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On the Sound of Harris: Frame 1,303

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Contributing editor Jim Richardson is a photojournalist recognized for his explorations of small-town life. His photos appear frequently in National Geographic magazine.

The west beach of Berneray, which looks out over the Sound of Harris, is famous. (But it's only famous to those who know about it, and that's not all that many people.)

I came to this beach for frame 1,303 of the "Edge of the World" story about the Hebrides for the January 2010 issue of National Geographic. And here's the truth of the matter: I didn't do it justice.

On the beach at Berneray I witnessed three miles [five kilometers] of the most perfect shell sand, white as snow, and clean. The long crescent sweeps out of sight in either direction. High dunes shoulder close by, held firm against the winds by the beach grass. On the other side lies the machair, its soil enriched by blown shell. Wildflowers riot there in the island summer.

If you were lucky enough to be there on the most beautiful day of the most popular holiday weekend, you might find a crowd of five people. The whole island, just to the north of North Uist, has a population of 136. Perhaps this is why Prince Charles made Berneray his favorite secret retreat for nearly a decade.

The island's only true fame comes as the home of Angus MacAskill. The late Mr. MacAskill—called Giant by everyone—was 7 feet 9 inches [236 centimeters] tall, the tallest natural giant ever to live, by some accounts. Descendants of his family still live on the island. They are tall.

I feel a sort of duty to places like this—places of modest distinction, places that never clamor for attention or proclaim beauty without shame. They deserve more than just local fame. I think that's why I lingered so long that evening, alone in that lovely swath of drifting sands, trying my best until the light was no more.

Maybe I don't know how to do such a place justice. Maybe mere photography can never substitute for just being there. Whatever the cause, I felt then and I feel now that the beach at Berneray deserves more.

With luck I'll get another chance.

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