Erl Wilkie, active travel champion

Born: April 23, 1944

Died: February 19, 2023

Erl Wilkie MBE, who died aged 78 on February 19, from the effects of oesophageal cancer, played a crucial role in promoting cycling and walking in Scotland.

Erl was born and brought up in Dennistoun, in Glasgow’s east end. He qualified as a Civil Engineer, and worked in Canada, South Africa (which he left in a hurry, an experience which contributed to his lifelong socialism), the Middle East and South America, specialising in docks and harbours.

On returning to Scotland, Erl and his wife Anne, a teacher, settled in Jordanhill. He worked for Strathclyde Regional Council and then Glasgow City Council. In the early 1990s he was a trailblazer for active transport, bringing together Strathclyde’s transport and public health teams in “Fit for Life”, which encouraged people to get fit and save money by walking and cycling. And it showed them how, with a series of free guides with simplified walking and cycling routes in every part of Glasgow.

He persuaded Glasgow City Council to support a new cycle route along the Kelvin to Milngavie. The route was completed with reconstruction of the Ha’Penny Footbridge, at Kelvinbridge, which he designed. His friends always think of it as Erl’s bridge.

READ MORE: Obituary: Angus Wolfe Murray - a film critic and Jethro Tull roadie

Never one to waste a minute, he also wrote a series of successful books about walking and cycling around Scotland.

Erl directed the international cycle-planning conference ‘Velo-city’ in 2001 bringing hundreds of delegates to Scotland. This was a significant event in three ways: it promoted cycling when this really wasn’t seen as important as it is now; it brought together Glasgow and Edinburgh City councils collaborating as host cities (a first), and it led indirectly to the formation of Cycling Scotland and a national policy on cycling. Velo-City organiser Olly Hatch recalls: “In all of these it was Erl who had the vision and skill of working with politicians and policy-makers to make it all happen.”

In 2002 he was awarded the MBE for services to cycling, and also in that year Cycling Scotland was founded. Erl became its first chief executive and led it until he retired in 2009.

Then began two new adventures – as a writer and a long-distance cyclist. He published Overture, a political thriller set in Scotland and then a historical novel, In The Shadow Of The Gathering Storm. This included a vivid retelling of the German sailors’ revolt at the end of the First World War.

READ MORE: Obituary: Alastair Campbell of Airds

Erl cycled to France and Italy, Berlin to Warsaw and Vienna to Budapest, sometimes alone and sometimes with his friend Donald Christie; they were running and cycling partners for 40 years.

Their last adventure was in 2022, after Erl was diagnosed and knew the cancer was incurable. They raised £2,500 for the Beatson Cancer Charity, cycling 576km from Amsterdam to Hamburg.

“The care I had in the Beatson was second to none, and of course the fantastic research they are doing too,” said Erl. He is survived by Anne, their daughter Kirsten and granddaughter Maisy, and will be much missed by all his family and his wide circle of friends and colleagues.