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6 Sep 2018

Wild swimming: The day I took the plunge

Wild swimmers at Glencoe
Karin Goodwin teams up with celebrated Scottish wild swimmer Calum Maclean to dive into an exhilarating watery adventure.

The water that runs through Glencoe must surely have a few stories to tell. The mountains that surround it – from the strikingly beautiful peaks of the Buachailles Etive Mor and Beag (‘the great’ and ‘the little’ Shepherds of Etive) to the Bidean nam Bian and great truncated spurs known as the Three Sisters of Glencoe – were first formed from violent volcanic eruptions, then sculpted by colossal glaciers.

The ancient hillsides that these little streams trickle down are connected to some of Scotland’s oldest tales, and to mythical figures such as the Celtic hero Fionn mac Cumhaill, or Finn McCool, and his legendary poet son Ossian.

Even now – the wind whipping my hair, sun making me screw up my eyes – other ghosts can be felt in the awe-inspiring landscape. It’s here that the Glencoe massacre took place. On 13 February 1692, 38 men, women and children of the MacDonald clan perished at the hands of a regiment of soldiers, acting on behalf of the government, following the Jacobite uprising. Dozens of others fled and died of exposure.

The Trust might be better known for preserving Scotland’s castles and stately homes, but its role in protecting the country’s natural wonders is substantial. It cares for over 76,000 hectares of Scottish countryside, including 400 islands and islets; 46 Munros, 8 National Nature Reserves and the dual UNESCO World Heritage site of St Kilda. And, of course, Trust places also take in thousands of burns, rivers, lochs and waterways.

Today, it’s all about the water. More specifically, despite the persistent and unseasonal snow on the hilltops, it’s about swimming in it.

Over the last few years outdoor, or wild, swimming – once a hobby of the far-out-there health enthusiast – has been attracting a steadily growing number of devotees. Most parts of Scotland now have a local group meeting regularly for outdoor swims. Wild swimming events and races are popping up everywhere, and it’s no longer outlandish on a lochside walk to see someone pulling on a wetsuit.

Wetsuits are essential on all but the warmest days.

Helping drive the trend is Calum Maclean, a 29-year-old outdoor swimmer who started posting tongue-in-cheek videos of his watery adventures a couple of years ago, many of which have racked up tens of thousands of viewers. One gives his guide to gauging the temperature of a Scottish loch – it ranges from ‘roasting’ to ‘baltic’. Another shows him hacking ice from the banks of Scotland’s highest loch before diving in. Social media success has led to his own wild swimming series on BBC Alba, and he’s planning other documentaries. 

Calum has agreed to take me swimming and promises that immersing myself in a river will give me a different perspective on the wilderness around us. We meet at Glencoe visitor centre to assess the options, taking advice from ranger Paul Morgan then weighing up the relatively short walk to nearby pools versus a dip in the beautiful but tourist-heavy Loch Leven. In the end, we opt to take the winding road along the River Etive where we’ll have our pick of three or four perfect swimming spots.

Quote
“It's no longer outlandish on a lochside walk to see someone pulling on a wetsuit.”
Wild swimmer Calum launches from a rocky riverbank in Glen Etive. Local knowledge is key to find the best, safest spots.

Turning off the A82, my tummy fluttering with nerves, we follow the dramatic single-track road taken by Daniel Craig’s James Bond in Skyfall and watch for a place to stop. ‘Here looks good,’ says Calum at last. We get out and drink it all in. A wide, bowl-like pool of water turns around a rock into an almost perfect channel, leading upstream to a waterfall, the hills standing proud all around us. It’s stunning. ‘I like places like this, where it’s visually interesting,’ Calum says. ‘The rocks look as though you could reach out and grab on to them and just hang in the river flow. You can see where the water has gouged out the landscape. I can get lost in just watching the water for a while. Yeah, I’m a big fan.’

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“If I'm feeling low, going for a swim is like clicking your fingers. By the time you get out, you've forgotten all your worries.”
Calum Maclean

He has always loved water – as a child at the beach he’d swim in the sea and on a hill walk he would dive into the first loch he came across. But it was only about a decade ago that he started actively searching for swimming spots. Thanks to the power of the internet, his desire to share his passion on platforms such as Instagram and YouTube has been transformative.

‘Swimming has really taken over my life, particularly in the last two or three years,’ he says. ‘I’m pretty pleased with that. I do call it wild swimming but let’s face it, it’s just swimming, and sometimes I will make fun of that a bit – you know – WILD swimming …’ He growls and flexes his muscles. ‘Grrrrr.’

Calum’s playful enthusiasm is infectious – but not enough to dispel my apprehension. I tend to think I’m pretty hardy – as a child I spent my summers swimming on the Ayrshire coast and I’ve been known to take a dip in a loch during a particularly hot year. But this is an altogether chillier proposition. Factor in the late snowmelt, and this particular swim is likely to count as ‘baltic’ on Calum’s temperature scale.

Wetsuits, then, are officially not cheating. I wear a layer of merino knit beneath my suit and add neoprene socks and a swimming hat. I take some deep breaths and wade in, splashing my face and neck as advised to guard against cold shock. My body is still warm under the suit but the icy water hits my face like a slap.

I plunge in gingerly, the water biting at my lips as I lower my chin into it. The cold is almost burning, like the sensation of sticking your tongue to a too-cold ice lolly. But gradually I grow used to it, and turn into the natural river channel, pushing against the current as we swim purposefully upstream. Getting braver, I start to front-crawl, forcing my head under, although there’s nothing to see here but inky blackness.

We stop to rest against an overhanging rock, holding on as the water swirls around our legs, enjoying the views of the hills above. This, for Calum, is what outdoor swims are all about: being somewhere he has never swum before, away from civilisation and surrounded by scenery and big skies. ‘It’s not just about churning out laps,’ he says. ‘It’s also about being a bit more playful and finding cool places.’

We swim on, powering through a fiercer section of river, then spot a large rock and pull round to grab it. It’s hard to get a hand-hold with frozen fingers but I eventually make it, triumphant, on to the top of the boulder, the waterfall roaring behind us. ‘Ready to jump?’ asks Calum. He quickly checks out the positioning of the rocks below and, with a whoop, dives off. I bottle it badly – the thought of the cold hitting my face is too much to bear – and slide in behind. We glide back downstream before coming to rest in the pool. 

As I lie on my back, sculling the silty water with my hands, the buoyancy of the wetsuit makes me bob like an otter basking in the weak sun. I feel like giggling, almost giddy. Calum recognises the emotion. ‘If I’m feeling low,’ he says, ‘going for a swim is like clicking your fingers. By the time you get out, you’ve forgotten all your worries. You just jump in and come out like a whistling idiot.

‘Being in the water, you are getting quite literally a different point of view. You look at the landscape in a different way. I’ve seen eels, I’ve seen fish, I notice the light differently, and when it rains I get to watch the way the drops land on the surface. It impacts on how I think.’

We fall silent, still floating. A bird of prey soars high above us. The clouds begin to roll in. I’m not yet cold but it’s on the way. Time to get out. Back on the bank, I heave off the wetsuit and pile on as many layers as possible before finding a sheltered spot and pouring us both a cup of tea from my flask. But the warmth I feel inside doesn’t just come from the hot liquid.

Dried off, and warmed up with a flask of tea
Dried off, and warmed up with a flask of tea

‘It’s a great spot around here,’ agrees Calum. ‘We’ve just been in one pool and there are at least three or four others. It’s definitely one for summertime and maybe for more adventurous swimmers who want to see an amazing, wild place at the same time.’

But there are plenty of other spots to explore on National Trust for Scotland land. Find a hill loch, take a walk along a river, discover a pool. Dive in. Give yourself a few stories to tell.

Taking the plunge in Scotland

Transcript

Male Speaker 1: Where are we going today?

Male Speaker 2: We’re going to go to the meeting of the three waters, do a bit of wild swimming. It’s going to be amazing.

[music]

Female Speaker 1: You get the feeling back in your hands again.

[dog barking]

Male Speaker 3: I’ve probably been going here for 20 years and have been up there every time I’ve been and been too scared. It’s nice to put that demon to bed.

Colin Campbell: I’m Colin Campbell, that’s my name. I actually didn’t learn to swim terribly early. I learned to swim in school when I was about 10 years old, so that’s 51 years ago. I swim regularly, I swim at least twice a week in the open water. You are swimming in water that is pure and free, you’re swimming in the open air, it’s fresh air and there’s plenty of it, I personally find it relaxing.

I wear a wet suit, but plenty of people I swim with just wear what we would call togs. One of the girls I’ve swam with, swam throughout the winter wearing a bikini. But she’s tougher than your average sixty-year-old Scotsman.

A really nice swim around the cruisers and round the loch there. The water was quite peaty today. Em, it was expected to be a bit sunnier than it’s actually been, but BBC Weather can’t always get it right, and hey-ho, it is Scotland. An enjoyable swim.

Female Speaker 2: There’s not really much else for it, is there?

Female Speaker 3: No, you just have to go for it.

Female Speaker 2: It warms you up.

Female Speaker 4: How did it feel when you first brought the kids to the beach?

Female Speaker 5: They loved it. They’d have played all day.

Male Speaker 3: The kids will play all day at the beach, for nine hours. They absolutely love the beach.

[water splashing]

Swim in Scotland, but do it safely!

 

Clea Warner is the Trust’s general manager for the North West. She’s also a huge wild swimming fan. Here are her top dip tips:

1. If you know someone who swims outdoors, get them to show you the ropes. Otherwise, choose a calm spot without strong currents where you can get in and out easily.

2. It never feels warm at first! Wade in, splashing your face, neck and wrists, before gliding in. Concentrate on calm breathing, and within a few minutes your body should adjust. Pro tip: wear neoprene socks or old trainers to avoid hobbling over stones.

3. Slowly increase the time you spend in the water. It’s fine to start with a quick dip of a few minutes and build up. 

4. Be aware of submerged rocks and logs, particularly after storms or heavy rain when there will be more debris and the water flow will be stronger. Watch out for kayaks, boats and anglers too.   

5. Get out before you’re too cold. Dry off well and put on lots of layers. Pro tip: have your clothes laid out on top of your bag in the order you want to put them on. Include a hat and big socks. A hot drink and something to eat will help you warm up.

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