By James Armour, The Selkie
I have been swimming since I was a wee boy, most of the time in a warm toasty pool. It has only been in the last few years that I have discovered the wonders of swimming in the great outdoors. Scottish wild swimming as it’s become known. Some people just call it swimming. What started as something to test myself in the icy harbour of Copenhagen (the sea freezes over) whilst living there, has grown into a near daily ritual for my mental wellbeing.
I am delighted to be partnering with the Isle of Raasay Distillery on my ‘Selkie’ challenge to become the first person to run, swim and cycle the length of the Outer Hebrides in aid of the Hebridean Whale and Dolphin Trust later this month (setting off 3.45am 30th July). The ‘Selkie’ were mythological Celtic and Norse seal-folk that could shed their seal skin to come on to land in human form, much like what I am planning!
The length of the Outer Hebrides is equivalent to a double marathon (52 miles), with an iron man length bike ride (112 miles) and channel-distance swim (20 miles).
With just 8 killer whales left in West Coast Community, the Selkie mission aims to help the Hebridean Whale & Dolphin trust to continue their crucial monitoring, educational and conservation work that underpins the future safeguarding of whales, dolphins and porpoises.
Throughout my training, I have had the pleasure of visiting some of Scotland’s most beautiful wild swimming locations. Read on for my top five highlights.
Chasing Cal Mac’s MV Hallaig ferry from Sconser on the Isle of Skye over to the Isle of Raasay took me around an hour. Big thanks to Davie Croy of Raasay House who was my support boat. Don’t try this at home without a safety team like I had! If you would rather something a bit more leisurely, Raasay has some amazing wild swimming locations, I personally enjoyed down at Arnish where I could sunbathe on the rocks after, but there are plenty of bays around Raasay House near the pier where the ferry arrives.
Swimmers be warned as the Sound of Raasay is one of the deepest sections of the UK’s waters, and is one of the only places you might find Sperm whales close to shore and is also likely a home of their prey – the Giant Squid! (Please don’t be afraid – it is completely safe)
Throughout my training, I have been based out of a van in Oban, and Ganavan sands (split into Wee Ganavan and Big Ganavan) have been great spots for wild swimming. These wee beaches have awesome views out over the Firth of Lorn to the hills of Mull and Morvern, but are still relatively sheltered from the open sea.
If you want a good push, it is about 1.5km from one beach to the other (3km round-trip) and there are no currents or boats to watch out for if you hug the coastline. The small island at the point hosts nesting seabirds and is a local seal hang out so there is nice wildlife to watch from the water. Make sure you don’t disturb the birds!
Mingulay is an uninhabited island at the southern tip of the Western Isles. ‘Aigh’ is derived from the Old Norse for ‘island’ and you will often spot it in Gaelic place names.
The bay on the eastern side of Mingulay is sheltered from the Atlantic swell and has the clearest waters I have ever seen in Scotland. There are a lot of kelp forests and a seal colony out here which makes for lots of great exploring. Thanks to their remote location away from mainland Scotland, Outer Hebridean beaches are made up almost entirely of broken down shells and are free from the deluge of river sediment.
These white sandy beaches look tropical, with the crystal clear waters around them completing the look. I can, however, unfortunately tell you for a fact that these waters are not tropical. Beautiful all the same! Francis Gillies at Mingulay Boat Trips is your man to get out there.
Loch Shieldaig is a sea loch (around 20 kilometres as the crow flies from Raasay) that opens onto Loch Torridon and then out to the Minch. The loch is set against a backdrop of the mighty mountains of Torridon, and in the upper loch the water turns more brackish and peaty as you near the outflow of River Torridon.
I pottered down from the Loch Torridon community centre for a swim by the river’s outflow and fell in love with the mix of sea life, peaty freshwater flowing on the surface and epic mountains all around. This is also home of the epic endurance race the Celtman – an annual triathlon which takes most people over 12 hours!
It might not win any prizes for the most picturesque Scottish wild swimming location, but Wardie Bay is handy for Edinburgh city dwellers and is where I have put in a lot of miles throughout my training. This wee beach is a regular spot for lots of outdoor swimmers and if you swim out to the white lighthouse at the end of the pier you can get a nice view of Arthur’s seat and the city from a totally new angle.
Unfortunately, the river outflow from the Forth river means the visibility is no further than your hand for at least 364 days of the year!
Wild swimming is a great activity to get yourself energised and to help wash away the thoughts and concerns floating around your mind. You can’t be anywhere else but present in the water when the cold hits your bones! But you have to also be careful.
Avoid swimming alone and prepare for your swim. More information on safety in the water is available here.
10 minutes after you get out is when you will feel at your coldest as the cold blood from your periphery circulates into the core. This unfortunately makes you feel most cold and is when you can get into trouble if you are not ready for it!
Fill up a thermos! A warm drink at the end is the perfect way to warm yourself up from the inside after a long swim in colder waters.
A general rule of thumb is that going beyond 1 minute for every degree of water temperature carries a lot more risk. Always build your tolerance up slowly and don’t jump to these ‘limits’ straight away without some tolerance.
Always prepare for how are you going to go from cold and naked to warm and dry as fast as possible after your swim. If you take 5 minutes to change before or after and it’s cold, windy or snowy conditions on land then you should shorten your swim time accordingly.