Ideas are being gathered in Helensburgh over the next few weeks with a view to having a more prominent piece of art sited in the town to mark the western end of the John Muir Way.

It’s a long way off: there isn’t yet any money to pay for said new work of art, nor any decision on what it might look like – a whole new potential can of worms, as Lady Helen will tell you every time you walk past her face on the Civic Centre – or where it might be located.

Now, here I have a confession to make: if it weren’t for the fact that the John Muir Way begins, or ends, in Helensburgh, I doubt I’d be able to tell you much about John Muir himself.

His link with Helensburgh doesn’t appear to stretch much beyond the fact that the coast-to-coast walk that bears his name stretches from Muir’s Dunbar birthplace to the prom on West Clyde Street. And, possibly, that if you look across the Clyde from the small piece of ground-level art that marks the western end of the Way, you will see Greenock, from where the 11-year-old Muir and his family emigrated to the USA in 1849.

Which is not to say I think Helensburgh’s association with John Muir, however slight it might be, is a bad thing. Anything that brings visitors to see what Helensburgh has to offer, and support the local economy is all right by me.

But a story which briefly hit the headlines last summer, and an exchange we reported in the Advertiser this week, show that a link with John Muir isn’t entirely without risk.

READ MORE: Racism concerns over plan for new artwork to mark western end of the John Muir Way in Helensburgh

Because in some of the things he wrote after he arrived in the States, Muir described Black Americans and Native Americans in terms which are, to our 21st-century eyes, racist and, to be frank, entirely unacceptable.

Muir’s views changed, for the better, as he got older. But given the anger expressed by the Black Lives Matter movement at the memorials to people such as the Bristol slave trader Edward Colston, who owed a large part of his success in life to his exploitation of his fellow human beings, the question of “aren’t we asking for trouble if we put a statue of John Muir up in Helensburgh?” needed to be asked.

Thankfully the Green Action Trust, which maintains the Way, is well aware that Muir is not as straightforward a figure as people used to think. And to hear the Trust say they think any such artwork should be about Muir’s legacy, rather than a statue of the man himself, is most welcome.

For there are plenty of aspects of that legacy – a passion for the outdoors, a dedication for protecting wildlife and preserving areas of wilderness, a lifelong enthusiasm for the natural world in the face of the increasing march of materialism – that are worth remembering and being inspired by.

That is not to suggest that the unacceptable views Muir penned on race should be swept under the carpet. As with any of our heroes, the whole story might take more time and more effort to learn.

But we do them and us, a huge disservice if we choose to only listen to the good bits and close our ears to the bad ones. And Muir’s life and legacy is well worth that effort.

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