Wild swimming in the Highlands offers a fresh perspective on the great outdoors
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At the start of this year – which seems a very long time ago now – I had decided to take the plunge and get a bit of experience wild swimming.
The 2020 Year of Coasts and Waters seemed the perfect excuse to give it a go. So I began my challenge – not in the warmth of summer like some sensible person might, but in the midst of winter, a cold February day in Loch Morlich, to be exact, with the water temperature at around 2 degrees Celsius.
Alice Goodridge of the Cairngorm Wild Swimmers guided me into the chilly water that day and gave me an introduction to the delights – and dangers – of wild swimming in Scotland.
After that oh-so-brief excursion, I duly entered an organised event – a 600m sea swim in Lochaber – and took to doing some training in the pool. My swimming technique is still as close to zero as it’s possible to be while still staying afloat, but I was slowly improving for a time.
Then along came lockdown. The event was cancelled, there was no more pool swimming, and my almost brand new wetsuit was left hanging in the garage.
It was only recently that it was finally removed from its hanger again, as I took my first steps back into the water. I may have missed most of spring and summer, but I took time to get used to being in the water again and even ventured into the sea a couple of times.
I headed to Nairn recently, after taking advice from a regular swimmer there, and did a long swim from the beach to the harbour wall. That was pretty hard going, but all the way you are only a couple of strokes from being able to stand up and plod back to the beach.
When we arrived, the haar was hanging over the sea despite the rest of the town being blessed with bright sunshine. The was even a fogbow as we got down to the sand, something I don’t think I’d ever seen before.
It soon started to clear by the time I’d got the wetsuit on and entered the water, though, while the rest of the family enjoyed some time on the beach and kept an eye on my progress, with my bright towfloat helping me to be easily spotted.
I’ve also been for a sea swim at Rosemarkie, where we enjoyed a beautiful day with flat calm seas. It was a superb experience, just bobbing about and swimming in small loops near to the beach.
But perhaps the most enjoyable swims are just escaping to little fresh-water lochs, ideally out in the hills somewhere, where you can find a peaceful corner and do a gentle swim within your capabilities.
There are some incredible places to swim around the Highlands and Moray and I have been to just a handful of them. It’s important to understand the local conditions before choosing a location to swim and to always be with somebody else.
There are a number of local groups which can offer advice, although with Covid restrictions large group meetings are not taking place at the moment.
The good news for me is that swimming pools across the Highlands are now reopen for lane swimming, so there is a chance to get back to the training and get fitter and hopefully improve my technique as the outside temperatures start to fall.
But there is something particularly exhilarating about that feeling of wild swimming, being at one with nature – with neoprene or without – and finding another way to embrace the outdoors.
During lockdown, and once travel restrictions eased, the pastime was becoming more and more popular as people looked for other ways to get their regular swims while the pools were closed. Now I hope to find a balance between swimming outdoors and inside, as restrictions allow, and continue to put that wetsuit to good use in future as I explore more places to dip my toes.
Swimming in open water or at the beach can be a fun activity but it is critical anyone who wishes to do so follows the correct advice and knows the dangers involved, including uneven water depths, strong currents and the impact the temperature can have on your ability to swim efficiently.
Here are some do’s and don’ts from Scottish Swimming, in addition to following all relevant and up to date Covid-related advice and guidance.
- Wear a brightly coloured swimming cap and a wetsuit
- Swim only in groups, never alone, and arrange for a safety spotter on shore, and only swim with people who are experienced
- Organise a safety boat if you are going into open water, and swim as close to your boat as possible
- Swim parallel with the shore, where you can quickly get to safety
- Look for signs and advice about the specific dangers at the place where you are swimming
- Jump into the water without acclimatising to the water's temperature first
- Jump into the water from extreme heights
- Leave children unattended near or in water