In 2017 my girlfriend Harriet and I spent much of our free time traveling the British Isles in search of the best places to cycle. During our university studies in London we went exploring our bikes a lot, including the last day of our freshman year to cycle to Portsmouth and then continue south to Barcelona. After college – and we didn’t know what to do next – we continued to cycle. This time we headed north to the Hebrides with our sleeping bags and saddlebags full of flapjacks.
Accompanied by a pod of dolphins, we traveled by ferry from Uig at the north end of Skye to Tarbert on Harris. We cycled south along the winding coastal road, past the ruins of traditional chimney-less dwellings for families and cattle blackened by the smoke that had passed through the thatched roof. The unique track, nicknamed the Golden Route because of the astronomical cost of its construction, plunged and plunged through rock pools, boulder fields and seaweed-strewn shores.
Unlike the roads of neighboring Skye, those of Lewis and Harris were almost traffic-free. In recent years, Skye has been in the news to be overrun with tourists keen to see the unique topography. The Skye Bridge, which opened in 1995, allows visitors to reach the most spectacular island in the Hebrides without having to board a ferry or be delayed by ‘heavy weather’ (as we were. on the way back).
Far fewer visitors cross the Minch to the Outer Hebrides, but tourism remains an important part of Lewis and Harris’ economy. As in the rest of Scotland, wild camping is permitted on almost any open land, but to ease the tension between strained local infrastructure and increasing tourist numbers, the West Harris Community Trust has come up with an ingenious initiative: asking motorhomes and motorhomes for a donation of £ 5 per night, payable online. Nearby tent pitches are always free to use, but donations are gratefully accepted.
The Trust seeks to “build a sustainable future” for the community of 150 people of West Harris. The money raised contributes to a community development fund to provide new opportunities, renewable energy and improved housing to help stop the downward trend in population.
This photograph was taken over the Lewis and Harris mountainous part (which is roughly divided into hilly Harris to the south and flatter Lewis to the north). It was the end of the day and we were looking for a place to camp in the giant echoing landscapes. We had been watching our front wheels closely for a while, focused on standing on the steep, cracked roads. It wasn’t until we stopped to catch our breath that we realized where we were, the sun setting over the road behind us. On second thought, there must be a metaphor where we were at this point in our lives. Back then, we were just happy to be there and thankful for the breath.