Wednesday, 26 March 2014


I've said it before, and I'll say it again; I'm very lucky where I live, just yards away from a sandy beach and the open sea.  The mile-long promenade is my regular starting point to many a cycle route, and the other day, on a calm, azure blue sky day, I set off on one of my favourite local routes, and as I was to discover, a route steeped in history going back millennia.

I turned east toward the town of Musselburgh and joined the main road where the promenade comes to an end, for the mile and a half to Fisherrow harbour, on the outskirts of the town, and joined the John Muir Way, shown here on this map.

The John Muir Way footpath has existed for some time, but until recently the route was only from Dunbar, his birthplace, along the coast to the harbour in Musselburgh. To mark 100 years since John Muir passed away, this April a new section opens that has been way marked. The path  now runs 200km from Dunbar to Helensburgh on the west coast, where he and his family set sail for America. John Muir was the father of America's National Parks and a key figure in the conservation movement.

My route now followed the shore line from the harbour and crossed the River Esk at its estuary, where I turned north, still on the John Muir Way, to cycle round the lagoons.

This part of the River Esk is actually the result of two rivers converging around five miles away. One, the North Esk, starts in the nearby Pentlands Hills, east of Edinburgh. The other, the South Esk, rises in the Moorfoot Hills, both about 12 miles away, and flows out into the open sea at the eastern edge of the lagoons.

The lagoons started life as reclaimed land for the deposit of ash from the nearby power station at Cockenzie. They are still in use to this day, but small bodies of water have been formed over the years, creating a perfect habitat for wildlife, attracting the likes of mute swans, geese, curlew, golden eye and cormorant.  There are even two owls somewhere in the surrounding woods. Bordering this reclaimed land is Musselburgh Links golf course, which bizarrely sits in the middle of a horse racing course, and dates back to 1672. It is the oldest golf course in the world still being played.

By now I was speeding along a perfectly smooth paved cycle path, dodging in and out of the dog walkers, with the shrill cries of the curlew on the sea edge to my left. At the end of this reclaimed land the John Muir Way continues east on the main coastal road toward Dunbar, but I turned west, back toward the town of Musselburgh, following its southern edge.

Musselburgh is the largest settlement in East Lothian, roughly six miles east of the City of Edinburgh. As you can guess it derived its name from mussels, a shellfish once gathered in the coastal waters here. It has a long history, having first been settled by the Romans in AD 80. They built a fort at what is now called Inveresk and bridged the River Esk a little downstream.  That bridge formed the main eastern approach to the City of Edinburgh from England, and is still in use today 2,000 years later as a pedestrian walkway, having been rebuilt twice over the centuries and now sporting three arches instead of the original two.

It was near to this bridge that I now joined a delightful path that follows the river upstream. As it wound its way along the banks the air was filled with the pungent aroma of wild garlic, overpowering my sense of smell. Just as the path reached the edge of the town, I crossed the river over a small iron bridge, and cut through the middle of Monktonhall golf course.

Founded in 1938 it was once the open championship course for Scotland, now held at Muirhouse, 15 miles to the east. The course was designed by former champion James Braid, who went on to design the world famous King's and Queen's course at Gleneagles in the Highlands.

Skirting along the edge of the town through a modern housing estate, my route now took me past Queen Margaret University as it curled round to head north.

Founded in 1875 as Queen Margaret College, and named after the wife of King Malcolm the III of Scotland, the campus moved to this new site in 2008 at a cost of £100million.

I was now approaching journeys end with just two more places of interest to pass through. The first was the Newhailes estate.

A 17th century mansion dominates the grounds which is now owned and maintained by the National Trust for Scotland.  It was once home to Sir David Dalrymple, the 3rd baronet of Hailes, a Scottish advocate, judge and historian. The house was originally called Whitehall, built by the architect James Smith around 1686, but was bought in 1709 and renamed Newhailes. It remained in the Dalrymple family until 1997 when the Trust took it over. The surrounding woods are a joy in any season to wander through and it was here that I rattled down to join my last path as I emerged from the woods.

Here was a small stream called Brunstane Burn, where I turned west toward home. I've wandered this path many times over the years but I had no idea until this day that it now forms part of the extended John Muir Way, which was a nice surprise. This tiny little stream is geographically important locally as well, as it marks the boundary between the City of Edinburgh and East Lothian.

My little jaunt through the past 2,000 years of history in this part of Scotland was at an end, and over a coffee and cake reward I planned my next foray into local history.

1 comment:

Pauline said...

What a great wee story, Graham, with so many interesting spots end route. Nice pics too -you caught Newhailes well.