By the end of the 19th century, the frontier lands had been travelled and tamed, the Native Americans corralled into reservations and the buffalo all but exterminated. It was only thanks to another Scot – Dunbar-born John Muir – that the landscapes were preserved at all.
In 1867, John Muir left the Wisconsin farm where he had labored hard under his tyrannical father and headed out with only a change of clothes and copies of Burns poetry, the New Testament, and Paradise Lost in his pack. He commenced a 1,000 mile walk, averaging 25 miles a day, taking the “leafiest, wildest and least trodden way”.
It was the beginning of a lifetime of adventure. He wanted above else to experience everything the wilderness had to offer. His expeditions were physically demanding, often dangerous, and lonely. He was confident in his ability to handle any danger than came in his way. He began to publish accounts of his experiences and observations and attracted a wide audience.
Later he used this influence to spearhead a conservation movement devoted to safeguarding and preserving the wilderness.
Robert Louis Stevenson
Robert Louis Stevenson came west pursuing his not-yet–divorced lover. Like Muir, he had a strong affinity with mountains, a reminder of home. After his train passed through deserts out west, he was overjoyed “to come home again..to the green and habitable corners of the earth”. Muir did not share Stevenson’s antipathy towards deserts but he would have recognized Stevenson’s engagement with nature both in Scotland and the U.S. Stevenson was never robust enough to acquire Muir’s wilderness skills but he knew what it was like to be thrown upon your own devices in a wild country, which he captured memorably – in a Scottish context – in his 1886 book Kidnapped.
Stevenson stated it “pleased me more than you would fancy” when he could exchange a word or two with Scots he met out West. He elaborated on this in his 1880’s book, set in the west, Silverado Squatters:
“The happiest lot on earth is to be born a Scotchman. You must pay for it in many ways, as for all other advantages on earth…your youth, as far as I can find out, is a time of louder war against society, of more outcry and tears and turmoil, than if you had been born, for instance in England. But somehow life is warmer and closer; the hearth burns more redly; the lights of home shine softer on the rainy street; the very names endeared in verse and music, cling nearer around our hearts. An Englishman may meet an Englishman tomorrow, upon Chimborazo, and neither of them care; but when the Scottish wine-grower told me of Mons Meg, it was magic:
From the dim shieling on the misty Island
Mountains divide us, and a world of seas;
Yet still our hearts are true; our hearts are Highland,
And we, in dreams, behold the Hebrides.
And Highland and Lowland, all our hearts are Scotch.”