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Diary of a wandering swimmer – A year in open water from lochs, orca trails and sea pools to the stacks of St Kilda

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Kate Gillwood was born in Galashiels, Scotland, raised from three years old in Yorkshire, found herself in London for 30 years and eventually escaped back to Scotland. She was raised to swim in rivers (the Wharfe at Appletreewick, for example), open air pools (Otley) and the sea, so open water swimming is not new. She started taking part in organised events about 10 years ago, putting on a wetsuit for the first time for the Great Scottish Swim in 2011. Now living just a few minutes from Portobello beach, one of her favourite things is to start the day with a sneaky swim in her local waters. She also likes to explore new swimming spots and share what she finds.


My year in swimming

It seems odd to me how 2019 could have been so very hard in some ways but so positive in others. I had such a difficult year, first losing my dad and then a friend. Plus, I’ve had work challenges and for some reason I embarked on a home renovation project (build a small extension, they said). Without my number one fan and my swimming, I am not sure I would have come to the end of the decade in the same way. Despite all the difficulties, reminiscing on my swimming puts a whole different slant on it. I have had some exciting adventures, grown as a swimmer both in confidence and technique and, most of all, I have learnt to push my limits further... whilst of course being able to laugh at myself as well.

I swam by red cliffs over barnacled rocks where the ghost of a lido echoed and travelled across the English border to the wide long beaches of childhood holidays in Northumberland. I escaped to warmer seas and swam in the natural pools of Gran Canaria, looking out towards Africa, and in a pool above a bay that I didn’t have to share. I made a trip up the Fife coastal path, swimming in long-abandoned summer holiday sea lidos where I clambered down the old concrete steps, across the rocks and into the still water.

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A pool with a view, to myself

One especially memorable swim was in the Shetland Isles across a bay, shepherded by a big grey seal, with a woman who had previously crossed paths (way too closely for comfort) with an orca. It was deep and clear and choppy. It occurred to me, given the entry and exit point being over rocky clints, that this was not a swim I would do on my own and my companion was brave in any event. I also experienced my first tombolo off the west of the main island, and admired its golden sands and steep, craggy stacks and cliffs.

I am proud to write that I succeeded in a challenge to swim across the Sound of Mull. I think this feeling was mainly about being able to delight in the vast numbers of jellyfish rather than running away from the water’s edge screaming. But this did demonstrate what I can do and how attainable these swims can be.

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Deep and clear and choppy.

I also enjoyed home waters in local reservoirs (where the brackish water is the colour of rust) and my favourite beaches where I can regularly marvel at how lucky I am to have these spots so close to home.

But, the most exciting adventure of my year was most definitely my SwimWild week on The Cuma (see top picture), swimming around some of the Hebridean islands and St Kilda. We were blessed with good weather, an abundance of wildlife and deep green and blue water to dive into. I swam in the bay of a small isle at midnight with the bioluminescence and went to sleep with the sounds of seals calling. We saw whales feeding and puffins bobbing. It was the trip of a lifetime and a turning point in my difficult year. It gave me the strength to face the things in life that can truly test us. Now I look back I can see that it may have also been a similarly poignant moment for others I shared that week with, my new friends. But whoever had joined us could not have failed to be blown away by our experience.

After the excitement I had found on the boat, I decided to go on to a shorter SwimWild adventure towards the end of the year on the Ardnamurchan Peninsular. During that swimming-packed long weekend, I started to challenge my cold water resilience and it is going well (and I will by the end of March be the proud owner of a polar bear badge).

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I also now have a coach, Sarah Wiseman. I love saying I have a coach; it makes me sound like I am really going to do something big... and I am (although I’m still making final plans about exactly what that is going to look like).

So, here’s to swimming and 2019 with its many faces, here’s to striking out and growing as a swimmer, feeling the coolness refreshing my mind and sharing it with good swimmy people. Here’s to my adventures to come in 2020 and beyond and to all you swimmers out there who share the joy.

Happy New Swimming Year.

If you have any ideas of places I could swim this year, let me know!


Contact me

If you have any suggestions of places I could swim email me on k.gillwood4@gmail.com or find me on Instagram @kategillwood4


Read more about my swims

Cover Jan 2020

Issue 34 January 2020

  • Wild in the City - urban outdoor swimming
  • How to Plan a Sea Swim
  • 2020 Swim Guide - our pick of the top events to enter
  • Open Water Skills - Superman buoy turns
  • From Bog to Beach - saving our seas

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