Susanne Masters enjoys swims, films, saunas and dancing at the annual Highland Gathering of wild swimmers
"We just want to jump into your photos”, Lucy’s friends said, and in September they will be there. Cool Scottish waters are no deterrent to my friends coming from Florida and California to join this year’s SwimWild Highland Gathering. In a landscape brimming with clear waters the only thing better than a swimming trip is immersion in a weekend of wild swimming, swim films, hiking, music and dancing.
The SwimWild Highland Gathering is an extension of the grand history of Highland Games for swimmers. It begins with a riverside triptych of sauna, dip in the Spey, bask in hot tub. You reach the river by walking through the farmyard past the saloon bar and distillery, then along a track of tussocky grass. At the water’s edge birch trees are heavy with their leaves, and if you squeeze a prickly branch of juniper a whisper of gin scented juice catches the air. A horsebox has been recycled into a sauna and the wood- fired hot tub is filled with water from the Spey. This is Inshriach, a loveable jumble of creations inhabiting the heart of Speyside. Weaving together wild Scottish landscape and creature comforts, it is a very easy place to come and rewild your soul.
Something for everyone
Saturday wakes up with a group swim in a loch. Some glide off for a kilometre in tannin-tinted water the colour of tea. For others it is a rousing dip after a night of revelry. Retreating into a lakeside café for hot drinks, swimming spots and car shares are planned. Green Loch is a gentle stroll along a path through remnants of Caledonian forest. Alternatively Loch Coire an Lochain’s clear water is a hike over mountain slopes carpeted with crowberries. We walked half way up as a group. Lou, Simon and Jo continued up and around the amphitheatre-like corrie. Ris did some mad off-path scramble to reach the top. A clutch of us swam in the loch. It is a gathering for swimmers but the landscape provides plenty to occupy non-swimmers.
After a morning of swims the afternoon is a cosy retreat in Inshriach’s Edwardian hunting lodge. Furnished with tea and afterglow it is easy to curl up and be transported in a swimming film. Before dark there is time for another swim, then it is gin o’clock. Pizza from the pizza truck set up for the evening. Gin at the bar and you can even see the still that made it in the distillery shed.
Last year when the band stopped playing and most people had gone to bed I returned to the Spey. Rebecca, who lives in Aberdeenshire, had told me that the Northern Lights app on her phone said there was a moderate chance of seeing them. SwimWild’s Highland Gathering is perfectly timed for the weekend closest to the autumn equinox when chances of seeing the Northern Lights are heightened. Being a rural area secluded from light pollution also increases the odds. I didn’t see them that night, but floating in a hot tub reflecting stars was pretty magical. Is it naked if no one is there to see you have no clothes on?
Array of swims
Sunday morning and after another group swim in one of the larger local lochs there is still an array of swims to choose from. Uath Lochans are peaty black. Before swimming, walk up through the forest for a higher view showing that these little lochs are clustered together like a bear’s paw print. Followed by another swim film, more swims, and then the barbecue is on the go and you put on it what you want.
Bias alert: SwimWild Highland Gathering is organised by Alice, my swimming friend and illustrator of my wildlife column. There is also an unbias alert – I pay the full rate same as everyone else. A more notable unbias alert is that I am up in the area several times a year anyway, so why do I pay for a weekend pinned around swims that I have done many times? I love entirely succumbing to a weekend of wild swims. Being immersed in the landscape and other people enjoying it restores me to myself. Alice tells me she is also planning a winter weekend retreat; I hope to be there too.