, launching in April. The John Muir Way aims to connect the residents of Scotland’s biggest cities with nearby nature – just as the man would have wanted. Here, Vivienne Crow samples a stretch through the Campsie Fells above Glasgow.

John Muir Way

'How glorious a greeting the sun gives the mountains!' The Scottish-born naturalist and climber John Muir was writing about California’s Sierra Nevada when he penned those lines, but they spring to mind as I watch lonely rays of sunshine pierce the thick cloud to bring patches of occasional, vibrant colour to the Campsie Fells.

I’m in Dunbartonshire to sample a section of the John Muir Way, a new coast-to-coast route across Scotland’s Central Belt, opening 21 April to mark the centenary of Muir’s death. I plan to walk a few kilometres of the largely low-level trail before climbing Cort-ma Law, a 531m/1,742ft summit on the Campsie Fells.

John Muir WayIt’s a grey morning as we set off from Clachan of Campsie, the tiny cluster of buildings at the foot of the Campsie Glen. The harsh cawing of a single crow in the churchyard at the road-end, containing the ruins of St Machan’s Church and the brooding Lennox Mausoleum, adds to  the sombre atmosphere. The nearby hills are still covered in dismal clag, not boding well for our planned foray on to the uplands. It’s only as we make our way south, soon picking up the route of the John Muir Way, that the mood begins to lift slightly as the sun struggles to bring more light to the day.

Although an accomplished climber,  John Muir, born in Dunbar in 1838, is  best remembered as a pioneer of the conservation movement. He emigrated to the US with his family as a child and spent much of his life nurturing his love and understanding of the natural world, particularly in the vast wilderness of the mountains of California.

He later devoted much time and energy to preserving those wild landscapes and became instrumental in the establishment of several of America’s – and, indeed, the world’s – first national parks.

As the 209km/130-mile route passes through East Dunbartonshire, it coincides with the Strathkelvin Railway Path and the Thomas Muir Heritage Trail, an 18km/ 11-mile waymarked path celebrating the life of the 18th-century political reformist (who is unrelated to his namesake, John).

John Muir Way The overlapping of trails is a common feature of the John Muir Way: it uses several existing long-distance paths as it makes its way from Helensburgh on the west coast to Muir’s birthplace on the East Lothian coast. The Three Lochs Way, the West Highland Way, towpaths along both the Forth and Clyde Canal and the Union Canal, the River Avon Heritage Trail and the Water of Leith Walkway all contribute sections.

Escaping the cities into nature

As we make fast progress along the trackbed of the long-closed Campsie branch line of the Edinburgh and Glasgow Railway, I cast my eyes north, to the hills glimpsed frequently through the trees. Where the cloud persists, little detail is visible. But where the sun’s rays illuminate the steep, south-facing slopes, it is possible to make out the terraces created by a series of lava flows 300 million years ago.

The line of the escarpment east from Crow Road (an old drovers’ route) looks impenetrable from here, but I know there’s a path there, and it’s starting to call to me. I begin to wonder if John Muir would approve of his ‘Way’ following surfaced valley paths, while, just a stone’s throw away, the hills beckon.

John Muir Way

The answer to this comes from the birdsong that can be heard in the woods alongside the railway path, the buds you can see starting to appear on the trees, and the ducks splashing on Glazert Water…

“John Muir wasn’t just about understanding the wilderness and the Sierra Nevada,” Ron McCraw, Scottish Natural Heritage’s project manager for the John Muir Way, explains to me later. “He liked nature as a whole, whether it was in his backyard or in the high mountains. He had messages for everyone about that. And this is our message: if you live in the Central Belt, get out, explore, look about you – there are some great places.”

The route is within easy access of the 3.2 million people living in Scotland’s main population concentration, even passing through the middle of Edinburgh. And it’s those millions, including visitors from further afield, that the John Muir Way hopes to attract.

“We wanted to make it a sort of ‘people’s route’,” adds Ron. “It’s mainly lowland, easy to moderate in grade, and there are lots of settlements and public transport halts along the way. We decided to link up the best parts of the Central Belt to get people to appreciate them: the fantastic esplanade at Helensburgh on the Firth of Clyde, the views of the south end of Loch Lomond from Gouk Hill, the shores of the loch itself, the Kilpatrick Hills, the Roman remains along the Antonine Wall at Bar Hill and Croy Hill, and the inner and outer estuary on the Firth of Forth.”

John Muir Way

Having skirted the edge of Lennoxtown, I leave the John Muir Way at Milton of Campsie, stepping up onto the platform of the old railway station to embark on the next, harder, part of the day.

I startle the local fauna as we make our way along a farm track towards the base
of the Campsie Fells: a deer in the woods around Glorat House, a heron fishing beside a small pond, and countless pheasants. They all bolt on my approach.  Beyond the Victorian mansion, the trees are replaced by gorse and hawthorn, a few red berries still clinging to the latter’s spindly branches.

John Muir WayThe key to my climb onto Cort-ma Law is an old track cutting diagonally across the contours, making the ascent of these steep slopes much more manageable. As I gain height, the views south open out, revealing the tower blocks of Glasgow in the distance. Despite the proximity of the sprawling city with its grubby haze, the air up here on the hill feels clear and fresh – totally invigorating.

This is surely the sort of experience that Muir had in mind when he beseeched his Californian neighbours to go east, towards the mountains, in his journal:Toilers in the cities by the sea, whose lives are well-nigh choked by the weeds of care that have grown up and run to seed about them – leave all and go east and you cannot escape a cure for all care. Earth hath no sorrows that earth cannot heal...’

The ‘toilers’ of Glasgow and its suburbs have been coming to the Campsie Fells for rejuvenating walks for a long time now.Another climber, naturalist and advocate of national parks, Tom Weir, used to love nothing more when he was a youngster in the 1920s than getting the bus from his home in the city to enjoy hikes on the Campsie Fells. In fact, a memorial at Clachan of Campsie celebrates the life of this campaigner for the establishment of the Loch Lomond & the Trossachs National Park, through which the John Muir Way symbolically passes.

Black peat and birdsong

I see few other walkers during my time on the hill, but I know from previous visits that the path along the edge of the escarpment is popular with gaiter-clad stravaigers. I’m glad I copied their sensible attire, as the soggy, black peat clutches tenaciously at my boots as I near the trig pillar on top of Cort-ma Law.

Patches of mist blow in and out at the summit, allowing flashes of moody sunshine through. I return to the escarpment edge and head west in the weak afternoon sunshine. Two small birds flit about on the path just a few metres ahead. They seem to be teasing: as I get nearer, they fly off and then reappear further along the path, allowing just fleeting, tantalising glimpses, but not enough to be identified. After several minutes of this game, they pause just long enough for me to realise that they are snow buntings, visiting from their Arctic home.

John Muir Way

Although Glasgow is always within sight, the views north into the southern Highlands are totally obscured today. But I still have a sense, on these empty, peaty hills, of being closer to those wilder landscapes of the national park than I am to the city.

I stride out across the 518m/1,700ft summit of Lairs, passing a fell runner splashing through the bog and looking as comfortable up here as the snow buntings. Several prominent cairns litter the ridge top, including one named on Explorer maps as Crichton’s Cairn. Later attempts to get to the bottom of the naming of this cairn end in frustration, as I come across various legends involving a strongman, a smuggler and a local minister.

John Muir WayCrichton’s Cairn marks the beginning of my reluctant descent. A popular viewpoint, it also marks the point where most casual summer strollers end their walks from the Crow Road car park. The sun is fading now, dipping behind a cloud bank on the horizon, but there’s still enough light to appreciate the gorgeous Campsie Glen.

A trail drops through the trees, including sturdy old beech and youthful oak, into the steep-sided gorge. Here, a burn tumbles down over small, rocky ledges, creating a sylvan spot for summer picnics. Even this late in the day, woodland birds flit from branch to branch, filling the gloaming with their songs.

It may not be an immense wilderness, and constructed trails may have tamed it somewhat, but I can’t help but feel that Muir would have approved of this beauty spot ‘where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul alike’.  

Walk a section of this route with our Ramblers Route guide!

TIME/DISTANCE: With one steep climb and some damp moorland walking, you should allow up to five hours for this 16km/10-mile circular route from Clachan of Campsie. The entire John Muir Way is 209km/130 miles and takes about eight days.

MAPS: OS Explorer 348; Landranger 64.

FURTHER INFO: www.visitscotland.com

Photography: Steve Morgan