The John Muir Way is a 255km coast to coast route across central Scotland from Helensburgh to Dunbar.
In April 2016 I’d entered the John Muir Ultra and sought to find out what the route had in store. A plan was hatched, after quick feasibility research of the route, that i would attempt to run/ walk the whole way before the Ultra on the 20th April.
As it’s central Scotland, the transport links to the route are pretty handy and so it made splitting the route into section much easier.
As the Ultra ran from west to east following the route to almost it’s end, I thought I’d do the whole route one way, always travelling in a westerly direction. But due to time constraints and the time it takes to get to the west from my home in Edinburgh it was necessary to do some of the sections out of order.
I was also keen to not be 100% obsessed with running the whole way, not least that this meant spending time away from the other Half. And a good Long walk is just as good ultra training as running itself.
So that’s what I planned to do. All this after doing the South Queensferry to Edinburgh section which is a pleasant walk along the Forth and not too far for an afternoon walk. I run this often, as it’s a good half marathon circular route from my house.
The planning started on the 1st April, the day after, I ran Linlithgow to South Queensferry. Both served by trains it was a no brainier to do this next. The route skirts the town itself, so I needed to run to the route firstly.
The day was cool, sun was shining and a westerly breeze. I’d opted for road shoes as a lot seemed to be on Tarmac. After 3km I was on a path off the road. Fishers Brae I believe, which from the map seemed to do a bee line to the coast. I presume this was the route taken by fishermen to being fish to Linlithgow and its Palace. But I’ve not looked that up so I’ve no idea really. All I know was that it was off road, and uphill to start.
Looking back, the Almond Valley was spread out, Linlithgow in the dip. The Pentland Hills way off in the distance.
I rounded the hill, still following a Northerly direction toward the Forth and Bo’ness.
The view now was of the Forth valley, Fife in the distance and industry on the shore line. The path entered a forest, the soft floor made running bouncy. The run exited at a historic site where James Watt built something. I forget what but probably something to do with Electricity. The JMW runs down the long driveway with an impressive gateway and tree lined. I was now in Bo’ness where I’d been before but on my bike. It was toward the end of a Round the Forth route, 120km ride and I was tired. I just remember wanting to get off my bike and struggling up this massive hill that I was now running down. Freely, fast and what seemed effortless I entered a park heading toward the coast. The JMW so far finding off road paths. I crossed the Bo’ness railway line which has steam trains run back and forth. I didn’t see any today and the track was free. The path was Tarmac from here, following the Forth. The tide was out exposing mudflats and that smell of salt and decaying vegetation.
I ran past boat houses, the Antonine wall, old derelict industry. There was a whiff of steam train wafting in the air. A newly laid Tarmac path lead the way around the shore, bypassing the main town. On the western edge of Bo’ness I entered a wood that seemed to rise high on my right. The estuary on my left. The path continued and the sun was warm on my right. In the distance, Blackness castle stood out, a short stumpy castle (not sure the owners would have liked it to be called that) standing proudly on the shallow cliffs. Blackness has a fantastic name though but rather than being dark the place is picturesque and quite a nice place to run through. On the far side of the castle, the view down the Forth toward the sea is epic. Not least because it’s a huge vista but because of the Forth Bridges. Two and a half bridges stood there in the distance. The Queensferry crossing half built but looking lovely was near my final destination and a welcome sight. Though still some way away. The path follows the coast and enters Hopetoun Estate passing through forest and finally round the grounds of the house. I was tired, feet were sore from a lot of Tarmac and I needed food. I dreamt of the chippy that is opposite the bus stop that would take me to Edinburgh and I thought at that point if I had time before the next bus I would grab some food.
This thought kept me going. I walked a bit under the bridges. The construction and civil engineering that goes into making a bridge Is phenomenal that it’s worth a closer look.
You enter South Queensferry from the west and met the starting point of my walk the day before. I’d half an hour before the bus so I decided a chip butty was in order. I sat on the bench at the harbour soaking in the spring sun and filling my belly with carbs.
I knew the next weekend I needed to continue so I had planned walked from Falkirk to Linlithgow. Again a nice distance to do, and easily got to on the train.
The JMW passes through Falkirk train station making it a handy point to join or leave the route. We walked this section. It was a nice pleasant start through Callendar house estate. A public park and the on the outer extremity into a forest and up a hill. The route meandered to find the canal. Crossing the railway line we’d just been on. The canal tow path is quiet with a solid path. A canal is such a serene place hugging contours and aqueduct crossing valleys. We’d stopped off at Tesco for breakfast and on a full belly continued along the canal. Just before Linlithgow the path ventures into the Almond Valley following the river. The change in scenery was welcome as was the soft path.
The next day was a run day and my mate who is training for Breca SwimRun with me joined me. After a bit of cufuffle with starting times and trying to get to the start on public transport I changed the plan a few times to make it work. The buses on a Sunday in Easr Dunbartonshire are infrequent and so we made our way to Milngavie on the train. A good 1.5hr away! The JMW is about 5km north of Milngavie and just so happens to be on the WHW. This made directions easy again. Running north on the WHW until we meet the JMW and head east. I had mapped it quickly which was going to prove to be an error.
The start was good, a nice muddy path and busy with walkers. I imagined a lot were either staring or finishing the WHW. I saw more on that morning on the WHW than I did on the whole JMW.
We met the signs for the JMW just near carbeth and was immediately confused as they seemed to still point north and I’d met them earlier than expected. Nevertheless I looked at the OS map and knew I was on the right track. The path eventually pointed east and off the WHW. Heading up a hill we were going well on the run. Managing to keep a steady pace. The path turned left at the top into a forest. Galloping horses were coming up fast behind me. That is the first time I’d heard horses gallop and that I was in the way. Mild panic I almost jumped into the side but a voice shouted that they’d stopped. Phew.
We were on a ridge. To the left was a steep valley the other side were higher hills with steep cliffs that headed in a easterly direction. We were dropping into Strathblane on a nice soft forest path. When we reached the village we crossed roads and ended up at the old railway line. This would take us for 8km to Kirkintilloch on a paved path. My feet from last week were still a bit sore and I ran on the soft verge for some. The flatness meant our pace was steady. Some basalt columns of giants causeway ilk were viewable on our right.
The railway path was nice as it was off-road and mostly quiet. Slowly the path started entering more built up areas and were frequented by dog walkers and cyclists.
The path takes you right into Kirkintilloch only crossing a couple of minor roads which is pretty cool. There was also a Thomas Muir way that I still haven’t found what that was. Need to google.
The railway path continued but we were taken off this onto canal, the Clyde – Forth canal. Heading easterly toward Falkirk. This path was wide and again flat. We were tiring. My watch was showing me 18kms and according to my planning we should have only been going 25km. The JMW sign said follow canal for 4 miles and thus just didn’t add up. I stayed quiet, tony didn’t have his Garmin and so with not wanting to demoralise him I didbt tell him.
4 miles later and a few fishermen we passed as well as the odd duck and swan we arrived into Tewchtar. From here I knew the way diverted over the hill to Croy where the train would be to take us back to the Burgh.
The route pointed up the hill away from the canal for walkers, cyclists would continue along the canal. We opted for a walk as the hill was steep. Tony was moaning and probably with good reason. I let him know that it was longer than I was expecting but not the exact distance as my guilt was forever increasing.
The hill took us to a Hill Fort, of Roman origin and onto the line of the Antonine Wall. The large ditch can be seen with a good view of where the wall went.
We got to the top of the hill, there was a long section of grass that followed the wall hemmed in by trees. The run down was fun the sun behind us as the day was nearing its end.
We entered Croy and the run was more of a jog. The signs to the train station telling us in miles how far, the 3/4 and 1/2 seemed to go quickly but the 1/2 to 1/4 mile markers took ages.
We arrived at the station. Bought tickets and then before we knew it the train was there.
I let tony know that instead of the 25km planned we’d gone 32km. Perhaps may have broken us but it was fun. Our hill training certainly gave us endurance.
The next weekend I’d planned to walk the Helensburgh to, well as far as Andy would walk with me. That meant finding spots where he could drop out on the second day to pick up public transport. From there I’d run the rest of the way to Carbeth where tony and I had joined the JMW. We planned an over night stay in Balloch on the shores of Loch Lomond which was a nice 14km from Helensburgh.
Before the weekend I needed to squeeze Croy to Falkirk in. A route of 22kms mainly along canal was ahead and I decided to do this after work. Leaving the bike in the office I jumped on the train and left for Croy. Retracing mine and Tony’s steps to the route I was reminded that running solo had a different dynamic and realised that I quite liked the company. I trudged on and almost 5meters back on the route I was forced to a walk. Croy hill was here and I was climbing up the steep side. Boggy and soft ground was fun to run on until I descended to the Canal which I followed to some random town. I was sick of canal to be honest. The level ground and the same but pretty view was weighing on me. I crossed a road that broke my stride and suddenly thought that I was on the wrong route as if seen no sign. I logged onto the OS map and I seemed to be on the route but it headed across the canal. Was there a missing bridge? I ran back to the road and realised I missed the sign that pointed down the hill. I followed curiously as I had no idea why it would go this way. The path led me under the canal along a burn and into a housing estate on the other side. The canal some 20ft above me. The tunnel was dark and I slowed to a walk.
Heading up the hill the route followed the Antonine wall again, trees and boggy the cutting was clear to see. On the other side you enter a young forest with paths crisscrossing. Eventually ending up at the Falkirk wheel an awesome piece of engineering. Although I’d been here before I had no idea that the Antonine wall was there and nor would I if I hadn’t run this route. The last section led me uphill away from the union canal and into a forest above Falkirk. A nice detour away from the canal was welcome but the hill was tough. Light was fading and I was pleased to see that the train station at Falkirk was close.
I woke early that Saturday as usual and relooked at the map on the John Muir website and realised a grave error. They’d opened the Kirkpatrick forest section and the route I had mapped was the old walking rout via the WHW. Oops. A quick replan hastily done before departing for the train, I owned up to Andy we would be doing 21kms instead of 13 the next day. He didn’t seem to grumble too much, thankfully.
The route out of Helensburgh was up the hill mainly on side streets before a short section of woodland. The route follows the busy main road for a while but the views were good.
A right turn into a forest track took us away from the road and into quieter territory. All climbing slowly. The views of Loch Lomond started to appear and before we knew it we were at the viewpoint looking toward the Ben right next to a conifer with Christmas decorations. The hail and snow started but it was brief. We descended through a thick wood and into open ground, deforested stumps revealed views of Loch Lomond.
The descent into Balloch was quick
and painless. A pleasant first day.
The next day we left in rain heading along the shore and through Balloch castle grounds. The B roads that followed were windy and boring but soon we would enter the forest section. Easily signed the route took a nice southerly direction, turning around the views of the Ben were still there. The forest is on top of a hill and the new path glistened in the sun, freshly dampened by a hail shower.
We reached the reservoir and ate lunch. The undulations of the hills were tough going on tired walking legs, and we were glad for the rest.
The descent into Carbeth was fun watching a hunting dog training trials. Lots of black Labrador waiting patiently with men in tweed.
The inn at carbeth was a welcome sight. 5 hours walking meant sore feet and a cool drink was mighty fine. The taxi back to the station was short as Andy couldn’t face the 7km of walking the WHW. Nor could I.
I’d now done Helensburgh to Edinburgh but I still needed to do Edinburgh to Port seton, the start of the ultra. It was less than a week to go. I decided on Tuesday with the weather good and an early flight back from Birmingham I would run from my house picking up the JMW on corstorphine hill and run the route as far as I could go.
I felt good, my legs were fresh and the good weather made me feel better. I knew this section well as I know Edinburgh well. I made it to the commie pool where I could have caught a bus back home. I continued. This section took me through holyrood park and down on the innocent railway path to brunstane. The route through Edinburgh is surprisingly mostly away from road and traffic following old railway paths to cut through the city. I exited this path at Musselburgh, East Lothian where the sea lies to the left. I’d done coast to coast. Time to jump on a bus I thought after 22kms
This left 10kms to do to port seton which I completed two days later in an evening after work.
Ready for the John Muir Ultra.