This story begins, as all the best stories surely do, at Christmas. Picture the scene, if you will: a country house in the Scottish Highlands; a group of twelve guests gathered round the roaring fire; a bleak winter evening with a sharp wind driving in off the sea. The curtains are drawn to dark skies and the approaching storm. Outside, waves crash on the beach.
I too was fortunate to be gathered round that fire, for I had arrived that morning in Fort William having taken the sleeper train up from London the previous evening. Looking round the assembled company I recognised some of the faces as fellow travellers on the train from Fort William to Arisaig, the rest were completely unknown to me: twelve strangers brought together in a remote house etched into the Scottish landscape. What devilish reason had gathered us here?
I watched our host as he stood up to warm himself in front of the fire. Across the room, firelight reflected in the family photos arranged on top of the grand piano. I selected a slim volume bound in dark blue cloth from the glass-fronted bookcase and settled down in an armchair, only half reading. The door opened and the housekeeper, Miss Mould, entered carrying a tray laden with cakes and mince pies. Shortly behind followed our hostess, Miss Todd, bearing urns of hot water for tea and coffee. Our host turned and selected another log from the basket by the fire, placing it in the flames so they roared and crackled once more, throwing a fearsome light out onto our assembled circle. As Mr Coningham-Rolls faced his audience, a hush descended over the company as the thrill of anticipation rose in each listener’s breast. I settled down comfortably into my armchair, watching the shadows that flickered across the hearth.
“Welcome to the SwimQuest Christmas weekend,” he began.
Not many swimming holidays start with what could have been a scene from an Agatha Christie novel, but this is a holiday as unique and idiosyncratic as our home for the weekend. To stay in Traigh House is like slipping through time; as well as the family photographs from the 1900s to the 1970s and the extensive library of old books, the house itself is mostly unmodernised – cast iron radiators, enamel baths, original Victorian toilet and a drying room strung with pulley clothes airers. But the centre of the holiday is the drawing room with log fire, sofas and grand piano; and adjoining dining room where unsmiling portraits stare down from the walls. The house is a step away from the sea and a beautiful white sandy beach. Perfect for a dip!
The weekend is like a family Christmas but with people you don’t know: hearty meals, plenty of drink, card games and carols. It has become a Christmas tradition for SwimQuest, with guests returning year after year. The swimming itself is beautiful, cold and short – three or four daily dips interspersed with food, more food, and relaxing round the fire.
Saturday starts with a procession of dryrobes down to the beach at dawn, an exhilarating dip, and then back to the drawing room to warm up around the fire before breakfast of porridge or eggs, bacon, sausages, beans, mushrooms and haggis. After breakfast there is time to relax, read or explore the house and gardens before the second swim of the day at another nearby beach.
Not all of our group are swimmers: while we swim Daisy runs to Arisaig and back before joining us for lunch. More relaxing and reading, and then the afternoon swim: this time in Loch Morar, Scotland’s deepest loch. It is wild and beautiful and we swim around a small rock before bundling back in the cars, heating on full blast, to drive back to warm up in front of the fire again, just in time for afternoon tea.
Saturday night is Christmas dinner followed by Secret Santa and carols round the fire. Wine flows and we sing into the early hours.
SwimQuest run two Christmas weekends; the weekend I was there threw the full force of Scottish weather at us: sunshine, rain and hail – often within five minutes of each other. The previous weekend was glorious sunshine; however, listening to a storm whip itself up as we played games around the fire and then later being lulled to sleep by rain thrashing against my bedroom window was an experience I wouldn’t want to have missed. I slept so well I missed the Sunday morning swim!
After the previous night's storm the sea was too rough to swim where we had planned on Sunday lunchtime, so we drove for a short way along the coast to a more sheltered spot. As we got out the cars the wind whipped up and it started to rain, a double rainbow stretching across the bay. Despite the squall it was decided we would swim and we undressed on the rocky shore. Wading through kelp as the sunshine returned, we walked into the sea, the shore shelving suddenly so we were soon in deep water. It was thrillingly cold, sharper than the weekend's previous swims: the kind of cold that you can't help but laugh at. The shared joy of swimming in such a beautiful landscape and the adrenaline rush of the cold; it is a craving, you can feel it seeping into your bones, and it stays with you all day, a reminder you can still feel when you are curled up on the sofa in front of the fire.
We swim out, and decide to cross to the other side of the bay. Chris swims butterfly, Matt and I a more sensible front crawl. Halfway across, the sky darkened and the wind picked up. Suddenly hail stones ricocheted down, thousands of little needle stings. We couldn't stop laughing at the sheer wonderful, life-affirming stupidity of it. We swam back and by the time we reached the shore the hail had stopped and it was calm again. In the car we wrap ourselves up in dryrobes, turn up the heaters to max and shiver and smile uncontrollably.
For the final swim of the day we wait until the sun has set, dressed in dryrobes playing I Spy round the fire. When it is dusk we follow our torchlight down to the beach, undress and run into the sea. It is dark and cold and we can only work out where we are from our laughter. A fitting end to a great weekend.
The next day we have a final swim before departing for Fort William to catch the sleeper train home. Tuesday morning in grey London is a rude awakening after Arisaig but I can still feel the thrill of the hail, the cold in my bones and the crackles of the log fire echo in my ears.
Bookings for the 2020 SwimQuest Christmas weekends are open now. Book early as demand is always high and places are limited