Fife photographer follows in footsteps of John Muir

A life-changing illness in 2001 led a Fife photographer to accidentally hit upon his next project.

Saturday, 1st June 2019, 9:00 am
In the footsteps...Ken Paterson followed John Muir to Yosemite where he captured the El Capitan rock formation.

In the Footsteps of ... has since taken Ken Paterson to America and Japan on a new journey of discovery.

In effect, the 62-year-old has turned being diagnosed with a brain tumour into a positive – and a chance to celebrate some of Scotland’s unsung heroes.

Brought up in Kirkcaldy, Ken went to school at New Park in St Andrews and Merchiston in Edinburgh, before studying zoology at Aberdeen University.

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Finding the positive....while recovering from a brain tumour in 2001, Ken happened across John Muir and his recovery was aided by following in the footsteps of the Scotsman who became known as the Father of National Parks in America.

From a young age, a love of nature and rock and ice climbing led Ken to pick up another skill, photography.

And that, in turn, led him to an award-winning career, working as a freelance staff photographer for The Scotsman and Scotland on Sunday, as well as being the Scottish photographic representative for The New York Times.

Ken also contributed stunning images for a dozen or more travel guide books, from Paris to Crete and St Petersburg to San Francisco, where he happily admits to leaving his heart!

Just before the turn of the new century, Ken took a series of images of Scotland’s forests for a millennium project and one of them – an uninhabited island forest on Loch Tarff – was selected to appear in the final exhibition at Tate Modern.

This Scots Pine image, captured by Ken in Glen Affric, has come to represent John Muir in his heart, standing alone surrounded by a beauty both real and spiritual.

Ken was invited to give a talk at the Scottish Natural Heritage award ceremony in Battleby Conference Centre.

He takes up the story: “There was a great sense of community that day as everyone there was trying to do something to help the wider community.

“For me, that meant creating a free online resource for schools and colleges to access my images and all of the projects were of a similar nature. It was a great example of Scotland’s pioneering spirit.”

Days later, Ken was in hospital having an operation to remove a brain tumour.

He had to learn to walk again so mountaineering was out of reach, as was his former career.

However, while trying to get back on his feet, he decided to find out more about Yosemite National Park, renowned by rock climbers across the globe.

And so, quite by accident, Ken discovered John Muir.

“I’d been mountaineering for years and had never heard of him,” he said.

“I started reading about his life in the mountains and it was a real inspiration.

“It seemed utterly wrong to me that people like John Muir were being ignored in favour of the likes of Bonnie Prince Charlie.”

So Ken decided to take a trip to Yosemite, while visiting his brother Mike in California.

“At that point I didn’t even know if I’d be able to take photographs,” he said.

“I didn’t want to travel on my own so Lindsay Robertson, a photographer from Edinburgh, came with me as he was interested in Ansel Adams, who did a lot of his work in Yosemite.”

The trip was a success and Ken decided to share his work with the American Scottish Foundation, co-organisers of the annual New York Tartan Week.

It proved a canny move; the photographs became part of the 2005 event, being exhibited in Central Park’s Arsenal Gallery.

In the Footsteps of John Muir has since been displayed in New York’s Federal Hall National Memorial twice, President Roosevelt’s Presidential Library, John Muir’s Historic House in Martinez and his birthplace museum in Dunbar.

Earlier this year, it visited Stirling Castle and it is currently on show at a property on the John Muir Way itself, Blackness Castle near Linlithgow.

Not content to rest on his laurels, Ken – who works part time at Lifetime Photography in Kirkcaldy, also travelled to Japan in 2014 with its owner, Rob Thomson, to show In the Footsteps of Thomas Blake Glover.

This exhibition also visited the house of Giacomo Puccini in Italy, Spokane in the USA, Kinnaird Lighthouse Museum in Fraserburgh and the Scottish Parliament.

And now the dad of two is hoping to turn his lens on a local unsung hero.

He said: “My mum Laura, who still lives in Kirkcaldy, used to work in the John McDouall Stuart Museum. He’s my home town hero.

“John was the first expedition leader to cross Australia from south to north and survive.

“He’s very well-known in Australia – there’s even a range of mountains named after him – but he’s not much celebrated here.

“I spent a year and a half in Australia when I was younger and would love to go back to follow in McDouall Stuart’s footsteps, but it all depends on funding.”

Ken hopes that his In the Footsteps project will, in future, be championed by young photography students.

And he is currently trying to source funding to enable that dream to become a reality.

He added: “Ideally, I’d like a foundation to take on In the Footsteps as an education project, creating a free online resource, led by students and annotated by experts.

“It would not only enable us to celebrate Scotland’s unsung heroes but also allow students here to make connections globally.

“I’m fed up with airports now but there are still a couple I’d like to do myself, McDouall Stuart being chief among them.”

In The Footsteps of John Muir is on display in Blackness Castle’s cottage until Tuesday, August 6. It will then move to Fort George near Inverness.

To find out more about Ken’s work or to help fund In the Footsteps, visit